127 Hours is the story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), a likable enough guy although he may be a little too independent, overconfident, and certainly reckless (although, at the time, he would probably deny it). In any case, he goes hiking and after a playing guide to a couple of lost hikers (played by Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara) slips on a loose rock and falls into a crevice where he gets his right arm trapped, quite literally, between a rock and a hard place. Now, to give away the end, he has to cut his arm off to escape.
Not really a spoiler as this is based on a real event that was well publicized. The trick is to make this story that many are familiar with and make it interesting cinema. The answer lies with the performance of your main actor and directorial style. Fortunately, this movie delivers on both counts.
James Franco does a fine job as Ralston. Franco really is coming into his own as an actor with the ability to cross genres and be effectively convincing. Now, I think he has a better performance in Pineapple Express (really), but he still brings it here. He brings charisma to the screen. He makes you want to like him just as you want to throttle him for his bad ideas. I felt like I was right there with him, feeling (well, somewhat feeling) what he is feeling. He brings a nice intensity to the experience as he struggles with his situation, slowly comes to grips with his only way of surviving, and the visions/flashbacks that go with it. I also liked the bits that showed him cracking up a little bit. Very good work.
Now, the real star of the show is director Danny Boyle. The man has a very distinctive style that has followed him across many genres. The man is not content to play within anyone genre, he goes where the stories take him. I guess some of his work here could be considered indulgent, or done just for the sake of style. I don't see it that way, I believe that all of his swoops, cuts, angles, and other stylistic choices all serve the film and act to bring us further in to the situation. It is impressive work as it cannot be easy to construct a compelling narrative around a character who cannot movie around for most of the run time. Then there is "the scene," how do you handle that? Pretty realistically. Sure, the music and editing gets a little more amped up, but the execution of it feels real. Yes, it did make me cringe.
The funny thing is, as I left the theater, I could not help but think about Buried. The movie is not the same in subject matter, but they both rely on the acting of one man, the abilities of the director, and are set in pretty much a single location. Both are very effective in different ways. They could make an interesting double feature.
Bottomline. This is an easy movie to recommend. It does stand up as one of the better films of the year and provides a very tense experience. At the same time it is quite entertaining. It does not tell a heroic story, but one of desperation and survival in the face of realization that you may have made a gigantic mistake.