Tuesday, July 20, 2010

127 Hours

Genre: Thriller/Drama
Premise: (from IMDB) Based on a true story, a mountain climber becomes trapped under a boulder while canyoneering alone and resorts to desperate measures in order to survive.
About: The buzz hit early on this script, highlighted by the fact that there will be an entire hour without a shred of dialogue. One of the best directors in the business, Danny Boyle, just finished the film. The script is written by his Slumdog Millionaire collaborator, Simon Beaufoy. James Franco plays the lead role. You can learn more about the real-life story here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aron_Ralston.
Writer: Simon Beaufoy.
Details: 83 pages – April 1, 2010 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

A question I hear a lot is, “Have you ever read a bad script that became a good movie?” The answer is no, I have not. But the ones that come closest are usually from directors like PT Anderson, Malick, Nolan, Mann, and Sofia Coppola. These helmers have such a powerful and unique style that the story almost becomes secondary to the filmmaking. For example, one thing I loved about Inception was the score. That deep trombone like bass that cycles throughout the film unnerved me in a way a story turn or a character revelation could never do. These kind of filmmaking-specific nuances will never substitute for a good story, but sometimes they can come pretty close.

127 Hours may very well be one of those films, because as a script, I didn’t think it was very good. It isn’t bad. It’s just…predictable.

For those cinephiles who saw “Into The Wild,” a few years ago, Sean Penn’s directorial effort about a man who sells everything he owns and heads for Alaska, Aron Ralston is very much like the character in that film, Christopher McCandless. He’s an adventurer, an outdoor enthusiast, a lover of nature. And like McCandless, he does everything exclusively by himself.

This is exactly how we meet Aaron, heading down to Blue John Canyon on his bike - alone. Once he reaches the desert, he locks up and sprints towards the canyon.

There he runs into a couple of girls, Kristi and Megan, who feel a bit like filler. The problem with writing a script with only one character is that you only have one character to develop. In other words, you don’t need a lot of space. But in order to get the page count up to feature length, you have to put something there, and I’m guessing that’s why these two are in the script (from what I understand, Aron *did* meet them in real life).

So the girls appear, have a few conversations with Aron telling us what we already know, that Aron rides life solo, then scram. But not before telling him about a party they’re going to 20-some miles down the road. You can’t miss it, they say. There’ll be a gigantic Scooby-Doo balloon swaying in the wind.

Later, he makes his way to a canyon/cliff area, starts running around and exploring, accidentally dislodges a boulder, gets chased Indiana Jones style, squeezes out of the way at the last second, but is unable to get his arm out of the way in time. The boulder catches it against the rock. Aron is shocked when he realizes…he’s stuck.

Thus begins Aron Ralston’s 127 hours of hell.

127 Hours uses three devices to keep us entertained – Video diaries which Aaron leaves on his video camera, flashbacks to his old girlfriend, and a series of hallucinations. Interspersed throughout these moments are Aron trying to figure out what to do. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here since this is a real-life story, but eventually Aron realizes that the only way he’s going to survive is if he cuts his arm off – a process made difficult by the fact that he only has a Swiss army knife. And not even the real thing either. A cheap Chinese knockoff.

Essentially 127 Hours is a character piece about a man who realizes what being alone is really about. There’s a difference between the kind of alone where you get to pick and choose when you hear others’ voices, and the kind of alone where you don’t hear any voice but your own. As days dissolve into one another, Aron comes face to face with this reality, and begins to appreciate and understand how desperately all the people in his life have tried to connect with him.

This raises a bigger question: If Aron somehow gets out of here, will he finally look to bring these people into his life?

But if I’m being honest, it was hard to root for Aron. This might seem like an odd declaration, but I don’t have sympathy for people who do stupid shit. You read in the paper, “A freeclimber falls 3000 feet to his death.” You know the first thing that comes to mind when I hear that? “You probably shouldn’t have been climbing 3000 feet in the air WITHOUT ANYTHING TO SUPPORT YOU!” I mean if I ever start juggling chainsaws in Vegas and accidentally cut myself in half, I fully expect anybody reading an account of my ordeal to reply: “Serves you right moron.” I mean Aron isn’t cliff-diving into lava here, but running around the desert and climbing mountains with no one else around and without telling anybody where you are is a pretty stupid thing to do. So I just wasn’t onboard with him from the get-go.

I was also never surprised by this screenplay. As soon as Aron got stuck I thought, “There’s three things he can do here: talk to the video camera, go into flashbacks, and hallucinate.” Sure enough, that’s exactly what happens. And while I somewhat enjoyed Aron exploring his connection issues via flashbacks and hallucinations, in the end these scenes were too repetitive to fully keep me interested. At a certain point I was like, “Let’s cut off the arm already.”

Another unfortunate aspect of this story is that we know the ending before the film starts, draining the script of a good portion of its suspense.

Despite all this, I still think 127 Hours can be a good movie. Boyle is a filmmaker that plays in the same sandbox as Nolan, Mann, and Malick, so he obviously saw something worth getting dirty for. If I had to bet, I’d say he was drawn to the hallucinations, which become a huge part of the second half of the film. Visually, these are extremely weird and powerful (I imagine the huge floating Scooby-Doo balloon in the middle of the desert will be the “what the fuck” trailer image that sells a good share of tickets) and if there was ever an opportunity to explore the limits of your imagination, no-holds-barred hallucinations would be a great start.

But if it will be enough to make up for a rather ordinary story, I don’t know.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: One of the reasons we go to the movies is to see characters try and overcome the same issues we’re trying to overcome in our own lives. The exploration and eventual conquering of these “flaws,” when done right, can be the most powerful part of your story, because it gives us hope that we can conquer our own issues. There are a few character flaws that consistently work well, and one of them is the one Beaufoy uses here – Aron’s refusal to connect with the world. I don’t know what it is, but when we see someone who refuses to connect with others, we instinctively want them want them to connect with others. I’m reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (the book, not the script) and Lisbeth Salander has this exact same flaw. She’s so disconnected from everyone and everything that we pine for her eventual transformation. We want her to initiate a hug, trust someone, open up to a friend. And the further she pulls away, the more desperately we want to pull her in.