I'm a sucker for survival stories. I guess it's the idea of individuals in desperate situations, cut off from civilization and modern life, forced to do unthinkable things to survive, that attracts me to such stories. There's always that darker side to ponder, something hidden deep within, something primal that we awaken in order to survive. What sets this movie apart from other survival stories, though, is that Boyle focuses more on the idea of self-exploration, of analyzing how the choices that we make lead us to a certain point in life, of evaluating our path, face up to who we really are and assume responsibility for our actions.
Perhaps you are familiar with Aaron Rolston's incredible story. While hiking through Blue John Canyon (Utah), he fell down a crevice, becoming trapped under a boulder, his right hand pinned between the boulder and the canyon wall. For five days he struggled to free himself, but failed, so he amputated his forearm with a multi-use tool and liberated himself from the rocky tomb. Gruesome isn't it ? During those five days, Aaron had time to do a lot of soulsearching, which he taped on his camcorder (footage that was shown to the director of this movie for a more accurate portrayal). He has a big "Oops" moment when he realizes that he is to blame for his predicament, since he never told anyone where he was going. Rescue seemed unlikely. He also hallucinates a lot as his body, deprived of food and water, slowly give up the fight. He gradually acknowledges how selfish and self-absorbed he was, and as he lays there on the bottom of that crevice, he starts to appreciate the life he is about to lose.
Aaron's drama is not easy to watch. We witness a person, vulnerable and flawed, facing imminent death and eventually tearing his own flesh off to get a second chance at life. Boyle never flinches. He isn't portraying a hero, but a human being in all its complexity, and he never falls short of that objective. He also receives a lot of help from James Franco's awards-nominated performance, which, technically, is nothing short of a one-man show. The whole movie revolves around Aaron. We see him up close and personal, and witness his confessions and torment. We become a part of this character's experience, and without Franco's touching portrayal, the movie would not have worked. Even with all the doom and gloom, the movie carries a hopeful message, but it's not deliberately trying to give out an inspirational vibe. It's aware of it, but doesn't abuse it, so it never feels like it's trying to manipulate the audience.
As I've mentioned before, it's not an easy viewing, particularly the dreadful amputation scene. But there's a certain fascination to keep watching, thanks to Boyle's gift of directing our attention to the finer details through beautiful cinematography and sharp editing. You would think this kind of movie must be boring, all the action in one static place, only one character, but it's not the case. It's a journey that, if you have the stomach for, you shouldn't miss.
FAIR WARNING : The amputation scene is brutal. There's a lot of gore and surgical details in there, but it's strongly edited so that you don't look at anything for very long, and it only lasts for about 5 minutes. The sound design is very effective in giving us a sense of Aaron's pain which also adds to the harshness of the scene. It's not as sick as anything in "Saw", but it might seem more disturbing because of the context of this movie.