Sunday, April 10, 2011

Double Feature Review: 127 Hours and Unstoppable

127 Hours

Synopsis: A dramatization of a 2003 incident in which hiker Aron Ralston becomes trapped under a boulder in a Utah canyon and desperately tries to figure out how to escape.

The bad news first: Thankfully, director Danny Boyle realized that the alternate ending available on the DVD was about 20 minutes too long. So the main complaints I would have had were with the conclusion that wasn't used.

Though I didn't mind it, some viewers might not like the semi-frequent cuts to flashbacks from Ralston's life. It might seem like there's only so much you can do with a story about being trapped in one place, but there's quite a bit that does take place there and it's certainly the meatiest part of the story. The flashbacks mostly serve to put Ralston's character in a little more context, especially as he reflects on his life from the dire situation. At times they can be a little too distracting, but most of the time they work.

The good stuff: For all the brief flashbacks and Ralston's brief encounters with a couple of hikers early in the film, this is essentially a one-man show featuring James Franco. It's a huge burden to carry, and he does a tremendous job. From Ralston's fun-loving if reckless demeanor early in the film to his mood shifts and delirium throughout his entrapment, you believe every moment of it and truly sympathize with the character.

I've also become a big fan of Danny Boyle, given that I really liked 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Slumdog Millionaire. He really pinpoints the sense of claustrophobia and panic, but also the resolve and ultimate triumph of human determination. Come to think of it, that's mostly how the three aforementioned films ultimately work as well: unease, fear, and claustrophobia (in 28 Days Later, managing to turn the entire English isle into a boxed-in environment) with audacity winning out in the end. It might be a bit of a niche style, then, but it's obviously very flexible and he does it very well.

Carrying on that theme, 127 Hours is the first movie in awhile that has honestly creeped me out. Portraying an event that actually happened is much scarier than anything a horror movie can hope to achieve. The scene immediately following Ralston's entrapment, in which he screams for help at the top of his lungs, is accompanied by a slow zoom-out of the canyon, with the screams diminishing to a whisper by the time the shot is at the surface and to silence when it shows the landscape as a whole. That, along with the graphic portrayals of Ralston's efforts to free himself, are enough to send chills down your spine.

Verdict: You won't be disappointed.


Synopsis: Also based on a true story (albeit more loosely), a veteran engineer and rookie conductor race to stop a runaway train loaded with hazardous materials.

The bad news first: The movie's director, Tony Scott, has way too much love for the swivel cam. The shots of railroad destruction and antics on moving vehicles generally avoid this, but Scott apparently thinks that when these aren't taking place the camera needs to be orbiting a locomotive, person's face, etc. It's enough to make you dizzy.

Most of the later shots of the runaway train are accompanied by at least one helicopter, usually a colorful news chopper bobbing and weaving seemingly three feet off the ground. On the one hand, this means the action scenes get some pretty unique shots. On the other hand, the helicopters more often than not are competing for the viewer's attention.

Finally, it suffers from ending about five minutes too late. Everyone literally stands around grinning and there's an Animal House-esque "where are they now" conclusion that's too goofy to really fit.

The good stuff: The movie takes a rather simple plot and makes it work. When I first heard of this movie, I thought of Atomic Train, a TV movie that came out some time ago. I caught a few trailers and the the second half or so during some lazy movie night, and it seemed to have a similar story. The key difference is that Atomic Train languishes about in a meandering story based more on the special effects of Denver getting nuked than anything: train wrecks, the Russian bomb it's carrying for some reason goes off, and the characters dick about in the ruins for the rest of the movie. Unstoppable, meanwhile, just keeps with the runaway train aspect, and it turns out you can actually spin a pretty good yarn out of that.

Though it takes awhile for our heroes to start chasing down the speeding locomotive and its deadly cargo, we're kept entertained by some pretty good characters, namely the two numbnuts who let the train get away in the first place, a no-nonsense communications center chief, and a welder who takes an especially active role in the chase. The pursuit of the train lasts a good long time and every minute is worth it, thanks in part to the heightened realism due to a minimal use of CGI. The actual runaway was much less dramatic, but the artistic license is reasonable enough.

And finally, two last points: first, I enjoyed the newscasts folded into the narrative. Second, one nice part of the characterization was the fact that it didn't follow the cliche of the two main characters hating each others' guts and warming up due to the crisis. Rather, it feels like a genuine relationship between a more seasoned worker and a rookie, alternating between the bonding that comes with a humdrum journey and the aggravating nuisances that also occur along the way.

Verdict: Maybe not the most cerebral of thrillers, but a fun ride anyway.

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