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What the movie 127 Hours didn’t show you

(We take a detour from my regular blog so I can vent a little.  I feel a rant coming on!)

Slot Canyon

I liked Slumdog Millionaire – I really did – but Danny Boyle directing the story of a trapped hiker’s dramatic escape from a slot canyon?

Even with Aron Ralston — the subject of the movie – offering feedback to the director, things didn’t bode well. Canyoneering is one of those odd, semi-exotic, high-risk endeavors that doesn’t have the same mass appeal as skydiving or mountain-climbing or nude sun-bathing.  Maybe it’s because slot canyons (pictured above) require a different kind of hard-core commitment as well as an intimate, hands-on relationship. And that relationship is impossible to understand unless you’ve experienced it yourself.  Being inside a slot canyon is like being trapped inside the skeleton of the earth and seeing its very bones. It’s a secretive and hushed glimpse into the back-story of water, wind, violence and time having their way with the rock — and winning. And unless you’ve spent time in the canyon – a lot of time – you might just look at it as a lot of rock and dirt that’s been artfully arranged for your photographic convenience.

Certain people, when they see the canyons for the first time, become possessed.  I’m one of them. That’s why I have a few bones to pick with Boyle.

What 127 Hours got way wrong

Blue water? A slot canyon is what a river or stream leaves behind after millions of years of running through a crack in the landscape. Standing on the land above it, a slot may appear to be nothing but a split in the ground, a giant-sized axe wedge, a slash that may or may not offer a glimpse to what mystery lies in wait below.  A slot is an ancient river bed, and the steepness of it welcomes water to take the path of least resistance. When desert storms drop tons of rain, the slot canyon fills quickly and chaotically with debris-choked run-off: a flash-flood. Long after the rain stops, pools of water remain inside the slot. Never warmed by sunlight, they become very cold, very black and often quite stinky until the next rain pushes out the old water and brings in the new.  It can take months for one deposit of water to be displaced by another, and on rare occasions, years.  These frigid basins, called plunge pools, are one of the many obstacles canyoners have to navigate, and at all times – except in the most godawful heat of summer — they are too cold to endure without a wetsuit or drysuit.  An early scene in 127 Hours shows Aron guiding two female hikers through a narrow squeeze of rock, like going across and down the inside of a chimney.  He deliberately lets go and falls into a plunge pool that is blue, lit from below and filled with crystal clear, steaming water.  Next time I go into the canyons, I would like to find such a pool.  They don’t exist in southern Utah. Strike One.

Strike Two.  In one scene Aron hears what sounds like thunder but is actually the hoofbeats of horses galloping toward and jumping over the slot where he’s trapped.  Wild horses? There are no wild horses in Canyonlands, and if there were, they wouldn’t go anywhere near that slash in the ground (horses have a better sense of self-preservation than we do).  And so right from the get-go, I cease doing what every filmmaker and story-teller needs the observer to do – I stop suspending my disbelief.

Strike Three. At one point in his ordeal, Aron imagines the canyon filling up with water – the dreaded flash flood.  It is arguably the biggest threat to canyoners and one of the most consistently deadly. Aaron did not have to endure a flash flood, and the movie did nothing to educate viewers about the significance of one.  I get that it was probably something Aron worried about while he was trapped, but lacking context, it seemed like yet another convenient Hollywood way to fill up the time before Aron’s amputation.

Still not sure why…

…the movie wasted so much time depicting Aron as a crazy party animal, an all-or-nothing jock jerk. In canyoneering circles everyone meets everyone else at least once, and the one time I met Aron (before his accident) he was nothing like the person Boyle tried to portray.  But even if Boyle’s Aron is the real Aron, who cares?  That’s not the story. The story is about how when a person falls in love with nature they choose to spend all their time in it.  It’s about why they choose to endure hardship in order to have extraordinary, soul-shifting moments. It’s why they risk danger and deprivation to be in a place that fills them up. The movie gives super-short shrift to the beginnings of Aron’s love for the outdoors, depicted in a brief scene where Aron’s father carries him out of bed and into the canyon to watch the night sky. Aron’s affection for the wilderness is shown in an extremely brief moment when he’s on his way to Blue John Canyon and stops to look around. If you blinked during the movie, you missed it.  And then there is the almost off-handed dismissal of Aaron’s final rappel and hike out of the canyon after he’s cut off his arm. The hike out may have been even more excruciating than the amputation, especially considering Aron’s precarious physical and mental condition after 127 hours of torment.

And about that.  The story really isn’t Aron’s amputation.  It’s that he chose life, and he chose it after he’d had a vision of a little boy running to him in the canyon.  The parallels to the Native American Vision Quest, a profound ritual that helped adolescents see their future and their purpose in life — are etched all over Aron’s epiphany.  In the Vision Quest, the tribe sends the young person away into the wilderness without food, water, shelter or protection, and after days of suffering and deprivation, the questor is visited by a vision, a vision that foretells the future. Aron saw a vision of the son who would eventually be born to him, and it’s what compelled him to do the unimaginable.  Why the movie didn’t capitalize on this to give it some depth is regrettable.

A better option for you

If you want a more visceral sense of slot canyons, see Sanctum instead.  True, it’s about cave diving, but underwater caves are their own special kind of slots.  I’m not recommending Sanctum as a movie per se, but in it you’ll see the way water has carved its inexhaustible and insistent way through rock to create breathtaking cathedrals of stone. You’ll feel the danger of being inside the earth and fear the deep darkness only possible in places never touched by light.  You’ll be humbled by nature’s savage indifference to human life. In one booming moment you’ll know the violence of a flash flood (and understand why few humans escape them). Sanctum is unsettling in the way 127 Hours wasn’t.  After seeing Sanctum, you may also walk away understanding why some of us are lured – despite our instincts telling us we’re crazy  – into these forbidding places and why we can never get them out of our DNA.

But if you really want to see and hear what happened to Aron Ralston during those 127 hours, watch Desperate Days in Blue John Canyon, Tom Brokaw’s journey with Aron back to Blue John just six months after the incident.  This short but powerful piece captures many of the nuances Boyle missed.  Seeing and hearing Aron describe his ordeal is genuine, heart-rending and riveting.  This is the real story, the real canyon, the real man. Save your money and watch this instead.

One final word.  Aron has and continues to receive criticism for canyoneering alone.  Alone in a technical canyon is stupid.  Don’t do it.  It doesn’t make you a hero, even if you get stuck and have to cut off your own arm to get out.  In Aron’s case it made him famous, but in most cases it will just make you dead.

So what about you?  What did you leave with after 127 Hours?

http://www.amazon.com/Only-Pack-What-Carry-Self-Knowledge/dp/1426207336


19 Comments

  1. Cam said...

    Hi there,
    Watched both the doco and the movie and enjoyed the doco alot more.

    Comment posted on March 3, 2011 at 2:16 am

  2. Karen Barry said...

    I enjoyed every minute of this movie and saw it twice – sound track, as in Slumdog, is a bonus! – and then read Aron Ralston’s book. The book was maybe even better for enhancing the experience as an onlooker – but I also get your reservations. The party-going Aron didn’t ring true after reading the book, (or ever, really!)And the lovely underlit blue plunge pool? Not in my caving experience in the north of England! Also,dropping through a slot in bathers and tee-shirts? Why no badly grazed knees, faces and hypothermia?? And yes, I wasn’t sure about the ease with which he left the canyon…But hey, we know he did achieve all that – massively inspirational man. Not sure I can even begin to comprehend the challenge to our human psyche there – but I do get how beautiful and fasinating the canyons are… I am inspired enough to be planning the trip to Utah and the Canyonlands next summer…good on all of you who push it a little further…

    Comment posted on July 19, 2011 at 3:04 pm

  3. janice said...

    Karen, I agree that Aron’s book adds a whole new dimension to the movie experience. In fact, after I read the book I understood a little better some of the liberties that Boyle took with the film. I’m glad someone else “gets” that underlit blue plunge pools don’t exist in the canyons (wish they did, though, wouldn’t that be nice?). The thing I love about Aron’s story is that he chose life in the face of completely overwhelming odds (and this really comes through in the book, doesn’t it?) and readily admits that without that experience in Blue John Canyon, he would not understand the things that (to him) are the most important in life…And BTW, Southern Utah is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Be sure when planning your trip you leave more time than you think you’ll need. There is so much to see and I know you’ll want to linger longer. Thanks for your post and happy travels Karen!

    Comment posted on July 19, 2011 at 3:43 pm

  4. Dave Wyman said...

    I don’t have the same criticisms you do, Janice.

    For example, I don’t think the movie had to hit the viewer over the head with the Vision Quest concept. It was there as one possible interpretation if one thought about the meaning of the child.

    For that matter, the film also encompassed – as do so many stories – the concept of the Hero’s Journey, formulated by Jung, and later Campbell.

    Aron, like heroes, traveled a path that took him away from his world, he was thrust by circumstances into a new reality, and he managed to return to his world, changed for the good.

    Depicting Aron as a party animal let the movie show just how much his journey changed him.

    True, I don’t think the movie would have been harmed by making the pristine blue pool a cold black pool, the horses should have been obviously a hallucination, etc, and in that sense.

    However, I can overlook those falsehoods, because I think they served the artistic and dramatic elements of the film, furthering the story of the hero’s journey – inward and outward – made by Aron.

    Comment posted on September 19, 2011 at 8:46 pm

  5. Janice said...

    D, excellent points. I hadn’t thought about the party-animal depiction as a “before” shot, but that certainly makes sense. I still long for more canyon character development, because that’s part of the initial love story that eventually segues into a different one. And for Aron, the canyon love story is one that continues to this day. That, I think, is remarkable, and by many standards heroic. To return, voluntarily, to the place that was almost your undoing? How many of us could do that? Or want to.

    It was only after seeing the movie that I read Aron’s book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. The book discussion is a whole different conversation, but after reading it I understood better why Boyle made some of the choices he did. I stick by some of my initial objections, but am softened on others, thanks to the many replies on and offline from readers. I appreciate your comments D. Thanks for sharing.

    Janice

    Comment posted on September 19, 2011 at 9:23 pm

  6. Jeanne said...

    My parents were both born & raised in Utah and moved to
    Southern California after WWII, where I was born. However, I had a large, extended family in Utah and we travelled there every summer by car: no A/C, no GPS, no cell phones. We often got lost on purpose just to explore Bryce, Zion, & Moab. I grew up seeing most of the state, and have seen my share of flash floods in the canyons. A few years ago my cousin talked us all into “day-hiking” the Orderville Gulch, but didn’t tell us about the recent flash flood. (We found out later that had he requested the required permit for the hike, it would have been refused b/c of the recent rain; he told us it was not necessary.) By the time the danger was obvious, we had reached a point of no return. A strenuous “downhill” hike of a few hours turned into 12, b/c some of our group were not as athletic, and 2 did not know how to swim. We had to ford the deep, debris-filled, disgusting pools of water, not to mention navigate the deceptive ‘quicksand’-type mud that sucked at least 2 of us into its mucky mire, requiring several strong men to to rock us out. It was a hot August day, the storm clouds continued to form above the canyon, and we couldn’t move fast enough as a group to navigate the obstacles. Those of us who were strong stayed with the weak, helping them down rocks, ford streams & pools, watch for snakes, share our food, while silently cursing our cousin for being such an idiot. By the time we all got to safety it was dark; search & rescue had just been notified, but then cancelled. It was exhausting and infuriating, b/c my cousin foolishly had taken us all on an adventure that many would not have chosen. Never again will I just trust someone else’s judgement. Suffice it to say I don’t feel too sorry for Aron Ralston, but at least it was his own life at risk, not his entire family’s.

    Comment posted on October 15, 2011 at 1:29 pm

  7. Janice said...

    J — Wow, what a story! Your experience underscores my insistence upon tackling canyons only with people who KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING! It’s amazing how quickly things can go irretrievably wrong in the canyons. When and if they do, you want someone with you who can make good choices. Still, once you’re deep into an adventure, if everything goes to hell in a handbasket, then there’s not much left to do but persevere and suffer. Glad you all got out OK. As far as Aron goes, I agree with you that it’s hard to feel sorry for him, and I’m not sure he would want us to. I’ve heard him say he wouldn’t trade those 127 hours for anything, because his ordeal helped him realize what was important in life (to him). Would that have happened if he’d not been alone? Possibly not. But one would hope that epiphanies can be experienced without amputation.

    Thank you for sharing your story, J — I was on the edge of my seat!

    Comment posted on October 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm

  8. Bill said...

    I really like this post but I must disagree with a few items in “Strike Two”.
    First, Blue John is not in Canyonlands (and hopefully never will be. Second, there are plenty of wild burros horses in that area. I have seen plenty in the higher elevation of the San Rafael Swell and have heard of them making their way down to the San Rafael desert and Robbers Roost areas. But of course they would never jump over a slot.

    Comment posted on December 8, 2011 at 10:30 am

  9. Janice said...

    Hi Bill. As much as I love to be right, I also love it when readers correct me on material facts. I thought Blue John was part of the Horseshoe Canyon unit of Canyonlands NP, but I humbly stand corrected. Glad to know we haven’t driven all the wild burros out of that area, even though the BLM is doing a great job of trying to eradicate them. Thanks for reading, and posting!

    Comment posted on December 8, 2011 at 10:38 am

  10. Zaka Kak said...

    Movie was good, the message was clear, Do not hike alone, inform someone where you going, and how to be strong enough to survive.

    Secondly, your critics is senseless if the movie failed to deliver you the basic message.

    finally, the doc dosn’t show how he cut his own arm for escape, but the movie does.

    Now, can you please write a negative review on the documentary for not showing the “Real footage from his camera” and when the went back again, why the didnt show the Arm stucked in blouder?? please write a negative review like this and email the director of that doc too !

    Comment posted on September 6, 2012 at 6:44 pm

  11. Janice said...

    Z, from what I understand, the remains of Aron’s arm had already been removed by the park service prior to Aron’s return there (according to Wikipedia and other sources). In terms of the actual video footage of his entrapment and decline, Aron says this: “Because of the impact that it had on my mom – she was watching her little boy disintegrate on film – I promised her that I would never share that publicly. This was four months after I’d been rescued, I was home and rehabilitated before she was ready to watch it. It was first and foremost for my loved ones and, in the end, that’s where it will stay.” So I guess both points are moot, Z, but thanks for reading!

    Comment posted on September 8, 2012 at 12:07 pm

  12. Alex said...

    Boyle has portrayed Aron as a no life party animal because it shows how “stupid” he was. It showed how Aron needed other people in his life, and that with other people he would have told people where he was and how long he would be gone for (eg: his mom)

    Comment posted on September 22, 2012 at 1:48 am

  13. Robert Scranton said...

    I was in the area the week before Arron did his little stunt. Sorry to say, I am very sorry that he did his thing in Blue John and ruined this isolated place for those of us that don’t wish for the rest of the world to discover the undiscovered areas of Utah. I feel sorry for him that he lost his arm. I feel sorry for those of us that must endure his legacy which includes those who are just looking for a thrill and spoil our experience in the isolated outback of Utah.

    Comment posted on June 17, 2013 at 5:33 pm

  14. Janice said...

    Rob

    I’ve heard from others that Blue John is no longer the isolated place it once was and that after the movie was made, a road remained behind to make access easier. Is that true? If so, I’m sad to hear it. That increases the yahoo factor a thousand fold, plus — as you say — it desecrates the wildness of the place. I love wild Utah with all my heart, and I can only imagine what it would be like to have thrill-seekers invading places I have always held as sacred.

    Thank you for your comment. — Janice

    Comment posted on June 17, 2013 at 7:40 pm

  15. maddog said...

    As a screenwriter, adventurer and not Danny Boyle’s biggest fan, i understand your arguments. but this is a hollywood movie. They HAVE to incorporate certain elements into it, even if it didn’t happen in real life. People look at Ralston’s story and say, it’s a story of a guy who gets his arm caught under a boulder and has to hack it off. If it follow his real-life story exactly, without the crazy Danny Boyle elements, it would be incredibly difficult to watch. That movie will not sell, most audiences will not want to pay for that because it’s not particularly entertaining. So the screenwriter has to take certain liberties to make it more interesting.
    I could understand how certain details (like the blue water, the lack of shots of the environment, etc.) could get under your skin. Hollywood sucks in a lot of ways when they change things around. But don’t get caught up on the details. that’s not the point of the movie. It’s a story about survival and, details aside, it delivered on that.

    Comment posted on August 5, 2013 at 6:06 pm

  16. Janice said...

    Good points, maddog. I think I took it too personally when the canyonlands were misrepresented. Hollywood is Hollywood and I need to get over it! I appreciate your insight. And you’re right — it’s a story about survival and in that context, it succeeded. — Janice

    Comment posted on August 5, 2013 at 9:09 pm

  17. Canyonero said...

    ” I would like to find such a pool. They don’t exist in southern Utah”

    They do exist in northern Utah tho!

    That pool looks just like Homestead creater near midway in Utah. Its filled with filled with 96-degree spring water :)

    Comment posted on April 11, 2014 at 3:21 am

  18. Janice said...

    Canyonero — thanks for the tip! I’ll be checking out Homestead crater for sure! Janice

    Comment posted on April 11, 2014 at 7:48 am

  19. clay1 said...

    uh, that same cave/water is in Midway, Utah. you have to pay the owner a small fee, but you can go right on in just the way they did

    Comment posted on May 26, 2014 at 3:06 pm

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