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!)
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?