127 HOURS, starring James Franco

In the world of cautionary tales, this one’s a doozy.

You’d think that any 28-year-old would know better than to go out into the vast, unforgiving wilderness without letting anyone know where he is going, but Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) is a carefree young man who likes to go it alone, doesn’t want people in his business, and in fact, seems to enjoy not telling people what’s going on with him.

So, out he goes on a solo weekend hiking trip in Utah. He bumps into a couple of cute girls and has a bit of fun with them—no, nothing like that, just fun—and then continues on his merry way by himself. The girls are a little blip in his life so that we are aware that other people do hike that area.

Not too much later, he scoots down into a narrow canyon or crevice (it’s maybe six feet wide), and as he’s walking along, a great big boulder slides down the wall of the canyon and wedges his right arm tight against the canyon wall.

What follows are the titular 127 hours of agony during which Ralston tries everything that can be tried, given the equipment he has, to dislodge the rock. Failing to budge the boulder, he does the unthinkable—and yet the inevitable—and cuts off his arm just below the elbow. He still has a long way to go, but once the arm is off, you’ll breathe a little easier, though you’ll continue to be jumpy until the end.

Much is made of the fact that he should have told someone where he was going, and that it would have been great to have along his Swiss Army knife, but I’m not at all sure either of these precautions would have made any difference. His arm certainly was lost the moment the boulder crushed it, and in no case would anyone have come searching for him in less than a day or two, during which time the loss of circulation would have made the arm’s loss certain. The sharper knife would have made the actual operation easier, but once you get through to the choice of “I am going to cut off my arm,” probably the mechanics are not the main thing, though of course a sharp knife is always better than a dull one.

The other precaution he could have taken was to have someone come along for the adventure, but that would have defeated the purpose of spending time alone in nature. It’s not really getting away from it all if you haven’t gotten away from it all. As a woman with a lot of kids, I understand this need to be completely, totally alone, but I’m thinking that for a guy like Ralston, the long bubble bath with Tolstoy and a hot tea is not going to cut it, so I won’t bother recommending that as an alternate form of escape.

The auto-amputation is fairly gruesome, although not unwatchable. I watched it, but then again, I like to chase fires and pick scabs. It was the urine drinking that about knocked me out; I forced myself not to look away, but to drink it all in, so to speak.

So my point is that I don’t think the arm could have been saved no matter what Ralston had done differently, other than simply stay home. Moral: things happen. You can’t eliminate risk from your life no matter how prepared you are. However, you can face bad things with an undefeatable determination to live. This is Ralston’s best quality: the guy doesn’t give up.

Interestingly, although stuck in an unwinnable situation, Ralston does not turn to God. Nor does he, in the face of imminent death, appear to have any need to make peace with his Creator. Which is not to say that the real Ralston didn’t beg and pray and plead with God for rescue, only that it’s not in the movie.

What is in the movie—and what makes this movie valuable—is Ralston’s calmness in the face of a really bad set of circumstances: it’s cold out there, there’s just a little water left, no one knows where he is, and there’s a boulder crushing his arm.

He remains settled in his determination to live as long as possible, to continue trying to dislodge the rock, and to keep himself together. Of course his mind and body begin to betray him as he is exposed, dehydrated, and probably in shock for five days, but even so, Ralston stays calm with little blips of panic. He does not give in to the fear, which is a lesson everyone should take home with them. The fact is, you don’t know at what moment a catastrophe will befall you and you need to keep your wits about you.

This is a good movie. I’m not sure it’s a great movie. It’s certainly a great performance by James Franco, and is reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Cast Away. It can’t be easy to carry a movie essentially as a one man show, and while Hanks had an entire island to move around in and a volleyball to talk to, Franco’s stuck in a crevice talking to himself and his family as he records final thoughts for them on his video camera. Nor did Chuck Nolan have hallucinations, while Ralston is beset with them from pretty early on.

The scenery is breathtaking, the loneliness palpable. Don’t eat popcorn. I understand some people are not keeping theirs down when the icky parts happen, and theater workers are not really paid enough to take care of that sort of thing.

Not for little kids. If, like me, you don’t actually understand the call of the vast outdoors, you might not care about this movie, except that it is a true story and James Franco is really good at what he does. I thought he was kind of smarmy in Eat, Pray, Love, so this role definitely ups him in my book. (Honestly, I thought all of EPL was smarmy; it’s not Franco’s fault.)

If you have adventure-prone sons, you might want to sit them down and make them watch this film, although there is a little bit of skin. Whether it will change anyone’s behavior is iffy at best. Guys like this don’t like being told what to do, when to check in, or that they ought to carry away an important message from a movie. Still, it’s worth a try.