As the hour hand falls back this weekend, another hand gets lopped off altogether: 127 Hours, in which James Franco plays a stuck-under-a-boulder outdoorsman who must saw off his own arm in order to survive, opens in limited release today. The film marks British director Danny Boyle's follow-up to the vibrant (perhaps too vibrant) hard-knocks fairy tale Slumdog Millionaire. That film walked home with the 2008 best-picture prize, and Oscar buzz has also been building steadily for the Franco endurance test.
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Before he became an awards-season mainstay, Boyle was probably best known as the gutter visionary behind Trainspotting (1996), which dived into the toilet with a merry band of Edinburgh smack addicts. Boyle also revived the zombie genre with 28 Days Later, an uncharacteristically gritty apocalyptic road movie that found critical and box office success in the dead of summer 2002. Though all of his films have an extreme-sports travelogue quality, forcibly transporting the viewer to an unfamiliar world within the world, Boyle is essentially an eclecticist in the vein of Steven Soderbergh. Both bring a formidable technical expertise to bear on a variety of genre remixings. Despite his reputation as a globe-trotting raconteur, Boyle's wild stylistic flourishes don't always serve his straightforward narratives (the hyperactive children's film Millions serves as a feature-length demonstration of this). But his movies are at least reliably interesting, as evidenced by a couple of his lesser-remembered works.
My personal-favorite Boyle film is 2007's Sunshine. The space-mission saga, which crescendos to an almost abstract head-trip conclusion, has more in common with the genre's touchstones (2001, Solaris) than more contemporaneous hackwork like Event Horizon and Sphere, to which Sunshine bears superficial stranded-on-dusty-abandoned-spaceships similarities. The mission at Sunshine's core concerns nothing less than reigniting the dying sun, a task requiring Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy) and his colleagues to trail behind them a payload of all the earth's fissile material.
The film touches on the introspective loneliness of the long-distance galaxy traveler, but its default mode is "loud." The score pulses; characters more often than not desperately yell the vague hardware-jargon dialogue ("The mainframe is out of the coolant!"). If Boyle's tricks here are unsubtle, he does convey through them a credible sense of deep-space disorientation. As is the case with Darren Aronofsky's shimmery tree-of-life tale The Fountain, another recent sci-fi film of uncommon ambition, it becomes nearly impossible to root against Sunshine, even in its least convincing passages. Thankfully, Boyle's film requires far fewer handicaps than does Aronofsky's.
Boyle's highest-profile misstep is probably 2000's The Beach, though now seems as good a time as ever to revisit the film, given its scenario's affinities with 127 Hours' (a lonesome adventurer seeks escape from the teeming tourist hordes, only to encounter the perils of isolation). It's also surprisingly refreshing to see star Leonardo DiCaprio outside the context of oddly bloodless gourmet hokum (Revolutionary Road, Inception) or the epic bloat of late Scorsese.
The Beach, adapted by Trainspotting scribe John Hodge from the novel by Alex Garland (who later wrote the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine), mostly takes place in a proto-Lost community of global citizens on a very remote Thai island, a paradise of vast cannabis meadows where even the most restless breed of backpacker feels the itch to settle down. In addition to DiCaprio, the film stars Tilda Swinton, the French actress Virginie Ledoyen, one of the more ethereal cuts off Moby's 1999 album Play, a silly-looking CGI shark, and gratuitous Apocalypse Now homages. All of Boyle's worst cartoonish-comic-relief impulses are on display here, particularly in a sequence during which the increasingly deranged protagonist's jungle maneuverings are imagined as an arcade game. Boyle's tendency to goose up everything in this way sometimes suggests a fundamental distrust of his material. Whether wider recognition will over time cause the director's work to become more or less desperately hectic remains to be seen.