'127 Hours': Will the Fainting Factor Help or Hurt James Franco's New Drama?


Cloud Eight Films

At least 12 people have fainted. Three suffered seizures. Two reported light-headedness and another had a panic attack. Needless to say, it's unpleasant to watch James Franco saw his arm off in 127 Hours.

Directed by Danny Boyle, 127 Hours tells the real-life story of mountain climber Aron Ralston, who amputated his own arm with a blunt knife after getting trapped under a boulder. The film's positive reviews and Oscar prospects have been widely reported, but the health hazard that goes along with watching it has made the biggest media splash. The film had a stellar opening this past weekend on just four screens, but as it prepares to roll out in wider release in the coming weeks, will these reports hurt of help its box office prospects?

Why It Could Hurt "Anybody going to see this movie be prepared and look away if you start feeling ill," one fainter from this weekend passionately pleaded. "By doing this, it will allow people to avoid any of embarrassment that I and many others have suffered." New York magazine published a Squeamish Person's Guide to watching the movie, a more laborious, stop-watch requiring film-viewing experience then most would bother with. The LA Times advised readers not to bring their mothers to the film.

All this fuss will likely be bad for the movie, the LA Times' Scott Zeitcheck says: "Perception is reality when it comes to word-of-mouth-driven movies, and it's unlikely the occasional filmgoer who comes to check out what the fuss is about will offset the larger number of queasy types who stay away." He points to a similar case of reactions to the 9/11 drama United 93: "Words of admiration followed quickly by 'But I could never watch that in a theater.'"

Why It Could Help The detailed chronicling of all the faintings certainly piqued interest in the film. IFC's Stephen Saito even tweeted: "Is Fox actually paying people to faint at 127 Hours?" Initially, Indiewire points out, the studio wasn't even fighting the potentially negative reports about health problems, even retweeting related articles.

It's a strategy that worked with Cloverfield, which in 2008 rode chatter of its jerky filmmaking causing motion sickness to an $80 million gross. Or there's the veteran who suffered a heart attack during the violent opening to Saving Private Ryan; the audience member who had a seizure when John Travolta plunged a syringe into Uma Thurman's chest in Pulp Fiction; and, famously, the movie theaters that passed around "Exorcist barf bags" before screenings of the 1973 classic—which remains one of the highest-grossing horror films of all time.

127 Hours'opening weekend per-screen average was the second best of the year. Some are even admitting that the reason they are buying tickets the film is their own morbid curiosity as to whether fellow viewers will pass out. One Entertainment Weekly writer thinks fainting during the movie is actually the ultimate tip of the hat to the filmmakers: "Hey, what better compliment than proof that they've made you literally feel for a character?" The whole ordeal has drummed up so much buzz—and now box office—that some are arguing that the hospital visits have been a blessing-in-disguise for the film.

The Real Story

So is 127 Hours merely the latest example of the appeal of "extreme movie watching?" Probably not. As Zeitcheck pointed out, such visceral reactions to a movie scene is not necessarily a good thing. What's happening with 127 Hours isn't phenomenal because less than one percent of its audience is fainting. It's because from the get-go the film has defied expectations.

Given Danny Boyle's rocky directing track record—and that James Franco is always a wild card—many had low expectations for the film. Yet the film, the director, and its stars have received nothing but glowing reviews. THE ARM SCENE IS GRUESOME. It's incredible that someone has not heard that by now, yet the faint of heart are still going to the movie, and the scene is more than they expect or can handle. The story of this film and its reception is a trajectory not unlike its subject itself: a bloody tale that overwhelms the press because of its gore, but like Ralston, has a level of humanity that ends up surprising everyone.