Chasm Theory: Franco descends into a natural cavity in Utah--and gets stuck there.

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For a movie about a brush with death, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours bursts with life. Its first 20 minutes are a rush of joie de vivre, with pulsing, jubilant Slumdog Millionaire-esque music accompanying images of a Red Bulled young man named Aron as readies for a weekend in a Utah canyon. The writer-director splits the screen and flicks through scenes of the stuff the guy packs, the phone call he ignores, the string of taillights he sees as he hits gridlock leaving the city. Once he reaches a camping ground, Aron says to his videocamera: “Just me, the music, and the night. Love it.”

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The next day Aron is just as pumped, racing on his bike across orange earth and blue skies, laughing even when he takes a nasty fall. He’s clearly savoring solitude but is just as pleased when he runs into two lovely hikers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara). Together they squeeze through non-sanctioned trails, swim in an underground oasis, flirt like crazy, and have a great time. The impromptu date ends with the girls inviting Aron to a party and then leaving him by his lonesome. He returns to exploring the canyon, angling his body confidently through tight, nature-built hallways—until a boulder falls on his right arm, trapping him.

Only now does the title pop up, for only now does the film truly begin.

Everyone knows that 127 Hours is the true story of Aron Ralston, the adventurer who freed himself from that rock by amputating his arm. So the story isn’t about what but how—not only how Aron, buzzily played by James Franco, survived, but how Boyle and his star could make such an intense but stationary situation riveting for 94 minutes.

A terrific performance, naturally, is crucial, and Franco takes us with startling verité through the aftermath of Aron’s should-be-fatal accident. There’s obstinate anger (“Move this fucking rock!” he yells to himself), panic (hearing his bellows for help echo through an utterly empty canyon is stomach-sinking), grief (he sobs as he nearly drowns during a storm). For much of the time, however, Aron stays as level-headed as anyone could in the situation—taping himself as he leaves messages for his family, strategizes, or just talks to the camera for something to do. When Aron realizes his dull utility knife won’t pare down that boulder, he devises a tourniquet and gives the camera a nearly mischievous look as the idea of amputation dawns.

Boyle, meanwhile, breaks up the potential monotony by interjecting flashbacks and Aron’s memories, the most gut-wrenching of which is that he stubbornly told no one where he was going that weekend. And then there’s that bubble of life again: As Aron grows delirious, he imagines himself at those girls’ party and, more crucially, sees a vision of the son he doesn’t yet have. It’s enough to finally make him cut through that arm, a scene which is of course squirm-inducing but not nearly as graphic as most horror movies, with Boyle switching and blurring angles.

Most critical to getting through the ordeal, though—both for Aron and the audience—is the sense of triumph that accompanies it. Galloping music (courtesy of Slumdog’s Oscar-winning composer A. R. Rahman) is followed by a moment of quiet when Aron is finally free; then there’s the harsh but welcome sunlight and a quickening soundtrack again. It’s joyful and cathartic, and a cinematic experience you won’t soon forget.