The title 127 Hours refers to the time 27-year-old extreme outdoorsman Aron Ralston (James Franco) spent pinned by a large boulder to the wall of a narrow, isolated canyon deep inside Canyonlands National Park in Utah in April, 2003, escaping only after he amputated his right hand several inches above the wrist. If that true story sounds like a recipe for boredom - five and a third days of a man stuck in a tiny spot - fear not! Director Danny Boyle, riding high two years after his Oscar-sweeping Slumdog Millionaire, has no desire at all that you should be bored by his picture, and to make sure of it, he has filled every inch of it with more brassy verve than just about any other film 2010, cutting and swooping and playing up noises and music on the soundtrack up to levels where you can feel your eardrums vibrating, and generally making it the most aesthetically energetic thing you could imagine. It's so energetic, in fact, that you might very well get to wishing that it could maybe, please, have a little bit less energy and have a little more interest in telling the damn story it's supposed to be telling.

Boyle telegraphs the kind of film he's making early on, opening with a dizzying montage of crowds and bustling human activity appearing in a three-way split screen, as "Never Hear Surf Music Again" by Free Blood screams off the soundtrack (music, never an incidental part of a Boyle film, is uniquely present in 127 Hours; the soundtrack, with a number of songs lying alongside A.R. Rahman's score, is the second-most important character), interspersed with shots of Ralston riding a bike through the Utah desert. It grabs your attention; it starts the heart to pumping and the blood to racing; and it doesn't make any sense. The theme of the film, when all is said and done, would appear to be something like "No man is an island", and maybe the contrast between the crowds and the solitary Ralston is meant to start things off: look this man is not part of the teeming mass of humanity!

More likely, I think, is that Boyle did it because it's awesomely cool. It is awesomely cool. So is the whole movie. It's also superficial. Once upon a time, this was a filmmaker whose works were scrappy, tough, hungry things; look to Trainspotting, still his reigning masterpiece, to find a movie full of coolness that is directed, meaningful, resonant; I see very little of that in 127 Hours, in which all of its coolness, its kinetic force and invention and joyful formal playfulness, generally serve to make the film a cheaper, shallower thing than the story inherently suggests, with all due respect to the many viewers and critics who have very much seen exactly the film that 127 Hours claims to be.

This is the third movie of 2010 in a weird little subgenre that we might call the "trapped in a close space" thriller: first was Frozen, which I have unfortunately not yet seen (Author's noteBuried, which I adored, and which is all the things that 127 Hours is not. It is in real time, it has one actor and one cramped location, and it communicates the misery of being face-to-face with death by leaving the audience trapped in a coffin with the protagonist. In 127 Hours, one gets the feeling that the filmmakers would like to be absolutely anywhere on earth besides right in there with Aron Ralston, whose suffering is viewed through such an abstraction of flashbacks, hallucinations, and attention-deficit filmmaking quirks that leave us firmly locked out of the character's head, despite his almost nonstop monologues to himself, the boulder, or his camcorder, and despite an intensely intimate performance by James Franco, one of a very small number of people to whom Ralston has shown his video diary made over the course of that five-day nightmare.

Part of this, maybe, is that Ralston-the-character (who may or may not be coequal with Ralston the man) isn't terrifically interesting, except in that he experienced this awful thing: he is a banally selfish boilerplate Gen-Xer, whose crisis triggers a run-of-the-mill "now I understand all the things I did not appreciate" epiphany in the tradition of A Christmas Carol. Oh how Franco does strive to sell that epiphany! But Boyle, aided by two cinematographers - Anthony Dod Mantle, and Enrique Chediak (there were essentially two complete crews; Boyle didn't want anyone besides himself and Franco to have to suffer down in that tiny canyon day after day after day) - and editor Jon Harris, is more concerned with exposing Ralston's hallucinations of his family and other people he's failed to love in the most hectic, thrilling way, than with fully exploring whether those hallucinations actually elucidate Ralston's psyche, if in fact the presentation of his transformation in the script (which Boyle adapted with Simon Beaufoy form Ralston's memoirs) is actually coherent and rational. It's not, really; it's a character arc that is posited rather than demonstrated, and 127 Hours, with all its proudly lo-fi digital camera glitz, proves to be a character study without a character. Even the amputation scene, a masterpiece of implying without showing, and graced by some of the most heart-pounding sound design of any movie this year, is mostly visceral in the way that a zombie movie is visceral (without being remotely as gory as even a middleweight zombie movie, despite the film's reputation for causing fainting spells and the like - maybe your grandma would faint, but I don't think anyone else would): it is disgusting, its mortification hard not to feel on some level, but it's not because we are particularly "inside" Ralston's head. No, he's a prop, every bit as much as the boulder.

And yet, this is nominally a positive review. For despite how emotionally arid the film can be, it would be more than foolish to deny that it's a thrillingly assembled piece of pop craftsmanship; Boyle's caffeinated approach may not be as well-suited to the material as in the drug fantasia Trainspotting or the horror-action epic 28 Days Later, but it's an awful lot of fun to watch. For every massive zoom from out the canyon all the way to a bird's eye view of miles of wasteland, that actually serves some potent thematic purpose, there are a half a dozen crazily inventive shots inside water bottles, down Franco's throat, inside his arm as the knife pokes around for the bone, that are so much hokum, but ballsy, engaging hokum. The film even plays around with our expectations - it knows that we know that it ends with Ralston cutting his arm off - hinting at what's going to happen with what I can only consider an attitude of dark comedy.

Or to put it another way: it ain't boring. It's not terribly enlightening, neither about the human condition nor about this one person's crisis and rebirth, and its certitude that it's very much about both of these things hurts it a hell of a lot. Nonetheless, it's almost certainly the most entertaining movie ever made whose plot hinges on a devastating act of self-mutilation. Y'know, if you're into that sort of thing.