Danny Boyle's '127 Hours' opened this past weekend to excellent response. It performed fairly well at the box office, and the reviews were ecstatic. (It has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, and IMDb voters have settled on a rating of 8.3 out of 10.) But hardly anywhere have I seen the obvious comparison to Rodrigo Cortés' 'Buried', which opened in September. 'Buried' has reached the $1 million mark, but has probably run out of momentum by now. I like both movies, and I'd be happy to see a showdown between Ryan Reynolds and James Franco for acting honors this year. However, I think 'Buried' is the greater accomplishment, but that '127 Hours' will enjoy greater buzz and attention.
Why is this? Each movie is a very tough sell. They're both claustrophobic, intense stories that put viewers through a serious endurance test. (Some audience members have reportedly passed out at screenings of '127 Hours'.) They're both one-man shows that require a single actor to play the majority of the film by himself. And they both play upon the most basic of human fears. There are major differences, of course, but the key difference is that '127 Hours' is an "A" movie and 'Buried' is a "B" movie, which means that the former is obliged to play by certain rules and the later is free to try anything.
This is hardly a new condition. Consider that an art-house copy of a Hong Kong action film, Ang Lee's 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon', received tons more attention and accolades than a genuine one from the same year, Tsui Hark's 'Time and Tide'. Or consider the mini-Mexican renaissance of 2006, wherein the dull 'Babel' was nominated for Best Picture, and the vibrant, exciting genre films 'Pan's Labyrinth' and 'Children of Men' were not. It's all about labeling and packaging.
Let's start with the fact that 'Buried' keeps its hero, Paul Conroy (Reynolds), inside his wooden coffin -- no exceptions -- for 90 minutes. In '127 Hours', Aron Ralson (Franco) gets to hang out with some cute girls for a while before he gets trapped. Once there, director Danny Boyle's camera is free to roam just about anywhere. This includes fantasies and flashbacks, an imagined trip to a party, or an aerial view of the entire canyon, or even a "talk show," in which our hero interviews himself, complete with a laugh track. It's almost ironic that the flashiness of '127 Hours' covers up the simplicity of its story, while the simplicity of 'Buried' covers up the complexity of its story.
Admittedly, 'Buried' asks viewers to give into a few unlikely ideas, such as the fact that Paul can turn himself around inside the coffin, or that he can get cell phone reception, before the story works. But the key to 'Buried' is that it sets up these few rules and sticks to them. Paul is in a coffin. He has a flashlight, a cell phone, some glow sticks, a pen, and a few other items. He must use these things and nothing else to try to get out. Aron has a lot more in the way of equipment, and the frustration lies in the fact that -- with all that stuff -- he still doesn't have some of the things he needs most. It's a case of minimalism versus excess.
'127 Hours' is based on a true story, and the movie never lets you forget that fact, up to and including footage of the real Aron. Hence, the movie is limited by this "truth." It's free to invent some things up to a point, but the filmmakers know that their film will be held up to both the source book and the real guy, and they know they can't venture too far. (If Aron doesn't survive, there's no one to tell the story, and hence, no movie.) 'Buried' is an original screenplay (by Chris Sparling), and somehow manages to create the rhythms of a thriller without the actual movement of a thriller. It has an ebb and flow, with rest points and moments of great tension. Simple things like the battery life of the cell phone, or getting someone's voicemail, or an unwanted visitor inside the coffin, provide all the suspense of a detective story or a car chase. Almost anything can happen.
Finally, and this is perhaps the most important thing: '127 Hours' is hopeful and 'Buried' is cynical. This alone does not make one better than the other, but in the context of the "one-man-trapped" idea, 'Buried' has a much sharper, more immediately satisfying ending, while '127 Hours' has a rather drawn-out ending and epilogue, basically building up and underlining Aron's heroism seven ways from Sunday. The ending of 'Buried' manages to say something about a screwed-up situation in the world, and '127 Hours' says something only about the mettle of one man.
Like I said, I do admire both movies, but as awards season approaches, I think it would be fair to ask critics and voters to look at and compare both before automatically assuming that the flashy, hopeful one is better than the small, cynical one.