What Makes ‘127 Hours’ Any Better Than Torture Porn?

127 Hours is just the latest screen venture for Danny Boyle, director of Slumdog Millionaire but for millions of viewers, the story is already old. Who doesn’t remember hearing the harrowing tale of what Aron Ralston was forced to do for his own survival? Well, for those who don’t know, spoiler alert, he cut off his own arm. When trapped under a boulder and facing certain death, Ralston was forced to choose between life and limb. Limb ended up losing.

But what is it about Ralston’s story that translates so well to the screen? Sure, his story is an extraordinary one, but wasn’t that accurately portrayed in the countless news magazines and journal articles back in 2003? As impressive as the movie was, I still maintain that it remains one of the most glorified additions to the torture porn sub-genre to date. That being said, let me be clear that I do not judge the sub-genre one way or the other. There are some excellent contributions from this particular type of film, but the name alone implies a negative connotation, a stigma that I can sadly do nothing about.

However, in order to accurately portray my reasoning, it’s important to first define torture porn.Torture porn is characterized as a sub-genre, typically horror, in which the audience is subjected to prolonged images of brutalization of a person, or people, for the audience’s enjoyment.

This may be a controversial definition and it certainly remains a controversial sub-genre, but whether we like it or not, with movies like Saw and Hostel it has become clear that there is a certain demand for these types of films. Then where does 127 Hours fit in this grand scheme of things?

It seems fair to clear up that 127 Hours would probably escape the traditional definition of “horror” but the film’s subject matter, most explicitly the amputation scene, may call this into question. Then again, it is Boyle’s handling of the subject matter that’s really on trial here. For instance, the idea of a movie taking place with a character in a life-or-death situation in one location for the majority of the movie is nothing new. In fact, it’s become pretty common with movies like Buried, but Open Water is the “horror” film that comes to mind. Most would agree that Open Water, no matter how painfully dull, treats itself as a horror film. 127 Hours treatment of Aron Ralston’s celebration of life lends itself to a very different, almost inescapable genre.

But just as soon as it escapes the traditional conventions, the audience sucks it back in. In the case of 127 Hours, the audience plays a very specific role in defining the genre. As soon as the movie even hit festival circuits, article after article about people fainting during screenings or leaving the theater to vomit began to appear. Whether this were planted or not seems irrelevant, as the “shock” technique is typically a marketing strategy for horror movies, like Paranormal Activity for example.

Furthermore, most people, or at least me and several other people I know, went into the theater for one reason and one reason alone. How was Boyle going to pull off a realistic amputation scene? Most horror movies give way to gore and splatter, but the ones that really stick are the ones that go the realistic route. With those kinds of expectations from the audience, how does 127 Hours manage to escape the trap of the torture porn sub-genre? I would argue that it doesn’t, but I feel like most members of the Academy would feel differently. Maybe you should ask one of them.

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