These days, when Aron Ralston hikes, he makes sure to bring along a personal locator beacon and a sharp knife—but it wasn't always that way. The extreme means by which he reached such protocols are depicted in 127 Hours, Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle's (Slumdog Millionaire) gripping new drama, and in terms of lessons learned, Ralston's is a doozy. In 2003 he spent five days trapped in a slot canyon deep in the Utah wilderness, his right forearm pinned beneath an 800-pound boulder, knowing that no help was coming because he hadn't informed anyone about his trip. He drank his own urine to maintain a tenuous grip on life and ultimately—explicitly, in the movie—hacked off his trapped limb with a dull blade to escape.
Ralston wrote the book on which 127 Hours is based (Between a Rock and a Hard Place) and advised on its production, returning to Blue John Canyon with Boyle and star James Franco to explain what he endured. While the result is a work that remains equal parts authentic and taut while Ralston's options dwindle to one, the film's themes run deeper. What elevates the movie is its examination of how those five days changed Ralston internally. "My life used to be all about heedless impulsiveness," says Ralston. "I figured out that I not only want to connect with people, but that I need them."
That realization didn't come immediately, and in the years that followed, Ralston, now 35, says that he battled depression, even flirting with the idea of suicide. "Coming out of [the incident] I felt more invincible," he says, "and my overriding directive was not to let my amputation change me." But Franco's captivating and nuanced performance succeeds in foreshadowing how those 127 hours would eventually turn Ralston into the outdoorsman he is today. Although his adventures continue apace—after his amputation he became the first person to summit alone and in winter all of Colorado's 59 peaks of more than 14,000 feet—he is now a husband (he married his wife, Jessica, last year) and a father (his son, Leo, was born in February). And these days Ralston also makes sure to leave a note before heading into the wild.