Movie Review – Awake (2021)

Principal Cast : Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barry Pepper, Finn Jones, Ariana Grenblatt, Shamier Anderson, Frances Fisher, Lucius Hoyos, Gil Bellows, Elias Edraki.
Synopsis: After a devastating global event wipes out all electronics and eliminated people’s ability to sleep, a former soldier may have found a solution with her daughter.

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Despite a decent premise and a solid cast, Awake will quite literally put you to sleep by being completely boring. Global apocalypse descends on us again as we suddenly all lose the ability to sleep – the complications thereof are quite dire, as it turns out – and in keeping with these kinds of films thrusts a hitherto innocent family into the limelight as they combat the hordes of suddenly insane fellow humans as they seek to find a cure for this planetary insomnia. As a rip-off of the M Night Shyamalan movie The Happening, which works with similar themes (although, blessedly, Awake avoids having trees and plants as the central villains), this movie plods along with unedifying pacing and a distinct lack of dramatic weight, casting aside intriguing propositions and replacing them with bland exposition, over-the-top violence and a propensity for splashes of style all too briefly flirting with making this film legitimately great.

Former US military soldier Jill Adams (Gina Rodriguez – Deepwater Horizon, Annihilation) has lost custody of her two children, son Noah (Lucius Hoyos) and daughter Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt), both of whom now live with their grandmother Doris (Frances Fisher). Jill now makes a small living working at a sleep clinic and selling illicitly obtained prescription medication on the side. One day, some kind of event occurs that destroys all electrical circuitry on the planet, and renders all humans unable to sleep. The danger of sleep deprivation include a swelling of the brain, hallucinations, and eventually organ failure and death. As it turns out, young Matilda is one of only a few humans who have retained the ability to sleep, making her incredibly valuable to the survival of the human race. As humanity descends into chaos, Jill and her family race across country with escaped prisoner Dodge (Shamier Anderson) to a research hub run by Doctor Murphy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), hopefully with enough time to find a cure to this occurrence and save humanity.

Awake had all the potential in the world. The premise is exquisite in its simplicity and expectation; we’ve all had to plod through a day being somewhat sleep deprived at some stage, struggling to keep our eyes open and our concentration up during important stuff. It happens, we’ve all experienced it. By transposing that feeling of heavy-lidded exhaustion across the entire globe, Awake would work magnificently as a portentous, doomsaying apocalyptic thriller if only the direction and the pacing were tightened up significantly. Director Mark Raso, who also helmed the 2018 Netflix drama Kodachrome, starring Ed Harris and Elizabeth Olsen, strives for some manner of Shyamalan-ism with Awake, burdening an ordinary woman and her poor family with the task of overcoming what are incredible odds and exceptional personal cost, although the execution on the screen isn’t as taut and terrific as the premise might ask for.

Truth be told, I think Awake might have been a better film in the hands of a director capable of generating tension on the screen, and Raso, despite his best efforts, isn’t that director. His style feels second-hand, lacking ingenuity and liberally borrowing flashy shots here and there to startle a slumbering audience. A few single-take long tracking shots and some punchy editing in the blood-soaked climax remind me of the work of Cuaron or Stahelski in alternative moments, but generally there’s no real visual impact, no unique style to Raso’s shots or editorial work. It’s as if you can see the seams of Awake’s production glimmering beyond the edge of frame, a couple of shots held just a little too long, and a couple of dialogue pauses taking a half-second to kick in and distracting the viewer from the story’s flow. It’s not major, but enough to inhibit the saturation of the audience’s embracing of Awake’s narrative.

Raso co-wrote the screenplay with brother Joseph, and to their credit they do a good job with the main thrust of the story of how society would break down under such incredible sleep deprivation and stress. However, when the film dabbles in sidebar plots, such as an extended interlude inside a church with Barry Pepper’s honest-to-goodness decent pastor and his increasingly agitated congregation, or with the addition of Shamier Anderson’s escapee Dodge, things tend to grind to a halt pretty quickly. I think it’s more to do with the fact that the film’s primary interest is in Gina Rodriguez’ Jill, and whenever we deviate from her as the focus things fall apart. Tropes of the subgenre are ever-present, from the quickly forming factions and gangs roaming the post-event streets, to the dissociative military thinking enemies lurk behind every shadow, to the Golden Child archetype whereby a young kid somehow becomes seen as the saviour of all humanity, and Awake threads through them all with a discombobulating sense of speedy egress, failing to gain traction with each passing moment as the film angles on the central conceit of getting to “the Hub” and hopefully salvation.

In terms of the cast, Raso has assembled quite the talent to participate in his little outing. Gina Rodriguez makes a formidable lead character, a mother desperate for her children’s safety against all the odds, and a wilting flower she is not. A cross between Wahlberg’s Happening character and Sandra Bullock in Bird Box, Rodriguez sells the emotion of the film better than anyone else on the screen, despite the direction leaving her in dry dock. Her main on-screen co-stars, Lucius Hoyos and Ariana Greenblatt serve their parts well, with Greenblatt in particular out-acting everyone else she shares the frame with, whilst the bigger names, such as Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful 8), Frances Fisher (Titanic), Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan), Gill Bellows (The Shawshank Redemption) and Shamier Anderson (seen recently in Stowaway) augment the plot but never outstay their welcome or outshine the leads. While Awake has a lack of Big Name actors involved, there’s enough face recognition on offer to keep casual film fans happy.

Awake’s buzzy premise is plenty cool enough, but the production is let down by a damp-squib directorial style and a distinct lack of momentum at almost every moment it needs it. The sense of dread and impending horror is mitigated by a perfunctory visual style punctuated by about a half-dozen bizarrely underserved visual flourishes that indicate Mark Raso is capable enough behind the camera. Awake doesn’t explore the more intellectual elements of the plot, nor does it extrapolate on some of the interesting sidebar elements of the setup, but it does have quite a nice violent ending – if you make it that far. Even for a comparatively brief 90 minute runtime, Awake feels overly long, dragging its heels without honouring the viewer with a reason to keep watching. As much as I don’t like to admit it, I found myself checking my phone far too often for this film to warrant a passing grade. Your mileage may vary, but Awake isn’t the sleeper hit Netflix probably want it to be, it’s a film opioid that’ll put even the hardest hardcore insomniac into dreamland.