I always applaud a movie that has the guts to give such an easy to pick on title; you already see negative reviews going for the “snooze button” takedowns and I always feel like there is an inclination to make a movie seem worse than it is just to use those opportunities to their best effect. Awake earns those reviews though; at times it is “so bad its good” levels, but mostly it is a boring and uninspired mess of a world-ending thriller. Reviewing this movie feels like a waste of effort and time, much better wasted on discussing some key aspects of it. My review is that this is a bad movie not worth your time so don’t watch it. What I find interesting though are three points of interest that I kept thinking about while watching this movie, which is what this article will cover, alongside spoiler-filled examples, so if you still care and want to see the movie, do so and then return.
My first talking point is the big one and the one that the movie can never escape from, under any circumstances; I shorthand call it “premise good, concept faulty, execution terrible”. The premise (or more accurately the elevator pitch) for Awake is “what if humans lost the ability to sleep and had to slowly and excruciatingly march towards oblivion?”. That’s a good premise in that it sounds unique and it combats the drawback that a lot of “end-of-the-world” movies face; creativity. As a concept though, it is faulty to say the least. Awake is a movie dealing with two conflicting ideas. On the one hand, you have an estranged mother of two dealing with her past when this world-ending terror arrives, which forces her to take responsibility for her children and protect/teach them how to navigate this swiftly deteriorating society. On the other, this is a study of characters slowly and inexorably loosing their minds and breaking their bodies beyond repair; the slow creep of biological facts and hallucinations slowly taking over our favorite characters and making them do and see things they don’t want to. These two pacing mechanisms and deliveries are at stark contrast with each other, not just in practice but in concept as well; you can’t have a slow-building psychological horror crammed into a fast-paced, action thriller about society quickly collapsing. Then comes the execution; this is how you end up with a scene where, after 5-8 hours of no one sleeping, the scientist character gives exposition on how the world has gone to ruin, there is a camp set up for the one person who can sleep, and the side-effects of not sleeping are double or triply effective than regular symptoms. By the 12th hour of no sleep, that scientist will die from a cop who was spoken to by God. Meanwhile, all the set up for characters and people slowly loosing their minds in a doomed existence is swiftly replaced with generic ideas like people fighting for sleeping pills or society collapsing into a “dog eats dog” world, but with comical speed; it’s been 5 hours and the army is already shooting people and characters are seen hallucinating like it’s been 5 days.
The movie then won’t be a good execution of what it wanted to be, but it can still be a fun movie, if it didn’t have a boring concept and generic ideas. This is the biggest hurtle this movie had to deal with, as one of the points I didn’t mention before is that, for horror to be effective, it has to be a scary idea; zombies may not be original anymore, but they are a scary idea; meteorites striking Earth may not be creative, but it’s a scary idea. Watching someone be mildly tired for the better part of 90 minutes? Not that scary or interesting. Still, add some nice action to that and you could still see something worthwhile, but bad acting and generic notions of what an action-thriller should be are the other big letdown of this movie; there are generic gangs roaming the streets, generic baddies, generic car crashes and gun fights, and a generic “army and government bad” take at the end. There is a prolonged shootout at the end with a bunch of military dudes who keep shooting each other and none of them are important or exciting in any way, which ends up being comical to watch.
However, I would take comical over the bizarre and ‘out-of-left-field’ ending we got, which is also a great segue to my second point: Theme. I love a movie that has a solid foundation in a theme, because it allows the movie to operate on many different levels and engages me deeply, however I don’t think that every movie needs them or has to do something interesting with them. What is bizarre about Awake is that it sets up a theme for our protagonist – she needs to take responsibility for who she is/was in order to reclaim and protect her children – then it ignores that theme for most of the runtime, then it brings it back up and resolves it, then it gives another big thematic statement and wrap up to a separate theme with the ending out of nowhere; the children figure out that the only way to sleep is to die and relive (or reboot) all in the last 5 minutes. I can ignore the last part as it possibly was in service of the solid twist the movie has; there is the setup of the daughter drowning in the car crash and then brought back to life and the lady who can sleep was dead before she awoke again, so it is a good payoff. However, this is a movie that follows the protagonist without break and has no real story to speak of, yet it has nothing to say on its themes for the best part of 90 minutes; that’s not just bad characterization and writing, that is a recipe for a sleep cocktail that the characters wished they had (I couldn’t help myself).
However, these are traits a lot of bad movies share with each other, so what’s so special about Awake? Decisions – which is the last point for this article. Awake had to make a lot of terrible decisions to accommodate everything it wanted to be, to create events for the characters so the audience can be entertained, and to drive the story forward; detailing some of these creates a fascinating “cause and effect” timeline that boggles the mind. For example, the movie starts with Jill (Gina Rodriguez) working as a guard, finishing her shift, selling off pills to a local junkie, and picking up her kids from their grandma; then the event happens, they get into a car crush, kid gets brought back from drowning, they go back can’t sleep, Jill goes to meet her dealer who asks for more pills, she goes to her workplace to get them, army comes in with weapons, and this is where we are given all the info dump with the scientist. This is a mess, but what can you actually change to make it flow better? If you don’t set-up that she is an ex-addict, then her kids have no reason to be at her grandma; if you don’t set-up she sells pills, then she won’t be at her workplace and she won’t get the info dumb, which we need to make sense of what’s to come (even if that breaks the suspension of disbelief hard anyways); if you don’t set up that she is not the legal guardian of her children anymore, then the theme will not be properly established. I’m not going into details, because that would exhaust anyone, but even small scenes like the kid knowing how to properly use a needle at her grandma’s is important later on, so her grandma needs to be there, but is no longer needed so she’s left to die without any real thought with the first opportunity. Then, there’s the hilarity from these ambitions that ensue, like at the end when all the army is dead, but the mother needs to finish off her arc of accepting responsibility, a coast guard guy comes up out of nowhere and points a gun to the children, which the mom blocks, and the dude is never seen again.
Usually, I like to end these articles with a bit of optimism and a show of good faith for the filmmakers who worked hard to make this movie possible; Awake is different. I don’t doubt that the crew wanted to make something good or that they have the talent to do so, but Awake doesn’t just need 30 minutes of worldbuilding or a tighter vision; the concept is faulty and it can only get up to fine. Add the 30 minutes and the tighter vision to make everything flow better and more consistent, and you have a “better” boring movie, instead of an often funny one. It is, though, a great example of a movie I will see again and again, just to study and try and “solve” it, because that is something I like to do (I know I’m weird). It can also be, paradoxically, a great cure for insomnia – damn it I’m going to stop here, because I’ going to go on for pages if I start going down this path.