A film review by Craig J. Koban

AWAKE jjj

2007, R, 78 mins.

Clay Beresford: Hayden Christensen / Sam Lockwood: Jessica Alba / Dr. Jack Harper: Terrence Howard / Lilith Bersford: Lena Olin / Dr. Larry Lupin: Christopher McDonald / Beresford, Sr.: Sam Robards / Dr. Neyer: Arliss Howard / Dr. Puttnam: Fisher Stevens / Penny Carver: Georgina Chapman

Written and directed by Joby Harold

If I were to die tomorrow then I would do so with the reassurance that I have seen one of 2007's silliest and most ludicrous films in AWAKE.

Having said that, it also makes me more than a bit embarrassed to admit how much this suspense thriller is absurdly entertaining.

This is a film that stands up and proudly and triumphantly begs for consideration on my list of SO BAD, THEY’RE GOOD films.  You know, the types of movies that attain a level of indescribable entertainment value because of their goofy deficiencies.

I remember the sheer thrill and giddy laughs I experienced while watching COMMANDO where Arnold Schwarzenegger plowed through dozen of soldiers single-handedly.  I also fondly recall watching COYOTE UGLY for the first time, with its laughably endearing story of a young woman with a heart of gold that wants to make it as a singer...and moonlights as a bartender at a watering hole where the women line dance on tables that are on fire.  Oh, then there was SHOWGIRLS, which chronicled one woman’s journey to become a somebody...while learning the the trials and tribulations of being a lap dancer.  And...c’mon...who could possibly forget GYMKATA?

Yes, AWAKE deserves similar accolades.  The film has characters that are thinly defined, has a first act that achieves the emotional wallop of a lurid melodramatic soap opera, and has one of those ridiculously gimmicky premises that had me rolling my eyes before I even entered the theatre.  AWAKE’s story is framed around the "true life" medical condition known as "anesthetic awareness," which essentially means that after a patient has been put under before a surgery the person continues to be consciously aware of everything around them.  They can’t speak, can’t move, but they are "awake" and are completely aware of everything that is happening.

The ads for the film solemnly state that 1 in 700 people that go through surgeries experience anesthetic awareness, which seems ridiculously high and inaccurate.  A cursory look at Wikipedia’s entry on the medical phenomenon states that the film has "grossly" depicted the condition: an accurate statistic would be more akin to 1 person in 10,0000 that would have any memories of pain during a surgery.

Ultimately, those looking for medical realism in AWAKE should give their collective heads a shake.  This is a film that does not exist for plausibility: any attempt at verisimilitude would have stripped away this film’s addictive flavour.  What the film does achieve is a series of plot twists near the middle of the story that - God help for me for writing this - is as ingeniously constructed and handled as anything I’ve seen this year.  As the film begins and we are introduced to the particulars of the characters, their relationships to one another, and how one character ends up on the operating table.  During this time the film was on auto pilot.  Yet, when the main character does get on that operating table and does get the anesthetic for a heart transplant and does develop signs of anesthetic awareness, then AWAKE develops into a suspenseful and totally absorbing film going experience.

The problem with telling you about how and why the film works so well at this point makes this review all the more challenging.  To explain the particulars would be to give away far, far too much of the film’s secrets.  The trailers for it did not give anything serious away, but I was shocked and appalled by the film’s one-sheet movie poster.  It has to be the only instance in movie history where reading the taglines on the poster gives away the most shocking twist of the plot.  My ultimate finger wag of shame needs to be giving to the people at MGM, who felt the need to rob filmgoers of AWAKE’s biggest secret in the ad copy and for not making this film viewable for press screenings.  This may be the only case I can recall where the movie poster needs a massive SPOILER WARNING.

Do yourself a favor - avoid any press for the film.  Moreover, don’t watch the trailers, suffer through the film’s stilted and dull first half, and - for Pete's sake - don’t look at the movie poster of AWAKE in the film lobby before you enter the theatre.  If you follow those key steps, then the twists and turns in the film will genuinely excite you.  Very rarely has a film been able to pull such a decided 180 degree turn halfway through.  The opening sections are fairly tedious and expository.  We initially meet Clay Beresford (played in a thankless performance by Hayden Christensen, more on him later) who is one of the most wealthy young men in New York.  He looks like a GQ cover model, but inside he’s a wreck.  He’s got a bum ticker, takes enough meds to kill a small horse, and desperately needs a heart transplant.

Yes, this sounds like Ed Wood territory.

Alas, his heart is strong because he’s recklessly in love with the gorgeous Samantha (played by the gorgeous Jessica Alba).  Alas, the clock is ticking for Clay because his life is in the balance: He could die if he does not get a transplant, and even if he does his best friend and doctor (played by Terrance Howard) tells him that the surgery alone could kill him.  Even worse, if the surgery goes okay, he will only likely live another ten years.  This makes life stressful for Clay, seeing as he really wants to marry Sam and reveal his love of his life to his horrendously overprotective mother (played very creepily by Lena Olin), who seems to have written the Oedipus Complex play book.

Through a series of remarkably convenient and well timed plot developments, Clay is able to astonishingly get his heart transplant surgery rather quickly.  If this did not prove funny, then many other aspects of the plot were greater howlers (like, for instance, the sexual prowess of Clay, despite his weak condition, not to mention that he can run up and down a flight of stairs without losing a breath and then - at one point where he takes two steps - he looks like he will collapse and die).  Some of the dialogue is also inanely comical, such as when Clay - right before he goes under the knife - reassures Sam that his new heart will love her as much as his old one. Ouch. 

Okay, so the lead-up to the surgery is lackluster, but when Clay gets the anesthetic, realizes that he is awake, all while the surgeons start to slice him open - not to mention what happens for the rest of the film - then the film had my sustained interest and developed a forward momentum that put its first half to shame.  I will attempt to say no more about the actual plot from now on, at risk of spoiling the film, but I will say that Hayden Christensen has the difficult task of playing a plausibly terrified and scarred victim, mostly in voiceover form.  Through most of the last half of the film Clay reveals his mental state through careful voiceover narration, during which he desperately tries to become conscious and send a sign to the surgeons that he is...for cryin’ out loud...awake!

I wish I could tell you more...but I can’t.  I will only say that AWAKE becomes surprisingly compelling and offbeat.  It is also safe to say that I in no way predicted precisely where the film was heading, which is always a good sign for a suspense thriller.  The kiss of death for this film would have been a plot that went from point a to b and finally to c with mind numbing predictability.  The fact that a film as ludicrous as AWAKE managed to overcome that trap is to its credit.

At the risk of using tired and often regurgitated clichés, you need to thoroughly check your brain at the door with this one, and your expectations.  Forget the would-be high concept premise of the film; forget the film’s atrociously concocted soap opera elements; forget the film’s silly inconsistencies, and - most crucially - forgive MGM for committing the stupidest advertising blunder in many a moon.  Instead, enjoy Christensen’s decent work here (contrary to what many say, he is a very good actor, as he gave great performances in low key dramas like LIFE AS A HOUSE and SHATTERED GLASS, and his work in the STAR WARS prequels was, in fact, as good as any of the other actors in the original trilogy) and enjoy the way the film mocks audience anticipation and goes places I certainly did not expect.

If you go in blind, then AWAKE is a curiously proficient and wickedly entertaining 78 minutes.  If you bought your ticket and then looked at the film poster before seeing it, then get your money back because you can consider your ass spoiled.  Either way, AWAKE is in the grand tradition of great bad movies.   You will most definitely laugh with a lot of spiteful incredulity at it, but you most certainly will never be bored by it.  If anything, you’ll admire its nifty showmanship more than its campy preposterousness.  

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