A film review by Craig J. Koban June 25, 2021

AWAKE (2021) j

2021, R,  96 mins.

Gina Rodriguez as Jill  /  Ariana Greenblatt as Matilda  /  Barry Pepper as Pastor  /  Shamier Anderson as Dodge  /  Jennifer Jason Leigh as  Dr. Murphy / Frances Fisher as Doris /  Ariana Greenblatt as Matilda

Directed by Mark Raso  /  Written by Raso, Joseph Raso, and Gregory Poirier


It's highly ironic that AWAKE is a post-apocalyptic thriller that features a premise that shows a world where no one on the planet can sleep after a cataclysmic event...because this Netflix original is an easy cure for insomnia.   

This Mark Raso written/directed end-of-the-world affair reminded me a lot of those many high concept driven, but idiotically scripted and executed M. Night Shyamalan efforts that thinks they were a hell of lot more clever than they actually are.  Perhaps the best way to describe AWAKE is that it's a premise dead zone, mostly for how it takes one with a reasonable amount of intrigue and does nothing fully realized with it.  Outside of a host of logic gaffes, a tired been-there/done-that tale of family survival, and some scattershot focus, there's very little meat left on the bones of this thriller to make it feel like a full course cinematic meal; it's more like a weak tasting snack. 

But, yeah, the concept behind AWAKE conjures up limitless storytelling options: What if humanity couldn't go to sleep...again...like...ever?  This premise reminded me of the great mid-2000 sci-fi thriller CHILDREN OF MEN, which showcased and bleak and oppressive future when all women have become infertile and can't give birth to any new babies.  It was bone chilling to think that this film's society would never see new people enter the world, leaving humans slowly going into extinction.  Imagine a world of people that have permanent and incurable insomnia.  That's also chilling, mostly because we all know the lingering short and long term side effects of sleep deprivation on the mind, body, and spirit.  People would eventually descend into madness and humans would all die within a matter of several days...that is unless a cure can be quickly found.  AWAKE is sort of a pandemic inspired thriller, in a round about way, but instead of a killer virus rampaging its way through civilization a geomagnetic storm has hit the Earth, rendering all electronics inoperable and dead alongside making the population unable to go nighty-night.  The sheer complexity of such a premise is rarely, if ever, thoroughly formed here, leaving viewers asking far too many questions while watching the film instead of just being fully immersed in the horror of it all.   



The film opens up by introducing us to a pre-cataclysm world as we see medical research security guard Jill (Gina Rodriguez) trying to acclimate herself back to civilian life after a failed military career and past addiction issues.  She lost her children years ago because of the demons that she battles, with the eldest in Noah (Lucius Hoyos) and youngest in Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt) now living with their grandmother (Frances Fisher).  One proverbial fateful day changes all of their lives forever when a massive EMP-like worldwide event occurs, sending the planet back to the technological stone age.  Worse yet is the startling realization that this estranged family unit - along with just about everyone else still alive - have lost any ability to fall asleep...with one catch: Matilda - in true chosen one form - seems to be the only human left anywhere that can sleep, leaving her a highly valuable commodity to scientists that need to find a cure for this severe problem and fast.  With the nightmarish thought that her days left alive are extremely limited, Jill decides to take her children on a long and dangerous trek to a top secret government base budded "The Hub" that contains what's left of the few sane and able minded researchers that hope to be human race's best last chance of learning how Matilda is able to lose consciousness in order to provide a cure for everyone else.  Predictably, the road is extremely bumping along the way. 

One of the very few bright spots of AWAKE is the presence of Rodriguez as the main heroine here, and as she demonstrated in 2019's problematic action thriller MISS BALA she's able to elevate weak material with a deeply invested performance.  Here, she has to play a character that has to be a confident leader and caregiver to her kids during while also staving off mental and physical deterioration caused by her sleepless condition.  I like movies that show the psychological implosion of characters when greeted with impossible odds to beat, and Rodriguez is in top form here playing a less than squeaky clean maternal figure.  AWAKE takes great pains to define Jill with multiple rough edges (she's an ex-addict on top of being a drug pusher - she steals expired drugs from her medical facility and sells them to any neighborhood dealer that she can find), and one that has made many categorical blunders in her life via some questionable choices.   

And speaking of roughed edged, but AWAKE is also unexpectedly brutal in its violence and depiction of a society very quickly coming unglued at the seams.  Raso understands that how insanity begins to settle in for people that can't sleep, and he's definitely not shy when it comes to showing the shocking mayhem that begins to unravel as a result of this.  There's some potentially compelling religious exploration in the film as well, with one subplot involving Jill and her family trying to seek refuge in a local church, overseen by a kindly pastor (Barry Pepper) that believes that Matilda is a unique gift from God because of her newfangled gift to sleep.  He implores his followers to do everything they can to protect her at all costs, but many others have changes of heart on the matter.  There's a whole underlining theme here (as is the case with most pandemic and/or post-apocalyptic thrillers) of how normally good and honor bound people become easily susceptible to committing hellish acts of bloodshed while trying to ensure their survival, and AWAKE scores some points for highlighting people returning to their most primitive instincts for all the wrong reasons. 

Unfortunately, AWAKE still commits so many other countless cinematic sins that it essentially erodes its few good qualities.  The overall family arc with Jill and her offspring has seen the light of day in countless other genre efforts, so much so that this film truly suffers at trying to make it all seem distinct (mother shields kids from the horrors of a post-apocalyptic world and will stop at nothing to protect them...the chaos that erupts all around them...the pure evil the tries to thwart their efforts...and so on and so on).  And for as good as Rodriquez is here, Jill's pre-apocalypse life is barely scrutinized at all, not to mention that her wartime experience and past battles with sobriety are only sketchily developed, leading to her feeling undefined and underwritten in terms of motivations.  The supporting cast doesn't fare better in the scripting department.  Actors like Pepper and Jennifer Jason Lee (who plays a mysterious doctor that may or may not be a key in ensuring the survival of humanity) are hastily introduced, then forgotten about, only to make impromptu appearances later to the point of audience confusion.  There are too many times when AWAKE seems like it was severely trimmed from a longer and more cohesively comprehensible length, making many storytelling particulars in the final product feel rushed and disorganized.  Leigh in particular has such limited screen time that you have to wonder why an actress of her caliber is even in such a nothing, blink-and-you'll-miss-her role. 

Aside from woefully bumpy character dynamics and plotting, AWAKE's attempts at building up its macabre premise are painfully mediocre at best.  It's not that we need a detailed explanation behind this horrific phenomenon (I hate it when movies hold audience members by the hands in this respect), but Raso seems frustratingly unwilling to explore the rational questions that this TWILIGHT ZONE premise elicits (like, for example, why don't governments quickly secure and ration out sleeping pills to the survivors...or...why don't people just try to knock each other out unconscious?).  But...yeah...I know...the script here relays that unconsciousness is an impossibility (well, for most...how inconvenient!) and has no treatment or cure (how super inconvenient!), which is just lazy writing to avoid the most basic of viewer queries.  We later learn that chimps are the only animals outside of humans that can't sleep, so why aren't scientists studying those other animals that can instead of focusing on Matilda as a last ditch Hail Mary saving throw for the planet?  Also, many people go crazy very quickly in this film, stretching credulity to the max.  Would this many people that have been sleep deprived for a few days be driven so swiftly to shared hallucinations and mental/physical fatigue that forces them to commit...say...mass murder? 

By the time the already short AWAKE reached its climax I fully realized how shallow it was when it comes to basic world/premise building.  This is a very dumb film that thinks its smart, and I felt stupid while watching it.  When all is said and done, it's kind of an unforgivably flat and gimmicky disaster picture.  Rodriquez, to her credit, invests more in her character than the screenplay does and the inherent darkness of the material isn't neutered by a weak willed PG-13 rating, but AWAKE simply inspires too much restless boredom for its own good when it should be making us grip our collective armrests out of sheer sweaty terror.  Thrillers are rarely so dull that they'll easily put you asleep like this one.  

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