Awake (2021)

Great premise. Bad movie.

P: * *     A: * *     W: *     P: * * *     O: * *

Director: Mark Raso; Writer: Mark & Joseph Raso; Starring: Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barry Pepper, et al.

A Netflix post-apocalyptic story based around humanity deprived of something essential? No, this isn’t Bird Box or A Quiet Place, this, as the title suggests, concerns humanity’s inability to sleep. After a beam of light disabled all electrical currents on the planet, their inability to sleep soon becomes apparent; for all bar one little girl: Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt). Her mother, Jill (Gina Rodriguez, Annihilation), a former US Army medic, soon embarks on a 2005 War of the Worlds-esque journey of navigating through a world ravaged by this pandemic to protect her daughter’s ability to sleep from becoming public knowledge.

The film opens well enough; Jill steals out-of-date drugs to sell before meeting her children (of whom she has no custody) before the event shuts off their car and they plummet into the lake. Jill and her son, Noah (Lucius Hoyos), break free before they find a conveniently passing Sherriff resuscitating Matilda.

Awake: (L-R) Lucius Hoyos as Noah, Gina Rodriguez as Jill, Ariana Greenblatt as Matilda. Cr. Peter H. Stranks/NETFLIX © 2021

However, moving forward, it suffers from a severe loss of excitement. I understand sleep deprivation can cause hallucinations and anger, not to mention death in extreme cases, but the following day a church pastor tries using Matilda as a beacon of hope but the Parrish soon demand sacrificing her as God sacrifices Jesus. One police officer even shoots someone in the ensuing melee before Jill, Noah and Matilda escape (I think Jill’s step-mother, Doris (Frances Fisher), dies, but it’s not too clear, and she’s never mentioned again, anyway). Surely these people would require more time without sleep before immediately concluding to sacrifice a little girl.

And speaking of time, there’re no timestamps at any point; occasionally a character will shoehorn it into dialogue, by saying they’ve not slept in x-number of days, but it would have made it much better just having Day One, Day Four, Day Eleven, as an indicator of where they are in their sleep deprivation.

And the film didn’t half hammer home the fact Matilda can sleep after sleeping the first night – which, being in America, surely the lack of sleep would’ve reached them when the Eastern world couldn’t sleep or jolted from their slumber? No other country is ever mentioned, believable in the lack of technology, but it made me wonder – Matilda then sleeps in the church almost on command, whenever they’re driving (Jill sent her to the car from the library, and moments later when Dodge stole the car she was asleep) and whenever they have nothing for her to say or do. Day or night, Matilda sleeps.

I cared little for Bird Box, but I appreciated how it focused, initially, at least, on a group of survivors; A Quiet Place, similarly, focuses on one family’s life amongst the chaos. They’re grounded and relatable, yet this used the less-interesting approach of having the characters journey for whatever reason and encounter random events (a group of strangers standing naked in the road, a group of prisoners all set free – one of whom, Dodge (Shamier Anderson), randomly takes a liking to them – and a group of people just wanting to kill them, with other bodies hanging around for added scenery). This was the biggest issue with How It Ends, another post-apocalyptic world where the protagonists must journey for whatever reason, battling obstacles they face. Sometimes it works, à la Cloverfield, but it’s rare.

It didn’t work for War of the Worlds; it didn’t work for How It Ends; it didn’t work for Awake.

One interesting angle they tried was having Jill teach Matilda ways of surviving in the new world, bleakly informing her everyone will be dead before long. Yet, her teachings include shooting, siphoning gas and driving a car. Not cooking or other essentials, firing a gun. In a city with very, very few people, knowing how to fire a gun isn’t necessarily essential. It seems like this film constantly has decent ideas or premises, but lacks efficient execution. In a world where nobody can sleep, you could focus it on a household’s survival amongst their hallucinations and anger, have a cheating spouse reveal themselves or take it more psychological and hide what’s real and what’s fake. Instead of them heading towards a rapidly established camp where they’re storing those who can sleep for testing, only for Jill to change her mind after seeing the torture the other sleeper suffers, only for the Army to kidnap Dodge, Noah and Matilda, taking them there, anyway.

Then there are ridiculous scenes such as Jill’s gun-shooting lesson, which ends with her firing at a book in the distance, all to force through Matilda’s lesson, though she’s vehemently against guns. It’s then revealed that Noah was there, and she narrowly missed him, with some amazing dialogue:

Noah: Hey, did you shoot at me?

Jill: No, no, I thought you were in the car.

Noah: I was here, I said I was here.

Jill: Who’s in the car, Noah?

Noah: No one, you said to find books on mapping. Just don’t shoot at me again, okay?

And scene. They move on to using a map to navigate the distance between them and the camp (with Matilda running off to the car and nobody noticing, purely so Dodge could take the car and Matilda, only for him to change his mind and become a good guy for no apparent reason).

The acting is bad. The dialogue is bad. Jill didn’t rush over to hug Noah, or apologise; Noah didn’t kick up a fuss or scream at her (bear in mind she no longer has custody of them and Noah is distant towards her, very much copy-and-pasting that War of the Worlds family dynamic). And, like Doris, it’s never mentioned again. Even characters we never meet, Dr Murphy’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Annihilation) children, get two references over an hour apart and even Brian (Finn Jones) gets a second mention long after his death.

I’m not saying the writers jumped aboard the craze of films depriving humans of a key component, be it sight, sound or sleep, but it feels that way, with no decent way of furthering their idea. It’s like they had their lightbulb moment of taking away sleep, only for them to half-bake the plot moving forward: throw in a random journey, add a special child who needs protecting, add poor actors and bad dialogue and voila! A film. A bad film, but a film, nonetheless.

It’s difficult to criticise the performances too much, the script they worked with was lacking, but Lucious Hoyos certainly takes the raspberry award in this film. His nonchalant reaction about Jill firing near him and an overall emotionless display took away any believability in his character. Dodge’s delivery of, ‘A cure? You guys are trying to find a cure?’ is equally bad. Matilda also lacks an acting pedigree (explained by her youth), but she sleeps so much it’s easy to forget she’s there.

One aspect I appreciated was towards the end. In the camp, the screen appeared blurry, as if mirroring the characters’ lack of sight. This didn’t last long, which was disappointing but was a nice idea (yet another good premise with bad execution). They could’ve had the screen perfect when Matilda spoke, yet blurry when everyone else did. But nope; it came, it went.

However, the final scene, led by one guard hallucinating a pine cone as a grenade, led to a fun conclusion. I didn’t care for any of the characters, so it was more enjoyable watching the carnage unfold without caring who for died. I’m still not sure why the Army started shooting at each other, but sleep deprivation can be the easy solution. Characters do things for the sake of the plot, rather than logic, which is a sign of bad writing, such as the parish wanting to immediately sacrifice a child or one doctor in one lab draining a sleeper of her fluids. Why isn’t every doctor in the world analysing this woman’s ability? Why does a child piece the solution together, when scientists and doctors and geniuses all struggle? Yes, her mind is clearer thanks to sleeping, but she’s still a child.

It’s an obvious cliché to say regarding this film, but it didn’t keep me awake very well. Twice I checked how much longer remained and the revelation towards the end came out of nowhere. I paused it just before a character pieced everything together, but even with an omniscient view of everything, it was a stretch to work out what was going on. It’s a casual Tuesday evening film when there’s nothing else on and you’re distracted by your spouse or friends. It doesn’t need too much focus; just pop in and out when the music rises.


Acting star award: Gina Rodriguez.

Acting sloth award: Lucius Hoyos.

Braindead moment award: Jill teaching Matilda how to shoot, not cook.

Dialogue disaster award: Noah: ‘Just don’t shoot at me again, okay?’

Ratings from elsewhere
Rotten Tomatoes (Tomatometer)31%
Rotten Tomatoes (Audience)29%
Roger Ebert* * 1/2
Correct as of 13/06/2021

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