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Awake is a completely outlandish, preposterous, contrived, and implausible thriller which also happens to be really fun as long as you ignore the fact that it’s outlandish, preposterous, contrived and implausible. Logic Nazis who still hold a grudge against Raiders of the Lost Ark for not explaining how Indy survived underwater lashed to a U-boat should stay far away. This is total popcorn entertainment, designed to be consumed quickly and then forgotten about forever. In fact, I’m trying my best to remember it as I write this review.
The movie opens up with some serious looking statistical BS that suggests that there is some actual foundation for its premise. Something called “anesthetic awareness” which apparently is some horrifying condition in which you are awake during surgery, but paralyzed. At first, I thought it sounded bad enough that you could see and hear the doctors operating, but no, it’s far worse, since supposedly some patients can also feel everything as well without being able to scream or even ask for a good lawyer.
Awake takes this premise, filled with the universal fear of going under the knife, and uses it to fashion a plot in which suspension of disbelief is stretched to the breaking point. Debut director Joby Harold’s screenplay tells the story of Clayton Beresford (Hayden Christensen) a rich, successful young man, under the thumb of his possessive mother(Lena Olin) and living in the shadow of his late father(Sam Robards). Clayton seems to have it all, including a heart surgeon best friend Dr. Jack Harper (Terrence Howard) and a great girlfriend, Samantha Lockwood (Jessica Alba), who is really sweet and caring while looking just like Jessica Alba. No one can be this lucky for long and we soon learn that Clayton has a major problem. He’s got a bum ticker and because of his rare blood type he’s way down on the donor list.
Since we’ve been warned from the start that this is all about the horrors of surgery, it isn’t long before a transplant heart becomes available and Clayton finds himself being anesthetized by none other than Happy Gilmore’s “Shooter” McGavin himself, Christopher McDonald. No wonder the procedure gets screwed up. Clayton finds himself immobilized and feeling the pain of being sliced open and pulled apart. But it’s not what he feels that becomes the hook of this thriller, it’s what he HEARS. Believing he’s unconscious, the surgeons commence discussing their plot to kill Clayton by giving him a heart injected with something or other which will render it useless sooner rather than later. The details of how and why they are doing this are best left unspoken since most of the fun comes from what Clayton learns during his time in the OR.
This is the tricky part. How can you have a movie where the lead character is in mortal danger but has to remain immobile and inactive for almost the entire running time? In most thrillers, the hero has to go on the run in order to find out why he’s been targeted for termination. Harold solves this problem by cheating on his own premise. He has Clayton literally step out of his body and journey about the hospital in “spirit” form in order to eavesdrop on what’s going on and to try to make sense of what’s happening to him. Of course, it’s also made to seem that Clayton is just imagining this as he’s tried to concentrate on “happy thoughts” like Jessica Alba’s naked back in order to fight off the pain. These two readings would be enough, but Harold has one more up his sleeve. He also presents the adventure as a metaphysical journey with Clayton going home. As his life flickers out on the operating table, so do the lights in his big house, going out one by one until he’s only lit by the flames of the fireplace.
The problem with all of this is that it allows Clayton to just leave the central arena of conflict, the operating table, into another kind of film which could‘ve taken place without the whole anesthetic awareness gimmick. However, I don’t really fault Harold on this point since I can clearly see that this high concept is really a dead end for a thriller. Thrillers are by their very natures mechanical constructs. The only true arbiter of quality is whether or not the film sucked you into the situation and excited you on a moment to moment basis. On this level, Awake delivers. It’s consistently entertaining and the entire film has a sense of fun that’s not lost on the actors. Everyone seems to be having a good time, especially old pros like Fisher Stevens, Arliss Howard, and Lena Olin. Christensen is more comfortable here than as Darth Vader and Alba seems to enjoy her chance at playing several Hitchcockian archetypes at once. Terrence Howard has the best character and he delivers another strong performance. Altogether, this is a fun b-flick which doesn’t outstay it’s welcome at a swift and very old-fashioned 84 minutes.
Awake didn’t exactly set the box office on fire when it was released during the Christmas holidays but there’s still quite a few extras included. However, it should be noted that, like most Weinstein Company releases, there are two versions of the DVD floating around.
The version for sale has a making-of featurette as well as deleted scenes with commentary from director Joby Harold. The rental version, another Weinstein exclusive, available only at Blockbuster, is missing these two extras. On this version, (which is the one I am reviewing) you get an outtakes and bloopers reel, which is nothing to write home about, the theatrical trailer, which sweats to get across the complex plot in three minutes, and a feature commentary by the director.
In the commentary, Joby Harold comes off as a talented craftsman, excited to discuss just how his film was made and also to make certain that people know that his intention was not to “split an atom, but rather, to make a fun Friday night movie.” Packed with crazy twists, thriller tricks and a good cast, Awake delivers on that promise.
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