The tagline for Awake (and the opening text screens) informs the viewer that every year one in 700 people wake up during surgery. That doesn’t mean they actually wake up, screaming from the agony of having an open chest or gushing wounds from some horrible accident. Instead Awake deals with a condition known as Anesthesia Awareness. The person is physically frozen while their consciousness is still awake and alert. They can’t move, but they can hear and feel the world around them.
Being “awake” during surgery is exactly the position Clay Beresford (Hayden Christensen) finds himself in after he’s admitted to the hospital for a heart transplant. Prior to surgery, the billionaire, who suffers from a weak heart and a rare blood type, gets his affairs in order, which include telling his prudish mother about his girlfriend of over a year, and then marrying the girl before undergoing heart surgery. It turns out not everything is what it seems when Clay doesn’t fully fall asleep during the procedure, however, and he overhears the doctor’s plot to kill him, ensuring a hefty insurance payoff.
The biggest problem that Awake suffers is that its protagonist is completely and totally unable to do anything for over half of the movie. While Anesthesia Awareness might be a fascinating plot device, the truth is once Clay goes under (or doesn’t), he can’t move. He can’t scream out, and he can’t interact with the plot that is unfolding around him. While the story attempts to get around this by having Clay leave his body and view his own memories from a different point of view (at which point I don’t consider him to be aware of his surroundings as much as having an out-of0body experience), the truth is that once the plot gets interesting, Clay can’t act.
Even worse than Clay not being able to act, however, is the acting of the primary cast members. I’ve always heard good things about Hayden Christensen’s non-Star Wars work, but he certainly doesn’t redeem Anakin’s whininess here. Clay is a character who’s powerless against his own mother, afraid to tell her about the supposed love of his life – basically, he’s just a whiny, rich young adult, which isn’t far from the role Christensen already showed he couldn’t play. Thankfully, his acting gets better when he’s moved to a voice over – I can only assume the recording session director wasn’t the film’s director, Joby Harold, or Harold was able to focus more on helping the actor actually emote something in studio sessions. Jessica Alba isn’t terrible, especially in comparison to Christensen, but both are bad enough to make anyone wonder how Terrence Howard got roped into the same picture.
While the film does utilize some interesting cinematography choices (in particular, I love the opening shot of Christensen, submerged in a tub for an uncomfortably long time), the truth is the movie isn’t quite “trippy” enough, considering its content. Watching Clay move through his own memories gives plenty of opportunity for some surrealism or abstract elements, and the idea alone recalls Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I can’t help but wonder what this picture might have been like in the hands of someone like Gondry or a more experienced director, instead of first time Harold.
Unfortunately Awake is a snoozer of a movie. With a cast that doesn’t act well and a plot centered around a character who can’t interact with the world around him, there’s just no way for the story to move. In the end, it’s just a small, predictable mystery story that unfolds without reason as both the viewers and the primary characters act as flies on the wall. If the movie took more chances, it could have at least been something memorable, but instead there’s not much to Awake other than a unique plot hook that causes most of the movie’s problems.