Genius Products // 2007 // 84 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 4th, 2008
Every year, one in 700 people wakes up during surgery. When they planned her husband's murder, they never thought he'd be the one.
If I can put on my prophecy hat, I'd like to make a prediction: Ten years from now, Awake will be the kind of film that doesn't get brought up much in conversation, but when it does, everyone will exclaim, "Oh yeah, I remember that movie. It was pretty good." Basically, Awake is unlikely to enter anyone's Top 10, but most will probably remember it fondly for its creepy, surgical premise.
Clay Beresford (Hayden Christiansen, The Virgin Suicides) is a young tycoon with a bad heart and an overbearing mother (Lena Olin, The Ninth Gate). His mother is so protective, Clay can't even tell her about his bride-to-be Sam (Jessica Alba, Sin City). She even wants to replace Clay's heart surgeon (Terrance Howard, The Brave One) with one of her friends before Clay gets a new heart from the donor list. Against her protests, Clay marries Sam, and on the same night gets his new heart. Everything appears fine as he goes into surgery, except the anesthesia doesn't take: Clay is awake, but paralyzed. While he is aware during surgery, he realizes there's a plot to kill him while he's on the table so someone can make a fortune from his inheritance.
Awake is a film with a lot of twists and turns. I'll do my best to avoid explicitly giving anything away, but my comments may fill in a few too many dots for the picky viewer. Consider the following to contain spoilers.
The film starts with a creepy premise. The idea of anesthetic awareness immediately sounds painful and evokes some serious sympathy for the protagonist, Clay Beresford. The only problem is: how do you make a film where the protagonist spends the last half on an operating room table? The director gets around this with some metaphysical mumbo-jumbo and an out-of-body experience. We watch Clay make his way through the hospital, putting the pieces together. He also revisits scenes from earlier in the film, approaching them with a new perspective. If you're willing to suspend a little disbelief, these scenes work surprisingly well. If you're not, the whole last half of the movie is going to seem ridiculous.
I should also mention here that there is some serious overlap between this movie and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both feature a male character who attempts to avoid the consequences of an unwanted medical procedure by retreating into memory, especially memories of his love interest. Both feature voiceovers that describe the sensations of the procedure, and both also seem to be talking to the audience, guiding them through their memory. If you're feeling generous, it'll seem like homage. If you're not, it looks like plagiarism.
The back cover wastes no time in telling the prospective viewer about the medical aspects of the plot, so it's a little bit frustrating that Clay doesn't get into surgery until 30 minutes into the film. It's important to set up the characters in the first act, but I feel like it could have been trimmed by a good 10 minutes, kicking the thriller into high gear that much more quickly. Make no mistake, once we get into the operating room, the film doesn't let up. There are a few changes in tempo, but for the most part, the plot runs relentlessly towards its conclusion, and a satisfying one at that.
While the surgery stuff is interesting, and the motivation of the plot, it's also pretty brutal. The images are pretty juicy, with full-on slicing and dicing. It's probably not much worse than you can see on a medical documentary, but Clay's voiceover description coupled with his screams make it a squirm-inducing scene to sit through, easily more difficult than what the average horror movie shows these days. It's a well-constructed scene, but it's so much more intense than the rest of the movie that it almost seems out of place. I didn't mind it, but those who have a problem with medical horror might find it difficult to sit through.
Hayden Christiansen's voiceover description of the surgery is the height of his performance in Awake. For much of the rest of the film he seems wooden or somnambulant. He's not terrible as Clay, but his performance is generally unremarkable. The same could be said of Terrance Howard's Dr. Harper. Howard spends most of the film giving sad-puppy eyes to everyone, trying to be a fount of wisdom and Zen. There was something about his performance that always felt like a performance rather than a character, like I always knew I was watching Terrance Howard; he never convinced me he was Dr. Jack Harper.
Jessica Alba easily steals the show as Sam. She starts the film as the typical, romantic-comedy style love interest with little to do, but as the film continues her character is gradually revealed. Alba is more than up to the task of communicating the changes her character undergoes throughout the course of the narrative. I never thought I'd be saying that Jessica Alba is the best thing in a movie (especially one that's this good), but it's true. While not as impressive as Jessica Alba, Lena Olin holds her own as Clay's mother. She too manages an effective transformation from stereotypical mother to multifaceted character.
The DVD does an effective job of presenting the feature. The video is solid, which is appropriate for so recent a film. The transfer didn't wow me, but it I also didn't notice any significant problems. The audio was also serviceable, effectively presenting the dialogue, music, and squirm-inducing sound effects in a balanced mix. The extras are few, but solid, especially considering this film didn't light up the box office. The main extra is a commentary from first-time director Joby Harold. He's obviously more comfortable in front of the camera than the microphone, so his track is a fairly subdued affair. There are occasional moments where he describes what's happening on the screen, but for the most part he ties those comments into some insight about the production. Not a standout track, but worth a listen if you enjoyed the film. "Under the Knife & Behind the Camera: The Making of Awake" is the other main extra, and at 12 minutes it does a great job of giving an overview of the production and some of the medicine behind the film. If you only watch one extra for Awake, this is the one to see. There are some deleted scenes, with optional commentary by the director. It's interesting to see what got cut, since the finished feature is less than 80 minutes long without the credits. There is also a storyboard-to-film comparison for those who enjoy them, as well as the theatrical trailer.
Although this review has been pretty ambivalent, Awake is worth at least a rental for those who don't mind going in with low expectations. I didn't expect much and was pleasantly surprised.
In the extras, someone describes the film as a character study masquerading as a thriller, and that's probably the best way to approach Awake. It might not be a great film, but it's a perfect way to kill a Friday night in front of the television.
Not guilty. The court will be keeping an eye on director Joby Harold in the future.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Feature Commentary with Writer/Director Joby Harold
* Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
* "Under the Knife & Behind the Camera: The Making of Awake"
* Storyboard to Film Comparison
* Theatrical Trailer