Publicity and word of mouth are curious bedfellows. Awake came to my attention mainly because it starred Hayden Christensen, an actor whose portrayal of a young Darth Vader, looms large over his career. Not necessarily for the right reasons. The gossip of the time inferred that his performance in Awake was of a similar nature. Yet the basic premise for the movie is quite intriguing, so I decided to see for myself. Medical based thrillers are a curious and underrepresented sub-genre. Directed by Joby Harold, Awake is a "high-concept" movie that deals with the universal fear of hospitals, surgery and "anaesthetic awareness". It also features several plot twists that takes the film in a direction that the viewer may not have anticipated. The production shows signs of being influenced by the works of Hitchcock and M. Night Shyamalan and the Italian Giallo genre.
Clay Beresford (Hayden Christensen) is a young industrialist, with a heart defect. Secretly engaged to his secretary Sam (Jessica Alba), Clay worries about their future. He shares these with his heart surgeon friend, Dr. Jack (Terrence Howard) who urges surgery. On the very night of his secret marriage, a heart donor is found, and Clay is rushed into hospital. His controlling mother (Lena Olin) wants her choice of surgeon to handle the transplant. Once under general anaesthesia, Clay finds he is fully awake but unable to communicate his condition to any of the operating theatre staff. As the heart transplant procedure begins, Clay must endure the agony. With all his senses working, he soon learns that greater threats lie ahead and that his current situation is far from a medical mistake.
The narrative unfolds quite rapidly during the first act of Awake, moving the film along at a fast pace. Unfortunately, this is at the expense of character development. Both Alba and Christensen give adequate performances, but the film is carried by the Olin, and Howard who frankly have more interesting roles to sink their teeth into. I got the feeling that there was a lot of dialogue removed from the final edit of the film. The narrative seems too focused on moving forward. There are apparently seven deleted scenes on the Region 1 DVD release. Perhaps the film would have benefited from their reinstatement.
The despite horrific idea of "Anaesthesia Awareness", it is explored with a degree of subtlety. The scenes of surgery are unpleasant but not excessive and are sufficient to put your teeth on edge. Writer and director Joby Harold decide to employ several plot twists that increasing tax the audience’s suspension of disbelief. It is here that opinion divides. Some critics felt that there were simply too many narrative indulgences that strained credibility. There is also a specific point in the story when the film takes an unexpected turn into a completely different genre. I would also argue that even the most casual of viewer would see through some of the medical inconsistencies.
Awake had a troubled production with multiple cast change. As a result, the studio lacked confidence in the film. In more experienced hands, the scares would have been harder and the performances stronger. Yet despite these shortcomings, I still enjoyed Awake. It reminded me of film noirs of the fifties such as DOA and also of the sort of tales you’d find in The Twilight Zone. Even considering its faults, at least we have a film that tries to approach its subject with a degree of creativity. Awake does not wholly deserve the battering it received at the hands of the critics. So, if you are of a forgiving nature and have a liking for more traditional thrillers, it may be worth ninety minutes of your time.