REVIEW: “Awake” (2021)

Gina Rodriguez gets a hefty lead role in the newly streaming Netflix film “Awake”, a sci-fi action-thriller built around a weirdly intriguing premise. The movie is directed by Mark Raso from a screenplay he wrote with his brother Joseph. Raso’s previous film was 2017’s road-trip drama “Kodachrome”, also for Netflix. “Awake” is a much different animal – a movie that seems to have some big ideas and plenty of genre ambition. But it’s so scattered and lacking much-needed detail that it’s impossible to fully buy into the world the movie creates.

Rodriguez gives it her all playing Jill, a former soldier and a single mother with a troubled past. Like so much of “Awake”, most of Jill’s history is skimmed over and barely touched on leaving us with a fairly incomplete image of who she is. We know her husband is dead. We know that her mother-in-law (Frances Fisher) has custody of her two kids, the younger dinosaur-loving Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt) and her disgruntled estranged oldest Noah (Lucius Hoyos). And when we first meet Jill we see her smuggling pills out of a university lab where she works as a security guard and then selling them to street dealers.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

The movie loads Jill up with all of that baggage in the first ten minutes and then forgets it the rest of way. Instead she becomes a mother protecting her children after a mysterious event plunges the world into chaos. Essentially something similar to a massive EMP knocks out power across the globe – electricity, automobiles, computers, basically anything with electronics is shut down. It also takes away people’s ability to sleep, something the movie never comes close to explaining in a sufficient way. But obviously it’s bad news. “Without sleep your mind will bend and bend until it breaks”.

Jennifer Jason Leigh pops up as Dr. Murphy, a psychiatrist and a sleep deprivation expert who got Jill the job at the university and now wants her to come help at a remote facility nicknamed “the Hub”. There Murphy and a team of doctors are studying the only known person who can still sleep. What they don’t know is that young Matilda can also sleep. Refusing to let her daughter become a lab rat, Jill flees with her children into the crumbling society encountering a number of increasingly desperate (and in most cases hostile) people groups along the way. Mad scientists, a nudist cult, grubby backwoods rednecks, a so-warped-it’s-silly version of evangelical churchgoers – just some of the threats Raso throws at this family of three.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

If you try hard enough you can find the occasional thematic morsel to chew on. What happens when morality gives way to despair? How far is too far in the world of medicine and science? Stuff like that. But by the end I wasn’t convinced the movie had much interest in wrestling with anything weighty. Instead it all unwinds in a violent finale that has to be a lot more unsettling on paper than on screen. And the long-awaited “explanation” turns out to be no real explanation at all. Bummer.

“Awake” constantly teases us with its interesting ideas and you stick with it even through the rough patches in hopes of a satisfying payoff. Unfortunately the payoff never comes. It’s as if the Raso brothers came up with a cool and compelling story concept but were unsure how to tell it. So we get an intriguing mess that hopes viewers are interested enough to stay with it but not interested enough to want answers to the most basic questions. Oh, and the head-scratching gaps in logic, some cringy attempts at little girl humor, and the frustrating plot-holes don’t really help. “Awake” premieres today (June 9th) on Netflix (www.netflix/awake).

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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