Streaming on Netflix tomorrow, Awake is an odd little curio that rests in a bizarre middle-ground, a few clicks away from either the feel-good Christianity of Breakthrough or the forced fetal-position response to Blindness. Either choice demands some shameless emotional intensity of brute force, which Awake doesn’t summon quite often enough in its sci-fi story of a world thrown into a sudden state of sleeplessness.
This incessant insomnia derives from a solar flare that messes with mankind’s glymphatic system and electromagnetic wiring, forcing our cranial walls to expand … or something. Finn “Iron Fist” Jones spits out as much scientifically expository gobbledygook as possible before a religious zealot ventilates his character’s head. (This bit also conveniently encompasses Awake’s debate of science versus faith as a solution to its fictitious problem.)
What’s really on the mind of Canadian director Mark Raso (who also co-wrote with his brother Joseph) is an algorithmically tidy reskinning of Bird Box albeit with fewer pretensions, lighter baggage, a stronger lead performance (here from Gina Rodriguez), and considerably better results. Although some moments are laughably spartan — a downtown street panic that would have more extras in a Mr. Show skit with the same idea — Awake at least attempts more of a Greenland version of this story, however less skillful or somber.
The film is best at invoking how swiftly fatalism can fall over someone. While Awake has no political inclination or subtext, it’s hard not to see the reflection of a present real-world fermata where sleep hasn’t been useful to a lot of people anyway. Awake, which was pitched before the pandemic, may not be an allegory for our perpetual hyper-awareness of pending doom. But it does embody ennui for how tin stars and military training could deliver us from the brink — which is to say not well if at all.
Widowed by war and a veteran herself, Rodriguez’s Jill is wary of any institutional salvation, having mortgaged her morals for a menial security job at a university research lab overseen by past colleague Dr. Murphy (Jennifer Jason Leigh, which makes this a sort-of Annihilation reunion sans the tightly strung tension or scope). Not above hawking stolen lab pills as a side hustle, Jill is also recovering from a drug addiction that took hold after her husband died. More often than not, her mother-in-law (Frances Fisher) cares for her sullen teenage son, Noah (Lucius Hoyos), and sunny young daughter, Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt).
The solar flare hits as Jill is watching Noah and Matilda for a few hours. It also disables all computers, resulting in a low-rent “surprise” car crash and plummet into a river. All three of them survive, but only Matilda is able to sleep that night — one of few people left in the world, as it turns out, still able to grab some shut-eye.
We learn this from one of Jill’s low-level street-dealer connections, and while it’s weird that he seems to know this first, you have to respect a Netflix movie that knows you’ve already read the description. But it also forces some weird first-act pacing before Jill, spurred by her past sleep-deprivation studies, takes matters into her own hands: Can Matilda offer a cure without sacrificing her life? There’s also the problem of people unable to peace out into slumberland, their amygdalas amplifying fear and aggression into full-blown psychosis during the 96 hours before their bodies give out.
Rodriguez effectively conveys Jill’s motivational rediscovery of maternal and survival instinct, along with her increasingly incapacitated desperation as she can’t sleep. She also establishes a tentative, low-level detente with Fisher’s character, effective antagonism with Leigh’s scientist, begrudging friendship with a kind prisoner named Dodge (Shamier Anderson), and healthy skepticism of veteran That-Guy actor Gil Bellows as a doctor who’s either trying everything he knows or indulging the deep end.
These actors largely generate the occasional moments to admire during Awake’s slammed-brake deceleration of the world as we know it, namely in how they place the burden of action and alertness on young Matilda. Greenblatt, whom you may recognize as young Gamora from Avengers: Infinity War, is also up to that task from a performance perspective.
But you’d also expect something so doom-laden to hit harder than with bong-rip philosophical dialogue similar to Ogre’s stoned musings about whether “c-a-t” really spelled “dog” in Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise. And the Raso brothers’ ending essentially allows the film to stop rather than offer any conclusive or compelling answers. Awake is not so bad as to be ironically somnambulant, but neither will its terrors find you turning in the night.