October 22, 2021

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‘Awake’ Finds a Mother’s Nightmare in Insomnia and Religious Extremism

Somewhere in the bowels of Hollywood sits a small box spitting out one-line apocalyptic movie pitches — monsters you can’t look at! make a sound and you’re dead! zombies in Las Vegas! Awake is the latest word jumble premise-turned-feature film to follow in the high-concept footsteps of Bird Box (2018), A Quiet Place (2018), and Army of the Dead (2021), and its setup is every bit as simple. What if, one day, people were no longer able to sleep?

Jill (Gina Rodriguez) is a single mother of two — the wise and precocious Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt) and the expectedly moody teen Noah (Lucius Hoyos) — and it’s been a rough ride so far. Her mother-in-law (Frances Fisher) has legal custody of the kids due to Jill’s recent excursion into drug addiction and incarceration, but Jill is trying her best to do better. An overhead event of some kind kills all of the world’s electronics, and that includes most cars leading to an accident sending Jill and her kids into a lake. They recover quickly enough, but they soon realize along with everyone else that the incident has also left them all unable to sleep. Frustration, exhaustion, and fear soon begin to eat away at people’s mental states, and it only gets worse when it’s discovered that young Matilda can somehow still nap like a champ.

What if the apocalypse, but like, super tired, isn’t exactly a mind-blowing premise, but Awake plays the scenario well to deliver moments of action and suspense along the way. Director/co-writer Mark Raso and co-writer Joseph Raso embrace the fallout of the event to explore people at both their best and, more often than not, their absolute worst. Unlike the films mentioned above, there are no external creatures to thrill audiences with meaning we’re left instead with the very familiar human monsters we already see every day. The opportunity to stand out instead rests on that premise, but unfortunately, there’s not much more to it.

People suffering from a lack of sleep grow disoriented, confused, and irrational, and it’s that unsettled populace that becomes Jill’s greatest obstacle — aside from her own insomnia, of course. Things move maybe a bit too fast early on including a detour into a church just one day after the world turns to shit. Just twenty-four hours in and the faithful are already suggesting that Matilda be sacrificed to appease God. Skewering religious extremists is always the right call, but it feels a bit rushed to reach this point after just a single night without sleep.

One of the upsides to Awake‘s premise, of course, is that viewers really can’t take issue with dumb choices made by the characters. Who among us hasn’t made regrettable calls when dead tired? It leaves Jill and friends off the hook as the film progresses and their actions grow ever sloppier and more desperate. The script drops in mention of the military’s sleep deprivation studies, sun spots, and more, but it never really cares all that much beyond the immediate effect leaving both the cause and ultimate outcome of it all just hanging in the air. That’s especially the case when the apparent “cure” is discovered — one that has little bearing on anything and no real weight in its revelation.

Still, while Awake doesn’t do much with its premise beyond leaving its protagonists trying to survive it, that struggle delivers both thrills and suspense. Raso and cinematographer Alan Poon only stretch once or twice as filmmakers, but one of the highlights — a single-shot car attack witnessed from within — is a well-crafted nod to another post-apocalyptic tale, 2006’s Children of Men. That’s where the similarities end, of course, but even if the film fails to reach the subgenre’s highs it still ticks the necessary boxes when it comes to delivering ninety minutes of solid entertainment.

Rodriguez, who also serves as a producer, makes for an engaging lead, and while the film doesn’t really explore her character’s past failings it doesn’t need to — we see the guilt, regret, and desire to do better in Jill’s every move, utterance, and expression. She grows more haggard and worn out by the minute, but her desperate determination to protect her kids becomes the driving dramatic force. Others have a bit less to do, but it’s never a bad thing seeing Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barry Pepper, and Gil Bellows in a new film. By the time the credits roll it’s the family’s arc that has reached a conclusion (of sorts) more so than the overarching narrative itself, but hey, that’s what sequels are for.

In the realm of apocalyptic Netflix tales, Awake is one of the streamer’s better offerings as it entertains and gives viewers characters to care about. It’s rarely all that flashy, but the reminder about the dangers posed by people under duress — whether real or imagined — is always one worth sharing.