Awake is a film that has a gimmick serving little purpose to the story, but it’s important in a narrative sense; without the gimmick, the audience would have trouble being able to get involved with the plot. If this gimmick wasn’t here, we’d have to watch from a third person perspective, and we would also have an even shorter film than what we already get.
I’m sure you’re wondering at this point what the gimmick is. It involves a very rich man named Clay (Hayden Christensen) going under the knife for a heart transplant surgery. The anesthesia is given to him, his eyes are taped shut, and the surgeons, including one of his friends named Jack (Terrence Howard), who is the team leader. He’s had a weak heart for a while, and a donor has finally been found. The only problem here is that the anesthesia doesn’t work completely. It paralyzes his body, but it doesn’t numb the pain or put him to sleep. He’s fully aware of everything that’s happening to him, and needs to somehow get his mind off the pain.
What he does is think about things that he previously experienced. He thinks about his girlfriend, Sam (Jessica Alba), who he just married. They’ve been together for a year now, and we get to see random times between them. He remembers his mother (Lena Olin), who, after his father died, has become his best, yet very overprotective, friend. She doesn’t approve of his relationship with Sam, as she seems to want him all to herself. He also thinks about the time he spent with his surgeon, Jack, who has had four lawsuits filed against him. And this is what he thinks about all while trying to distract himself from the pain of being cut open and having his heart taken from him.
The plot that comes after this point is not something I’m going to discuss or give away. There are a great deal of twists that I’ll admit I didn’t see coming, but that’s the thing about twists: If I tell you them, then you won’t be surprised, and that initial shock will be lost. That would ruin the first experience for you, and that wouldn’t be fair. The best thing about Awake is how it will surprise you with things you shouldn’t see coming, and since it did manage to get me a few times, I can say that it was successful in its surprises.
A film needs more than a few well-executed plot twists in order to be a worthwhile watch though, especially on repeat viewings. Twists only work once, unless you have an awful memory, so there needs to be something else. In the case of Awake, you get two other great elements: A touching, involving story, as well as some solid characterization.
The story, which I can’t exactly explain thanks to most of it revolving around the first major twist, ends up going in directions you won’t expect. But that doesn’t stop it from being a heartfelt experience that actually did get me in a fairly emotional state. A lot of this comes from the twists, which are revealing in terms of how the characters think and perceive one another, as well as giving the audience a great deal of insight into their feelings and reasons for doing the things that they do. This brings us to the characterization, which only directly comes later on.
See, with so many twists and turns along the way, things that you thought you knew earlier don’t end up actually being true. When the reveals happen, which is all within Clay’s mind, you’re shocked, but it does allow you to understand the characters better. Sure, that gets annoying after a while, but I didn’t find it all that bothersome. Having a character to experience the twists with works better than just leaving the audience to find out about them — at least, it does in this case — and because that’s the direction Awake takes, it’s annoying to both us and Clay, which helps to soften that blow.
This leads me back to the gimmick. In terms of the story, and the reveals that happen while Clay is “asleep,” nothing comes of it. It would have been nice for said revelations to come from him, and that the things he learned would impact the story somewhat. It doesn’t though. As a matter of fact, the entire story has a lack of conclusion, ending on a note that left me wanting more. Awake only lasts slightly more than 80 minutes, but another 20 minutes to tie things up properly would have been nice.
However, as a way to have the audience learn about crucial plot points, as well as show us things that happened in Clay’s past, this is an invaluable idea. And since most of the time, we experience both at the same time, we do save time. There are enough plot ideas and back story to fit two hours, but since we often work in double-time, it doesn’t take that long to fit everything in. And since there’s also a better connection felt to Clay and what he’s feeling, this gimmick works wonderfully.
Awake is also a great example of minimalist filmmaking. Director Joby Harold uses select scenes more than once, where we experience them from a different point of view inside Clay’s mind. In terms of unique footage, there was probably only 50 minutes or so included. We see things sometimes three times, but it works well because of how it’s a unique experience every time. This is a film that only cost $8.6 million to make, and as a low-budget film, it’s excellent.
Awake is a great movie as far as I’m concerned. The plot twists are surprising, the plot is touching and keeps you engaged, and even though it’s a short film that ends too quickly, there’s a great deal of content included for you to take in. It’s a low-budget film that makes the most out of its time, budget and stars, and is something that I’d definitely recommend watching, unless you’re already scared of going under anesthesia. In that case, avoid it at all costs, because you’ll never be able to have surgery again.