Given the success of movies like “A Quiet Place” (and “A Quiet Place Part II”) and “Bird Box,” there’s undeniably a big market for movies that play with an audience’s daily reliance on senses or shared experiences. Netflix’s new film “Awake” seems to have been created from the simple idea that since everyone needs to sleep to live, it would be scary to not be able to. But, time and again, “Awake” proves it has no idea how to present its one original idea with visual thrills, and it foolishly underestimates how performance is key to horror like this. In the world of “Awake,” chaos is an openly lazy affair.
This global sleep deprivation is thanks to some bizarre sonic boom, which has to be the weakest device for a story apocalypse since the explosion that wiped out The Beatles in Danny Boyle’s “Yesterday.” The sonic boom made a great deal of technology useless, including most cars, and killed the electricity. And for some reason, it rewired everyone’s bodies so that they are unable to sleep, making for a type of worldwide death sentence.
One girl, Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt), still has the ability to sleep. She’s also a bit of a miracle child, as right when the world-changing event happened, she was being pulled out of a lake after nearly drowning. Her mother, Jill (Gina Rodriguez), was driving a car, and her brother, Noah (Lucius Hoyos), was also inside before it got T-boned and launched into the water. The first bad sign about this movie’s inept attempts at shocks can be seen in this car wreck — it doesn’t surprise the viewer so much as give you a few seconds to roll your eyes. Then, as the car sinks in the lake with the family trying to escape, it’s nearly impossible to see anything.
“Awake” is a thankless horror vehicle for Rodriguez, who is presented with an intriguing character given little support by the thin screenplay from Joseph Raso and director Mark Raso. She’s an American veteran on a narrowing path of redemption, having previously been charged for selling stolen medical pills. She’s still doing it at the beginning of the movie to make ends meet, along with her job as a security guard at a lab overseen by Dr. Murphy (a barely used Jennifer Jason Leigh). During the apocalypse, while trying to get her family to a secret safe hub run by Dr. Murphy, she tries to focus on giving Matilda important survival advice, like how to steal gas or shoot a gun. Jill is most concerned with Matilda having a mother, knowing that she herself will die, and it’s a sweet but undercooked emotional sentiment.
“Awake” is a great example of how explicitly not to make a movie like this. For one, you can’t bungle introducing the very apocalypse you want viewers to be unsettled by. You need something like the sudden suicides in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening”; or the death of a child in “A Quiet Place”; or the kitchen-sink chaos at the beginning of Susanne Bier’s “Bird Box.” You know, money shots that introduce the actual stakes of such a movie, and show the horror it can bring. In truly baffling fashion, “Awake” instead leaps to it becoming a well-known fact delivered when Jill shows up at the hospital with injured Matilda. Even a pithy montage of watching other people failing to sleep might create a scope, but “Awake” is too lazy for that. We do, however, get a glimpse at some college students who look like they’re having a great time.
We get the most scope and understanding from a scientist named Brian (Finn Jones from “Iron Fist”) who dumps a great deal of exposition at the 17-minute mark. What’s going on? “Nobody can sleep.” Huh, that sounds bad, how bad can it get? “After 48 hours there’s a loss of critical thinking, 96 hours, hallucinations, motor failure .. but then what? Days of laying in paralysis until the heart shuts off?” Gosh, talk about a waking nightmare! “Symptoms are appearing two-to-three times quicker. It’s gonna be total chaos.” Damn, that sounds even worse! Got any hope for us, Mr. Q&A? “Well, there’s this one woman who can sleep … they’re setting up this whole station based on this one sleeper.” Thank you, sir!
Many things are flagrantly harebrained about his movie, perhaps none other than its attempt to be sometimes scary. Despite relying on the unpredictability of desperate people losing their minds, “Awake” fails to garner any tension when Jill and her children have a dangerous run-in with members of this now incredibly zonked world. Of course, the church group (lead by Barry Pepper) is going to become cultish and then violent. And later on, when they have close-calls with others, including a ghoulish road cult, the meeting is briefly moved away from. (The movie’s one cool shot has them breaking free, the camera locked into the car radio, looking at the family as they fend off whoever is trying to pull them out.) For good measure, Raso shrugs his way through one of the most annoying visual tropes in recent horror — old, silent, naked people, seen as a brief roadside attraction in a sequence that means nothing, and only registers as “scary” because the droning score is telling us so.
“Awake” is full of such non-thrilling moments, while its visceral experience becomes a non-factor. It’s only in the third act that the camera hazes the corners of the image when things seem to be really bad from Jill’s POV, but it plays out more as a last-minute save. The film’s typical dreary lighting only adds to its one-note nature and confirms its unearned self-seriousness.
It is incredibly difficult for actors to show fatigue as its own emotional, physical arc. “Awake” proves this and then does not care that it trashes the entire visceral potential of this story. As game as this cast may be, including Rodriguez, they are given the helpless direction of “just act very tired,” without the performances providing us a vital sense of how their senses are deteriorating, or what it feels like. (Imagine if the performances in “A Quiet Place” didn’t care about their footsteps?) It’s just our one-note heroes looking beat and running around, like in almost any other movie remotely about survival. The egregious laziness with characters extends to even the bare attempts at comedy — Shamier Anderson (“Stowaway”) plays a man who randomly joins Jill’s family on some of the journey, and because his name is Dodge, the movie of course has him say, “It’s time for me to get out of dodge.”
You might think that dangerous sleeplessness would be hard to convey, and you’re right. It becomes increasingly apparent that “Awake” agrees with you, so it doesn’t really try. The best thing that “Awake” could have done with its shallow idea of humanity is to at least lean more into its silliness, or to offer the option for it to be glossy entertainment that holds tight to its B-movie roots (like, again, “The Happening”). But “Awake” is not even smart enough to play a little dumb, and so even the silliest, most gratuitous parts involving very cranky humans turning into killing machines are anticlimatic and frankly boring. The apocalypse has rarely been this abysmal. [D]
“Awake” is available now on Netflix.