Awake (2007) dir. Joby Harold
Starring: Hayden Christensen, Jessica Alba, Lena Olin, Terrence Howard
“Awake” feels like an extended an episode of "CSI" or "House" or some other one-off medical/forensic TV show. The film was born from the concept of “anesthesia awareness,” which according to the opening text is an actual affliction which renders anesthetized patients paralyzed yet awake. Very little cinematic substance elevates this self-contained thriller beyond the small screen.
As if open heart surgery wasn't a strong enough fear, writer/director now forces us to ask – ‘what if you were awake during surgery. That’s just cruel. This is what happens to Clay Beresford (Hayden Christensen) a young super-rich businessman, who goes under the knife for a heart transplant. Before this dramatic scene, writer-director Joby Harold establishes his characters with a teasing set up. Clay has been dating his girlfriend Samantha (Jessica Alba) for 6 months, but has not told her disapproving mother, Lilith (Lena Olin). As mentioned, he also has a heart condition which would limit his life span if he doesn’t find a new heart soon. When a matching donor emerges Clay and his mother conflict over their choice of doctors. Lilith wants to use her world-class but intimidating surgeon Dr. Neyer (Arliss Howard), but Clay chooses his reliable and good-hearted fishing buddy Dr. Harper (Terrence Howard).
During the anesthesia procedure Clay experiences this rare affliction of paralyzed consciousness. We are put in Clay’s mind and body as he experiences the ungodly pain of being slice open and operated on. Ouch. But during the procedure Clay also overhears of an elaborate plot to kill him on the operating table and steal his money. From inside his mind, Clay's deciphered memories add intrigue and the mystery to the case while his friends and family remain oblivious in the waiting room.
Director Joby Harold shoots the film confidently but is only adequate in setting up the pieces and characters. There will be some eventual twists and turns which we know and probably anticipate. Though I didn’t consciously try to predict the plot, the twists and turns certainly didn’t send shockwaves down my spine. As a result it's more perfunctory action than genuine surprise.
Harold does deliver on the ‘awake surgery’ scene though, which is the centerpiece and hook of the film. With Clay’s eyes taped shut and unable to speak, unfortunately the director's only option is voiceover to tell us what’s going on. It’s a little corny, but he does as best he could considering the limitations and delivers a truly creepy scene.
As good as the scene is, unfortunately this hook is completely unnecessary to the story. Whether Clay is conscious of the plot against him is inconsequential to the actions and results afterwards. Clay is kept on the operating table for the rest of the film and it’s his family and friends that endeavour to save the day.
Harold’s characters are 2-dimensionally drawn and once everyone’s true motivations are revealed the characters don’t so much ‘arc’ as make sharp turns left and right. The film is moved forward when information is revealed, but nothing is earned by the characters. One minute a character is ‘bad’, then he’s good. It’s unsatisfying and simplistic storytelling that would only work for a one-off television show.
Yet Harold’s film is actually a quickly-paced 78 mins (yep, the credits role before the 80min mark). A few chills, a creepy piano score and some good actors, including a lovely Jessica Alba make the film watchable. Enjoy.
"Awake" is available on DVD from Alliance Films