Awake (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

As is often true of "high concept" movies like this one, the most interesting aspect - the hook that gets us into the theater - does little more than add some color. Awake, the writing/directing debut of Joby Harold (who might not be given another chance after this one), is a cheesy thriller that takes place almost entirely within the confines of a hospital with the protagonist lying on a table having his chest cavity opened and his heart cut out. That description functions figuratively as well as literally. Since he is afflicted with a condition called "anesthetic awareness" (which, according to a helpful opening caption, impacts about 1 out of 700 people who undergo general anesthesia), he lies paralyzed on the operating table, apparently unconscious, but actually completely aware of everything going on around him. And one of the things he learns by listening to the doctors talk is that he isn't as well-loved a figure as he thinks he is. His bad ticker isn't the only reason why his days on Earth might be limited.

Ultimately, it doesn't make much difference that Clay (Hayden Christensen) is awake as his open-heart surgery is being performed. The progression of the plot, with all of its tacky twists and turns, would have progressed just as readily without Clay's awareness. All of the deep-rooted horror associated with the concept of a person who can feel every scalpel cut yet cannot cry out or find some other means of release is glossed over. Christensen does some screaming and whimpering and overacting, but that's about it. The film uses Clay's perspective to unveil past episodes in his life via flashback. We soon discover he's more interesting when he's lying flat on his back in the operating theater.

He is surrounded by refugees from Hitchcock films: the angelic woman (Jessica Alba) who's probably not as doting as she seems to be, the helpful doctor/best friend (Terrence Howard) who's probably not as helpful as he appears to be, the inebriated anesthesiologist (Christopher McDonald) who's probably not as inept as the flask in his pocket would lead one to believe, and the controlling mother (Lena Olin) who's probably not as bitchy as she seems to be. The way these characters interact with each other and the manner in which the master plan unfolds will stretch the credulity of even the most generous viewer. If you go with the flow, there's some dumb fun to be had, but be sure to place the emphasis on the word "dumb."

In this season when nearly every movie highlights its actors in the hope of getting them onto Oscar's short list, Awake has elected to bypass this route and head straight for the Razzies. Hayden Christensen reinforces my belief that his acting is at its strongest when he's playing a low-key character. As soon as he's forced to emote, his voice begins cracking like a boy in puberty. One half-expects him to start complaining that Obi-Wan and the other Jedi are holding him back. Jessica Alba does her usual good job of providing eye candy. She doesn't show any more acting ability here than in her previous roles, but at least she provides a few tantalizing glimpses of flesh. Still no full nudity, but this is as far as she's gone. For a couple that's supposed to be very much in love, these two have about as much chemistry as Anakin and Padme. One wonders whether the revered romance writer George Lucas was brought in to pen the love scenes.

Some of the sequences with Clay on the operating table are effective, if only because the situation gets us thinking what it would be like to be in his position. Ultimately, however, keeping Clay awake is just a convenient short-hand method of getting the treacherous plot into the open and giving us a protagonist who isn't kept immobile for the movie's length. While Clay's body may be stuck, his mind lets him roam free, uncovering clues from lost memories and putting all the pieces together (in case we're too stupid to figure things out for ourselves). Awake is short enough (about 85 minutes) that it doesn't wear out its welcome. It's not a good movie but it's silly and lively enough to keep most viewers from dozing off, even if that might be a more profitable use of their time.

Awake (United States, 2007)

Director: Joby Harold
Cast: Hayden Christensen, Jessica Alba, Terrence Howard, Lena Olin, Christopher McDonald
Screenplay: Joby Harold
Cinematography: Russell Carpenter
Music: Samuel Sim
U.S. Distributor: MGM
Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2007-11-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1