There are a lot of things that can place a person into a state of utter panic. These fears are so intense that even when the trigger is not present just a thought about it will bring fear. One of the most dreadful is being buried alive. The concept of being helpless yet totally aware while you slowly die is something to really be afraid of. In the early 1800s people would leave orders with morticians to place a bell outside the grave with a string leading to inside the coffin. He the person was prematurely interred he could ring the bell and be rescued. This is the origins of the term ‘saved by the bell’. With today’s modern medical technology the doctors have gotten better in making sure the soon to be buried person is really dead. Now the fear has gotten a little more technologically savvy and is a fear of anesthetic awareness. Anesthesia as used in most operations is a delicate balance of several medications. One will paralyze the patients while others will put them into a state of unconsciousness. There are cases on record where the paralytic agent does its job but the patient is left completely aware of the surgery. They can feel everything as it happens. The patient has to just lie there feeling everything, unable to move or communicate as the surgeon cuts into them. This is the theme used for the latest movie by writer and director Joby Harold, ‘Awake’. This thriller has more than its share of flaws but overall works if for no other reason than the hook of anesthetic awareness. It fails to reach the potential of the story but is a lot better than many of the newer members of this difficult genre. One problem is some of the greatest thrillers are so well done that it would be almost impossible to attain their heights. This film is in the same genre of ‘Jaws’ and ‘Psycho’ but it will be a long time before any film resets the bar they have established.
Right up front it should be stated that the events in this film are improbable. Reality is not a necessary element of a thriller. After all did Hitchcock consider reality in ‘The Bird’, probably not all that much? The medical community has naturally enough come out against the truthfulness of the events depicted in this movie. As you watch just keep repeating to yourself ‘it is only a movie’. Do not see this flick if you or anyone you care about is scheduled for any type of surgery. The movie depends on getting the audience to empathize with the main character and to that end it works. The script by Harold could have been tighter leaving out some of the more soap opera sub plots. One other theme used here was on the edge of the supernatural. Once again this is considered part of the genre and is generally acceptable and adds some dimension to the film. It is very close to the theme of the recent independent film ‘The Invisible’ where it came across with greater realism than presented here. Harold does get right into things with both his script and his style of direction. There is the necessary exposition and set up but them you are in the operating room knowing what is about to happen. Since the anesthetic awareness was made known in every poster and trailer for the film the suspense has to come from the patient being force to unravel the mystery and sinister plot on his own. Even when he gets the answers there is the problem of letting someone know before it is too late. This is extremely difficult to pull off and Harold does a better job than most give him credit for. He very adroitly keeps the interest of the audience with only the barest modicum of the supernatural. All of this will make the viewers wonder just how possible is this condition and therein lays the thrills and terror.
It may seem that Clay Beresford (Hayden Christensen) has it all. He has inherited a hugely successful capital investment firm from his father. Clay is a young man with vast resources and a fortune in the billions. He is also in love with a widely beautiful young woman Sam Lockwood (Jessica Alba) and the two intend to be married. The only problem there is his mother, Lilith (Lena Olin) disapproves of her son marrying beneath his station; Sam is mom’s personal assistant and therefore only one of the help. All is not perfect in Clay’s life. He has a serious and ultimately fatal heart condition that can only be corrected with a heart transplant. Mom wants him to wait until he is older than his current 22 years. She is backed up by her boyfriend who happens to be a famous surgeon. Clay turns to the doctor, Jack Harper (Terrence Howard) who previously saved his life, and he agrees to perform the transplant. Harper is a full service physician and also helps Clay arrange a secret, midnight wedding to Sam. The next morning Clay goes in for the transplant. His mother makes a last plea to wait at least until a better facility and surgical team can be brought in. Clay refuses and is taken into the operating room.
On the table the Clay is put under the anesthetic but discovers that he is still fully aware. To escape the incredible pain his consciousness drifts out of his body. In this state he begins to roam around and finds out that Harper and a surgical nurse are plotting to inject the recipient heart with a medication that will result in rejection and Clay’s demise. Harper seems to have some regrets and wants to back out until Sam comes to him and encourages the doctor to go through with the deadly plan. Even as they prepare to go through with it things begin to happen. The original anesthesiologist who was in on the plot fails to show up and is replaced by Dr. Larry Lupin (Christopher McDonald) who appears drunk and incompetent. Sam begins to win over Lilith but mom still has her suspicions. This turns out to be a good thing as it does begin to set up the conclusion.
The running time of the film is about 80 minutes long. This is actually a point in its favor. There is insufficient time for the missteps to build up and just enough time to get the story out. Because of the short time the film seems more like an extended episode of the ‘Twilight Zone’ or ‘Outer Limits’. With a few modifications it would have done well in either series. Harold makes the most out of the time by cutting most of the extraneous paths out of the way. Some of the surgical scenes will be too much for the faint of heart, no pun intended. While not down on the gross out level of Saw and other flicks of that ilk it is pretty graphic.
Hayden Christensen is trying to explore his craft and I give him credit for that. He is not yet a forceful actor capable of carrying a film on his own. He is much better here than his dreadful performance in the Star Wars flicks and is starting to show promise. Christensen is at that point in his career where he is getting pretty boy roles opposite some of the most beautiful young actresses around. He needs to take a really gritty, ugly role to break out of this trend. It worked for Brad Pitt with ‘Kalifornia’. Speaking of incredibly gorgeous actresses (apologies to my wife but she is), Jessica Alba is thankfully more than eye candy here. She also is beginning to break away from some horrible flops to take on more emotional roles. Lena Olin steals this film with her stellar performance. She takes what could have been a one dimensional role of the overbearing mother and added depth to it connecting emotionally to the audience.
The DVD release is from The Weinstein Company which is getting a great reputation for films off the beaten track. This is not a grand movie notable mostly for the cast but it does deliver most of what is promised. It will entertain and thrill the audience.
The Weinstein Company has now released a Bu-ray version of the film and it looks and sounds better than ever. The video is so clear that it pulls you into the film. The True HD audio is exceptionally well balanced. The disc also has all the extras of the original DVD. If you have a choice make it this version.
Posted 11/12/08 (Blu-ray