“Awake” begins with ominous titles telling us that about one in 700 people who are anesthetized for surgery fail to go completely under. They remain conscious and aware for the entire ordeal, unable to alert the doctors that something is wrong. This is a nightmarish scenario. Too bad it has almost nothing to do with the movie!
Oh, sure, it happens to a guy in the film. His name is Clayton Beresford (Hayden Christensen), and you’ve probably guessed from his WASPy name that he’s the scion of a billionaire Manhattan family. He’s a young man, but he needs a heart transplant. It’s during that procedure that he realizes, to his horror, that while he can’t move a muscle or make a sound, he can still hear his surgeon, Dr. Harper (Terrence Howard), and his assistants. He can feel their scalpels and bone saws. Yowch!
This proves to be a minor plot point — which is a positive in the sense that it would be hard to base an entire film around that one scenario, but a negative in the sense that we’ve been misled by the film’s opening moments. It’s a bait and switch. Everything else that happens in the movie could have happened just as easily if Clayton were entirely knocked out for the surgery.
The movie is actually about something else connected to the surgery, something I won’t spoil for you even though the movie’s trailer does. Suffice it to say that not everyone involved has Clayton’s best interests at heart.
Meanwhile, there are domestic troubles in Clayton’s life. He’s been secretly dating a woman named Sam (Jessica Alba) for over a year and wants to marry her; however, he’s convinced his mother, Lilith (Lena Olin), won’t allow it. He turns out to be right, but it’s not clear what Mom’s objections are. Is it that Sam doesn’t come from a wealthy family? Or is it just that Lilith is unhealthily attached to her son and doesn’t want ANY woman to take him away?
Never mind and who cares. While Clayton is enduring his painful surgery, he has an out-of-body experience, and this is where first-time writer/director Joby Harold shows a bit of skill. As Clayton focuses his thoughts on his beloved Sam, interspersed with imagined scenes of running through the hospital corridors trying to save himself, we almost start to feel some of the panic and terror of the situation. The movie is very nearly effective in those moments.
Don’t worry, it passes. Soon enough we’re back to our regularly scheduled plot, which grows increasingly ludicrous as additional details are revealed. The sinister persons in Clayton’s life have hatched one of those schemes that can only exist in movies because they are so complicated, and rely so much on coincidence, good luck, and happenstance, that they would never work in real life. You see the whole thing laid out and you think, “Wouldn’t it have been much easier to just [fill in the blank]?” And you can think of a dozen alternate plans to go in that blank.
The film plays fast and loose with the laws of medicine and hospital procedure, getting sillier and sillier as it does so. For a supposed psychological thriller, it’s neither psychological nor thrilling — but it’s not unbearable, either. It moves fast and doesn’t waste a lot of time. It may be an unnecessary and absurd movie, but at least it’s an efficient one.
C- (1 hr., 24 min.; )