Review: Awake

Shot over two years ago, released on the least-attended movie weekend of the year, and withheld from press screenings. Yowsa. The odds were against "Awake" (IMDb listing) from the very start. It's a shame that the clues pointing to ultimate failure were accurate, for this is one goofy thriller that can barely sustain a running time, much less provide heart-stopping chills.

Clay Beresford (Hayden Christensen) is a young, handsome, billion-dollar industrialist, ruling over his inherited New York empire with mother Lilith (Lena Olin), yet cursed with a bum ticker. Secretly engaged to secretary Sam (Jessica Alba), Clay has doubts about his future, which he shares with his heart surgeon friend, Dr. Jack (Terrence Howard). On the very night of his secret marriage, a heart donor is found, and Clay is rushed into surgery. Once put under general anesthesia, Clay finds he retains full awareness, but is unable to inform his doctors. With the heart transplant procedure beginning, Clay is helpless, but finds that wide-awake surgery is the least of his problems.

"Awake" has a nifty premise, but it's a featherweight "Twilight Zone" episode, not a feature film. Clocking in at 78 minutes, it's a movie that's stuffed with twists and logic pole vaulting, frantic to engage the viewer when the screenplay reveals all it has is dramatic lint in its pockets.

The horrific idea of "Anesthesia Awareness" is a juicy plot to explore. I can't imagine a greater nightmare than remaining alert during profound surgery, feeling every abyssal incision and tugging stitch. It's a fingernail-chewing situation that seems more than enough to fuel a simple, effective thriller. "Awake" isn't comfortable with that kind of straightforwardness. Writer/director Joby Harold appears pressured to add more to the brew, including a full 30 minutes of kitten-play filler between lovebirds Sam and Clay, tension with Oedipal mother figure Lilith (with Olin in the role, that's not a hard leap to make), and a conspiracy subplot too touchy to fully discuss in a review without dancing through the minefields of spoilerdom.

In better filmmaking hands, the scares would've been efficient and the performances stronger. Harold barely has control of it all, ruining the surgery scenes by running a laugh-inducing inner monologue from Clay and allowing Christensen plenty of room to work out his tiresome method acting preferences. The script also escapes any desirable claustrophobia by inventing a spiritual manifestation for Clay, which allows the action to leave the operating room (big mistake) and also permits Christensen a chance to offer the viewer more ghastly performance choices.

The whoppers start to pile up near the end of "Awake" in a very messy fashion. Harold runs out of ideas, so he starts his twist machine, throwing around the allegiances of characters to absurdly comical heights. Again, it's hard to describe the lunacy of the final moments without giving away the movie, but rest assured that "Awake" is hardly conscious when it comes time for the dramatic payoffs, preferring exaggerated soap opera scripting methods over far more pleasurable Hitchcockian ones. "Awake" isn't awful, just moronic, and it fails to live up the potential it holds with such a disturbing premise.

Filmfodder Grade: D+