PLOT: After a devasting global event wipes out all electronics and eliminates people’s ability to sleep, a former soldier may have found a solution with her daughter.
REVIEW: We have seen many depictions of what the end of the world might look like on film. From the collective mass hysteria to the scenes of mass destruction, as moviegoers, we have seen it all. I imagine It has to be difficult to make this concept feel fresh but in the case of Mark Raso’s AWAKE, he doesn’t necessarily try to reinvent the wheel, but he does make great use of expertly executed moments of elevated tension and central characters that bring humanity amongst the growing disaster they’re trying to escape.
As the film opens, we enter what feels like the seemingly complicated life of Jill Adams (Gina Rodriguez), a former soldier who has dealt with the effects of PTSD and a resulting drug habit to deal with trauma. She has come out of it in many ways but it’s clear that she’s still working on her path to redemption. One day she picks up her son Noah (Lucius Hoyos) and daughter Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt) from their grandmother Doris (Frances Fisher) while on the road, their car is suddenly hit and it rolls into a lake. While all three come out of the accident unscathed, they soon learn that all power and cars are malfunctioning. When they get to the hospital to get checked out, they find everything in chaos and learn that coma patients are revealed to be fully awake. Soon the whole town is suffering from an inability to sleep but this has not been the case with Jill’s daughter Matilda, who has been able to fall asleep. Jill will soon find that Matilda is a target for the people who believe she may be the cure for their sleep deprivation and growing madness or the cause of it, which puts her in more danger as the chaos escalates.
Awake succeeds because Mark Raso, who shares writing credit with his brother Joseph Raso, contains the story within the growing insanity of the town the characters are inhabiting. It’s implied that this global event could be happening everywhere but keeping the story more isolated makes the tension more claustrophobic and palpable. The more frightening aspects of Awake have very little to do with the end of the world scenario. It’s more about how the human condition can deteriorate during a crisis. Not only are they dealing with something they don’t quite understand, but going days without sleep is driving them all mad. Raso does a superb job of showing how the mind can become unbalanced without adequate sleep. The scenes of hallucinations put you in the mindset of the characters and their growing fatigue from scene to scene gives the film another layer of tension because having their guard down due to their condition puts them in even more danger.
Raso also adapts a visual style that sets the film apart from other end of the world stories. While most films within this genre tend to be dark and bleak, Raso showcases many scenes with naturally beautiful tones. There are big moments that take place at night, but some of the film avoids a desaturated look in favor of something more vibrant. Not only does this put the viewer on alert that impending doom can happen in broad daylight, but it also showcases some hope in all that madness. Raso clearly believes that this is a world worth fighting for and that is always on the edge of disaster that is going on around the characters.
At the end of the day, the humanity of the characters is why Awake succeeds where some movies of this type fail. At its heart, Awake is about a mother who wants to protect her children and is dealt a bit of an impossible choice when it’s clear that one of those children is meant for much more than the other. What sacrifice would one make if faced with this choice? Understanding the nature of this role, Gina Rodriguez shines as Jill. She’s able to present a character that is clearly flawed and still learning from her mistakes but also someone with unwavering strength and determination. Keeping in step with her every step of the way is Ariana Greenblatt, a young actress I wasn’t familiar with before this but someone who clearly has a bright future ahead in the industry. She has to do a lot of heavy lifting and is at the center of some intense scenes but she never misses a beat. Supporting turns from Lucious Hoyos, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Shamier Anderson, Barry Pepper, Finn Jones, and Frances Fisher make sure Awake is never lacking adequate performers in its arsenal.
There will be a lot that feels familiar about Awake to most moviegoers but that familiarity was something I could overlook because Mark Raso crafts a solid human story that gives the film much of its emotional weight. Awake is a film that proves you don’t have to go big show the devastation of the end of the world. Sometimes it’s the basic human condition that shows you all you need to know about the peril of the situation but also the underlying hope to fight through it.