Think back to the last time you pulled an all-nighter, either working on that final uni project, or unable to sleep on an international flight. Sometimes life lets you sleep for 12 hours after you finish that period, but sometimes it’s another 12 hours of miserable consciousness before you can actually get to bed. Think about how your muscles start to spasm, how one eyelid flutters uncontrollably, how a heavy weight is pressing somewhere just below the back of your neck. Exhaustion ain’t pretty.
Now imagine that feeling stretched out for three, four, five days, and you’ll start to appreciate what the characters in the new Netflix film Awake are up against.
Indeed, there’s been an unexplained phenomenon on planet Earth, some kind of electromagnetic pulse that has stopped all machines from working. But that’s not the worst of it. We could make it around in a modern stone age for quite some time, perhaps indefinitely. But this EMP, traced back to a possible “solar flare” (which is a convenient bogeyman for this type of movie), has had a much worse consequence: It has robbed people of their ability to sleep.
No, not just one night of bad insomnia followed by eventual relief, but days and days of closing your eyes without drifting off. And it’s not that people aren’t tired, oh no. They desperately want to sleep, but their bodies won’t let them. As one character puts it: “There’s no longer such a thing as an unconscious person. You’re either switched on, or you’re … switched off.”
It’s the kind of thing that requires immediate, drastic action, because human beings will be dead within a week of no sleep, preceded by insanity much sooner than that. Only thing is, the people most equipped to theorise about what’s happening, and how possibly to solve it, are just as tired as anyone else. And society doesn’t hold together very long when word gets out that the entire world has collective, and seemingly permanent, insomnia.
It’s a great little creepy premise for a film, but Mark Raso’s film is lacking a bit in the execution department. It’s not the direction, which we’ll get to in a moment, that’s so much at fault here, but the script, credited to Raso and his brother Joseph. The story has a habit of lurching forward, as if a dozen lines of exposition were left on the cutting room floor, after which it takes a moment to reorient yourself. The setup is pretty simple, fortunately, but there are still some basic narrative lubricants that have been forgotten here, like the montage of characters realising that none of them can sleep. Instead, suddenly we’re on to a pastor (Barry Pepper) telling his congregation that maybe sleeplessness is God’s punishment to them, when the movie has only just told us this is what’s happening a minute or two earlier.
But dang it if Raso, the director, doesn’t have some nifty cinematic technique up his sleeve. There are a couple virtuoso sequences here that alone make the film worth watching. One depicts a car tumbling down an embankment into the water after the EMP hits, the camera staying in that car to watch the characters escape from the sinking vehicle. There had to be some kind of digital trickery involved, but you’ll be hard pressed to identify it. Then there’s the scene where the camera is spinning 360 degrees from inside a car that is being attacked by a desperate mob, who try to pull its inhabitants out the windows. The smashing and clawing and bloodletting and general mayhem had to be choreographed down to every minute detail, and might even put you in mind of ground-breaking feat of cinematography like Children of Men.
Great premise, great technique, and really, quite interesting performances from a cast who get to indulge their own interpretations of the mental failings of a sleepless person. Gina Rodriguez and Jennifer Jason Leigh – reuniting from another Netflix movie, Annihilation – are the most familiar faces here, Rodriguez the mother of the one girl who seems to be immune to the insomnia epidemic, Leigh her boss at the medical laboratory where Rodriguez works as a security guard. Their performances draw out the equalising effect of this plague, whatever it may be, as Leigh is the learned person of science, while Rodriguez is the one having to sell pills she steals from the lab in order to try to raise her kids. When they’ve both gone four days without sleep, they’re just as useless as one another.
Yet human beings have a will to survive that presses them on to try to save themselves, and Rodriguez has the more pragmatic and motherly variation on that instinct. She’s considering her own death a foregone conclusion, but what if her ten-year-old daughter has to raise herself in a world where she’s never needed to know even the most basic principles of survival?
With the fair amount of praise so far contained in this review, you might reasonably be wondering why this is a lukewarm recommendation rather than a full-throated one. There’s something on a basic storytelling level that fails about Awake, preventing the things it does well from resonating as much as they should. It if seemed like the Raso brothers (not to be confused with the Russo brothers) intended to discombobulate us from time to time to approximate the experience of a person who’s had no sleep, that would be an admirable choice you could embrace. Really, they discombobulate us accidentally, which just means they need more seasoning to truly capitalise on Mark’s evident gifts as a craftsman.
Awake is currently streaming on Netflix.