Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
According to published reports, around 700 people every year find themselves awake during complex medical procedures. The condition is known as "anesthetic awareness," and the idea is terrifying -- patients who are aware of the operation being performed on their bodies and feeling all the attendant pain, but unable to speak, move or cry out for help. It's a great concept for a horror film, too, of course, so it's surprising that 'Awake' is the first such genre film to exploit it. Too bad 'Awake' wastes most of the potential of the idea and squanders it on half-baked subplots, unmemorable characters, and a lack of truly visceral terror.
The plot mixes in a dash of 'Coma,' the gore of your average episode of 'CSI' with -- seriously -- narrative elements of 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.' Hayden Christiansen stars as rich young tycoon Clay Beresford, who goes under the knife for what he thinks is a routine operation only to suffer anesthetic awareness. While under but still awake, he overhears a devious plot to have him killed, indicating he may have been set up. Miles of plot complications ensue, and ultimately he must wrestle with his own past demons if he is to solve the mystery. Jessica Alba also co-stars as the woman Clay is secretly in love with, while Terrence Howard plays a sympathetic doctor who may or may not have duplicitous motives.
'Awake' was written and directed by newcomer Joby Harold, who seems to want to make a character study, a European art film, and a commercial Hollywood horror movie all at the same time. The attempt is nothing if not ambitious, but unfortunately, it falls short on all three counts. Despite the film's big surgery scene with Clay being its centerpiece, it doesn't occur until almost 30 minutes in, so despite the film barely running 84 minutes it feels as if the first third could easily have been trimmed to get the plot moving. The early artsy, character-building moments are made even more sluggish due to Christiansen, who literally seems to be sleepingwalking through his role (if you thought he was wooden as Anakin Skywalker, he's practically somnambulant for the last half of 'Awake'). It's admirable that Harold is so focused on making Clay a three-dimensional and believable character, but it's at the sacrifice of pacing and suspense.
Once Clay finally does go under the knife (the scene is genuinely squirm-inducing, and even more graphic here on this unrated Blu-ray), the movie finally shifts into higher gear. Unfortunately, the plot complications (which I won't spoil) become so convoluted they tested my suspension of disbelief, and like 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,' Harold attempts to examine the ideas of memory versus reality, metaphysics, and even out-of-body experience. But the conventions of the horror genre that he eventually must adhere to undermine those pretensions, and the entire affair begins to teeter on camp. For me, 'Awake' was too plotty to work as a straightforward horror-thriller, but ultimately too cliched to succeed at its heady ambitions.
'Awake' is indeed a good-looking movie, and it does have moments of visceral effectiveness. It's almost impossible not to be disturbed by the concept of "anesthetic awareness," and it's a great hook for a horror film. But with such a leaden performance by Christiansen, and supporting characters who fail to register (try as I might, I just can't warm to Alba), plus a too-plotty second half that overreaches, 'Awake' is one of those almost-good movies that just doesn't quite make it. It's still worth a rental for fans of the genre, but this is a film that truly missed its chance to be a truly memorable, gruesome sleeper.
Weinstein Co./Genius presents 'Awake' in 1080p/VC-1 video (2.40:1). It's an intentionally clinical-looking film, which is well-suited to this sterile if effective transfer.
The film has a very cold veneer. Much of the action takes place in flat, foreboding hospital interiors awash in white. The chilly atmosphere is rendered nicely here, with rich, deep blacks and clean contrast that is appropriately on the hot side. There are still some effective splashes of color (particularly in the costuming), and hues are rendered cleanly with accurate fleshtones. Detail is very solid for a new release, with nice depth to the image and strong shadow delineation. The encode is also spot-on, with no edge enhancement, motion artifacts or excessive noise. 'Awake' is a very nice transfer indeed.
'Awake' is presented in English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit) audio. It's a mix that's frequently subtle but quite moody, and it supports the film well.
The most pronounced sonic element is the quite creepy musical score. It's very well deployed to the rears, which delivers a consistently ominous sense of dread. Discrete effects are usually effective during the rare shock moments, but otherwise the rest of the mix is more front-directed. Tech specs are up to snuff for a new release, with appropriately tight low bass and clean, clear mid- and high-range. Dialogue is prominent in the center speaker, always intelligible and well-balanced. As with the video, the audio for 'Awake' is a fine effort.
All of the supplements contained on the previous DVD release of 'Awake' are ported over to this Blu-ray, and it's an adequate if unremarkable package. All video materials are presented in full 1080 video, with the same subtitle options as the main feature.
- Audio Commentary - First up is this solo track with writer-director Joby Harold. The first-time helmer is a bit too enamored with his own movie, and he seems rather blind to any of its possible failings. He's also a rather dry speaker, so I admit to nodding off at times (thank God I didn't wake up witnessing my own surgical operation!) To be fair, the track is fairly informative on working with the main actors, shooting the disturbing operation scenes, and working on location at various hospitals. Still, this track is certainly for fans only.
- Featurette: "Under the Knife & Behind the Camera: The Making of Awake" (HD, 12 minutes) - The only making-of is this short and largely promotional affair. On-set interviews are provided with Harold and all of the main cast, including Hayden Christiansen and Jessica Alba, plus some background on the film's medical science. Glossy and entertaining, this is still pretty fluffy.
- Deleted Scenes (HD, 7 minutes) - Over a half-dozen snips are presented here (with optional commentary by Harold). The material is largely interesting as the film is barely 80 minutes sans credits, so some of these extended character interactions may have fleshed the story out a bit more. Worth a watch, if not truly special.
- Storyboard Comparison (HD) - The last main extra is a storyboard comparison of one of the operation scenes. The original storyboard is presented via split-screen along with the finished film version.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD) - Finally, a trailer for 'Awake' is provided in full HD video.
'Awake' is a frequently queasy horror-thriller that ultimately collapses under the weight of its plot complications. There's too much going on that distracts from the film's main gimmick, and the filmmakers probably would have been wiser just to treat 'Awake' as a good b-movie rather than some art-house wannabe. This Blu-ray is a sharp presentation, however, with very nice video and audio, and decent supplements. Fans of the film can surely pick this one up, but all others should give it a rent first.
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