Review: Netflix’s Awake imagines a creepy insomniac apocalypse

AWAKE (Mark Raso). 96 minutes. Available to stream Wednesday (June 9) on Netflix Canada. Rating: NN

As sci-fi horror concepts go, the one that powers Awake is pretty good: what happens when no matter how tired you are, no matter how long it’s been, you can’t fall asleep? What happens when no one can?

That’s where humanity finds itself after an inexplicable global event. We don’t even notice at first; the more immediate impact is that anything with a microchip sputters and dies. With all technology disabled, and it takes a little while to realize the bigger problem of total planetary insomnia. People might not be able to sleep, but they still need to: without it, the brain can’t reboot itself, leading to a loss of critical thinking, disorientation, hallucinations, paranoia and eventually total systemic collapse in a matter of days.

That’s the ticking clock that powers Copenhagen and Kodachrome director Mark Raso’s new Netflix thriller, which follows a single American family through the ensuing chaos. Jill (Gina Rodriguez) is a security guard at the local university, her duties occasionally intersecting with a research team studying sleep deprivation. She knows the team lead (Jennifer Jason Leigh) from their days in the military, where they did things neither of them likes to talk about.

Sometimes Jill also uses her security clearance to nick expired meds and sell them to a dealer, which may explain why her teenage son Noah (Lucius Hoyos) and younger daughter Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt) children are in the custody of their grandmother (Frances Fisher). And when all hell breaks loose, and the military arrives to take the researchers to a remote lab where they might be able to develop a treatment for the malady, Jill realizes that might be her family’s only chance as well… especially since she knows that Matilda is one of the few people left on Earth who can still fall asleep.

For all of its apocalyptic scale, Awake plays out on a very intimate level. Raso, who wrote the script with his brother Joseph from a story by George Poirier, keeps the focus so tightly on Jill that the movie barely leaves her side. The absence of technology means all exposition is conveyed by dialogue alone, and Rodriguez ably conveys the strain Jill is under from moment to moment even before the makeup team starts exaggerating the signs of exhaustion as the days go by. The film’s sharpest visual shorthand is that Matilda stays reasonably neat and clean, her hair washed and combed, while everyone else becomes disheveled and oily.

But while Awake gets the small details right, and uses similar shorthand to define a few other characters who wander in and out of the story, the bigger picture slips from the film’s grasp. Just as Alex Garland and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later had a nightmarish first act, an unnerving second and a collective shrug of a third, Awake ultimately just lets everything go to hell while our heroes do their best to survive it. Given the trajectory of the story, it’s probably the only way this movie could have ended, but it doesn’t work, and you can feel the air going out of the narrative in real time.


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