Over the past year, I had intense insomnia, often not sleeping for days on end until being interrupted by 12-hour periods of sweet release from wakefulness. Anyone who’s dealt with insomnia, or even more mild cases of sleeplessness, likely knows the feeling of being increasingly desperate for unconsciousness, which cruelly only decreases our likelihood of getting to sleep as our panic about not being able to do so rises. After a few nights of little sleep or just one of none, I’m practically a zombie. This feeling is what writer/director Mark Raso’s film Awake attempts to capture, on a melodramatically large scale. All at once, all electronics on Earth shut off and no matter how exhausted any humans become, they can’t sleep. This leads to pandemonium, societal collapse and the threat of humanity’s extinction as they become progressively zombified due to sleeplessness.
This two-problems-at-once special is seen through the eyes of drug dealer, widow, veteran and struggling mother Jill (Gina Rodriguez), whose only goal is to protect her kids, including young Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt), who is one of very few still able to fall asleep. This makes her a prime target for just about everyone, some wanting to sacrifice her, others wanting to crack her head open and find out what’s different about her. Jill and her aloof son Noah (Lucius Hoyos) are focused on preventing that, meeting friends and foes as they take Matilda to a research lab that could develop a cure—all while their mental faculties rapidly decline.
Although there are a few jokes and humorous moments, Awake’s general tone is deadly serious, often to its detriment. It’s an inherently silly premise, and no matter how much awful stuff happens, it’s hard not to find a world of people drunkenly stumbling about a little funny. There’s one short scene where the family drives past a group of naked people staring blankly at the sun, and make absolutely no comment on it. Rather than feeling eerie, it just feels bizarre.
But even that weirdness doesn’t last. Aside from a stunning final shot, the film’s direction is disappointingly unoriginal for a movie where everyone aside from Matilda is hallucinating towards the end, with the extent of its visual language being shaky cameras and a bit of blur. The writing also doesn’t seem to change alongside its progressively sleepier subjects, with characters still speaking in full sentences even as they should be completely incoherent.
Still, most of the cast does a great job selling their insomnia, to the point where I wonder if some actually stopped sleeping before filming. Rodriguez in particular is a solid lead, and it’s difficult to watch her eyes become more sunken and face become expressionless even as she’s screaming and fighting. Shamier Anderson’s escaped prisoner is also a charismatic “guest” character (each new location feels a bit like a new episode), whom I immediately trusted thanks to his refreshingly calm and reasoned demeanor, despite everyone else showing no hesitation to stab others in the back.
There’s no one element of Awake that’s overly cringeworthy or damning, but like many other recent horror/thrillers (A Quiet Place, Bird Box, etc.), it seems to be just one big thought experiment: Making people unable to do one common thing and then extrapolating on what the logical resulting actions of that event would mean, based somewhat on science, but not really worried about the nitty-gritty of it. By making its “sleepers,” the few people who can sleep, a highly valued and coveted resource, Awake probably feels as silly as it does because sleep isn’t something we commonly think of as a resource. It makes sense—both scientifically and emotionally—that we would break down really quickly without it, I just don’t know if an entire movie needed to be made to remind us of that point.
I sleep fine now, thanks for asking, and I probably sleep way more now that I know what it’s like to not have control over my sleep cycle. It was more than just insomnia, but the time I spent in that mental state was one of the worst of my life, and I hope I never have to experience anything like it again. And yet, there was very little in Awake that was gripping or terrifying, because that type of realistic experience isn’t what it’s really about. It’s about shoot-outs and car chases and occasionally family. There are a few tense moments, good performances and a fair variety of settings to make it feel like a complete journey. But by having some stupid science-fiction cause for why nobody sleeps, it’s not about actual insomnia in any way that’s impactful or relatable to anyone.
Director: Mark Raso
Writers: Gregory Poirier, Joseph Raso, Mark Raso
Starring: Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barry Pepper, Finn Jones, Shamier Anderson, Ariana Greenblatt, Frances Fisher, Elias Edraki, Lucius Hoyos, Gil Bellows
Release: June 9, 2021 (Netflix)
Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and The Post. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.