In director Mark Raso’s occasionally engaging but mostly frustrating sci-fi thriller, an unexplained event causes a massive electromagnetic pulse that fries most electronics and leaves nearly all of humanity incapable of sleep. From the mysterious incident onward, the characters slowly slide toward insanity as fatigue takes its toll, although it’s not clear how everyone on earth immediately recognizes (or believes) that the resulting restlessness is permanent. If the recent real-world pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that early in a health crisis, nobody knows anything, and the resulting confusion tends to be more exhausting than entertaining.
So, at the risk of sounding facetious, I confess that while exasperated ex-military, ex-junkie super-mom Jill (Gina Rodriguez) worries about whether she’ll ever be able to sleep again, I had no such problem. Between its low-energy suspense and all-around failure to grip, “Awake” took me three separate sittings to get through. I just couldn’t help nodding off. Maybe it was all that talk of a world where people can no longer recharge their brains that made me want to cash in on 40 winks of my own. Or maybe I was too tired to be reviewing something from my couch.
Not since Terry Gilliam’s tedious “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” has a movie had such a narcoleptic impact on me (that’s a film I simply can’t get through with my eyes open). “Awake” isn’t nearly as dull as that clunker, but it’s painfully obvious that Raso (who co-wrote with brother Joseph from a story by Gregory Poirier) is cribbing from other, better post-apocalyptic movies at practically every turn, as a protective mama shepherds her kids — beatific daughter Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt) and testy teen Noah (Lucius Hoyos) — through a civilization that devolved to anarchy awfully quickly.
Raso’s references are obvious. There’s Netflix’s own hit “Bird Box,” of course, as well as several tense extended single-shot sequences — one trapped inside a car with Jill and her family, another observing her creep around a garage — clearly inspired by “Children of Men.” But DP Alan Poon (who also shot Raso’s “Copenhagen” and “Kodachrome”) is no Emmanuel Lubezki, and this world never feels as threatening. That’s because the screenwriters haven’t sufficiently worked out their operating premise here.
It would help audiences considerably to know what happens when humans can’t sleep — or at least, what “Awake” thinks will happen — in order to appreciate the urgency of humanity’s predicament. At one point, a cute lab technician (Finn Jones) tries to explain to a mob-like congregation, “Right now, your brains are slowly swelling. Our cranial walls are impressing on the brain and it’s affecting critical thinking. It’s what happens when we don’t sleep.” Or in slightly catchier words: “If you don’t sleep, you mind will bend and bend until it breaks.”
OK, but can people really die from lack of shut-eye? How long does that take, and wouldn’t it be hitting everyone on more or less the same schedule? (Maybe that explains the sudden explosion of violence that occurs at the film’s climax, although the melee seems to erupt out of nowhere, and doesn’t feel particularly intuitive when it occurs.) “Awake” actually becomes a lot more fun to watch as it goes on, since Rodriguez’s already intense performance grows ever more unhinged (and hilariously haggard looking) as the movie attempts to mirror its characters’ increasingly delirious state of mind.
While Jill’s survival instincts devolve into not-quite-lucid decision-making, her young daughter Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt) seems has no trouble napping. Neither does an elderly stranger already in military custody, and trying to make sense of these anomalies becomes the operating motor behind Jill’s actions, first to run away from the seemingly unethical researchers (represented by an unusually frowny Jennifer Jason Leigh) and later to join forces with escaped convict Dodge (Shamier Anderson), whose point of view probably would have made a better movie.
“Awake” is bonkers in a fun way from time to time — as when Jill drives through a crowd of naked strangers, seemingly mesmerized by the sun — but gives the distinct impression that the most interesting crises are happening off screen. Apart from the cliché car crash that coincides with the initial EMP (an excuse to get the characters to the hospital, where even those in deep comas have come to) and a cool shot of satellites tumbling through the night sky, too much of the threat is implied through suggestion. And for audiences bored by what amounts to a slow-burn road trip, it’s all too easy to close your eyes and look for something more exciting in your dreams.