What happens if you don’t sleep for a day? Two days? Twenty? There’s loss of critical thinking, a character in Awake notes, then hallucinations, followed by gradual motor failure, organ failure, and then paralysis till the heart shuts off, “Your mind will bend and bend till it breaks. You snap.”
Awake situates itself in a world like this, and we are introduced to it in that moment where it is bending, well on its way towards breaking — all the characters are unable to sleep, and slowly a surreal madness swallows them whole.
Ominous sounds invite us into the movie. Jill (Gina Rodriguez of Jane The Virgin), an ex-soldier who had a run-in with drug addiction, now sells them for side cash. She has two kids, Noah and Matilda, under the legal protective care of Jill’s mother. When Noah points at shooting stars in the sky, Jill corrects him, “They are satellites.” Here is a world on the brink of being over-scienced into total oblivion. As the people are unable to sleep, they begin to lose their minds, shooting at random, tapping into their basest instincts of finding people to sacrifice, breaking into fits of fear and anger. They are desperate for a solution.
It is soon discovered that Matilda is able to sleep, and suddenly the military industrial complex congeals on her to find a solution to the menace. Her brain must provide the answers. The two important questions — why is this happening, and how to stop this — are however answered with such perfunctory, hand-waving casualness, it was hard to believe that the movie was about the condition at all. Perhaps, it wasn’t. It was the chase — a rather underwhelming one, with visual and sonic jolts that do little to break the ennui — that was the point.
There are some interesting visual and narrative embellishments (or gimmicks) they tried to bring in as arabesques around the chase — the edges of the frame slowly start dissolving as the narrative slowly untethers from sensible plotting into anarchy. Perfect Sense (2011) attempted something like this before, where as the characters lose each sense of perception, we too lose it — suddenly the screen goes silent as the characters go deaf till the final climactic moment where everyone loses their sight and the screen reduces to a final granite black. Here, the visual and narrative embellishments do little in terms of propping the film with dramatic ingenuity or visual intrigue. A flatness buoys the film, even as the central love between the mother and her children remains unwavered.
The genre of dystopian fiction derives its darkness from how similar it feels to our own world, and its narrative catharsis from showing that perhaps there is a way back. The dread that comes from seeing how close our world is to a complete, consummate breaking point creates a palpable narrative tension. There’s nothing here. Empty of anything visceral, visual, it stews in a world that is breaking, broken, even as its own narrative pulpit drowns.