Review: ‘Awake’ is a technical stunner searching for a movie

I love long takes. I think they are an excellent way to highlight scene geography and build narrative tension in a film. I know they are complex endeavours that require every person involved to operate in unison. I find them thrilling.

Awake is full of long takes and other interesting camera work. It has fight scenes inside cars, long walks through buildings, and car crashes from the passengers perspective. Unfortunately, what it doesn’t have is a good story to tell, which is a shame because technically, the film is a stunner.

The story is simple enough. Jill (Gina Rodriguez) is a security guard and former soldier with a troubled past who is working hard to regain the respect of her children. One day, while those children are in her care, the entire world loses their ability to sleep, except for Gina’s daughter Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt). The world immediately descends into chaos, and there’s a secret government base that they need to get to where a cure is being researched.

There’s a lot to work with here, not the least of which is an excellent cast. Gina Rodriguez is good as Jill, skirting the line between overtired and nuts very well, and Ariana Greenblatt is a young talent to watch. The issue –once more– is that they are not given much to work with. The script feels like it is about 2 drafts away from being finished, with characters saying things and making choices that don’t make much sense at regular intervals.

Awake: Lucius Hoyos as Noah, Gina Rodriguez as Jill Adams, Ariana Greenblatt as Matilda of Awake. Cr. Peter H. Stranks/Netflix © 2021

There’s a scene in the trailer in which Jill’s son Noah (Lucius Hoyos) points out a sky full of falling stars, and Jill replies that they are, in fact, satellites. This scene has no context to establish that Jill might be able to tell that or an establishing shot to make it clear she can see it either. The film is full of moments like this, including in the main plot itself. Jill, a former soldier who once worked for the doctor running the secret government facility, knows that the good doctor is more than capable of evil things. Jill repeatedly insists that they shouldn’t go to the base, drives the car, and is the kids’ mother, but they go any way at the behest of her son. It makes no sense.

Awake is a frustrating watch because so many of the pieces you need to make a good film are there, but it never comes together. It very much feels like the filmmakers had some great ideas for scenes they’d like to shoot and then made a movie that those scenes could fit into. Some of those scenes turned out great, but it feels like the story is there in service of the filmmaking instead of the other way around.

Awake premieres on Netflix on June 9th.


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