I checked, and the idea for “Awake” originated in 2019, well before the coronavirus outbreak. I wanted to be sure, since it seems like a creepily accurate encapsulation of our anxiety-ridden, sleep-deprived times.
Gina Rodriguez stars in this science fiction story that registers closer to cautionary tale than technological fantasy. A mysterious global event results in the shutdown of all our fancy technology, which is a pain but fixable. But another, more serious side effect soon rears its head: nobody can sleep.
The scientists are baffled. People still get tired, and their cognitive abilities rapidly decline. But no matter how exhausted and frustrated they get, they cannot sleep. And this is not just an annoyance: the human brain needs downtime, and without it will swell and cause erratic behavior and eventually… kill the person.
So this is actually an extinction event, with a few people racing against time to find a cure.
Rodriguez plays Jill, a former soldier who was drummed out of the service for drug addiction, though she still serves in the reserves and works security in a quasi-military laboratory. A single mom with two kids — adorable moppet Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt) and reliably disengaged teen Noah (Lucius Hoyos) — Jill snatches expired pills from the medical waste bins to sell to drug dealers and pad her meager income.
Director Mark Raso, who cowrote the screenplay with his brother, Joseph, based on a story by Gregory Poirier, puts us immediately into the action a few minutes into the movie, and uses the events to build characterization rather than dilly-dally with a lot of endless, needless exposition, unlike some other Netflix creatives.
(Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, “Shadow and Bone.”)
Jill’s car suddenly dies along with everyone else’s, an accident pitching them into a lake from which they barely escape. Matilda actually drowns, but is luckily revived by a sheriff’s deputy involved in the fracas.
People soon do all the thing panicked people do: buy out groceries, raid pharmacies for sleeping pills that do not work, get into arguments that turn into scraps that turn into deadly melees. Jill tries to keep it together, even going into work, but learns that the Army doctor with a dark past (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who helped her get her job is leaving with a special unit investigating something miraculous: a woman who can sleep.
Turns out Matilda can, too, which immediately makes her a unicorn in a world suddenly very suspicious of anything or anyone different. Jill tries to hide Matilda’s status, but it is discovered when her religious mother-in-law (Frances Fisher) takes the girl to her church to be prayed over.
This results in a truly harrowing and haunting sequence where the well-meaning preacher (Barry Pepper) tries to lead his flock to peace and faith rather than accusations and conflict. Look around at the real world right now — how do you think that works out?
There are moments of hope, such as getting a bitchin’ 1970s Dodge sedan running — older cars, with their lack of digital add-ons, are less vulnerable — and running into a prison convict (Shamier Anderson) who joins their crew, gifting himself the name of their ride. He should be an enemy to be fought, but turns out to be the most amiable, reliable person they’ll meet.
Things go on from there. At 96 minutes, “Awake” is fast-paced and energetic, but also finds moments to quietly ratchet up the suspense and sense of foreboding. Jill shows her mettle as a warrior mom determined to protect her children from all comers, even though everyone (and herself) find they can no longer think straight.
It’s basically a twist on the familiar zombie apocalypse, but instead of the dead eating the living, we let our failings and fears consume us from within. Again, sound familiar??
“Awake” is a tidy little thriller that scares us with the immediate perils Jill and her family will face, and on a deeper level with the implications of their catastrophe, which seems like a descending staircase with no turning.
Remember, it’s always darkest just before it becomes pitch black.