Hayden Christensen as Clayton Beresford, Jr.
Jessica Alba as Samantha Lockwood
Lena Olin as Lilith Beresford
Terrence Howard as Jack Harper
Alexa Karter as Tara LeCasa
Christopher McDonald as Dr. Larry Lupin
Thomas A. McMahon as Officer McMahon
Arliss Howard as Dr. Neyer
Sam Robards as Clayton Beresford, Sr.
Directed by Joby Harold
As a medical thriller, "Awake" is only slightly more effective than "E.R.", but the interesting things Harold does with the premise and the mindf*ck twists shows promise for future endeavors.
Clayton Beresford Jr. (Hayden Christensen) is a successful stock investor from a wealthy family, who has had to keep his relationship with his mother's personal assistant Samantha (Jessica Alba), a secret, as he waits for a crucial life-saving heart transplant. When he finally undergoes the operation, something goes horribly wrong so that he can hear and feel everything that is happening to him despite being under anesthesia.
Just when you thought it was safe to get a heart transplant, a filmmaker comes along and finds another reason why people should be freaked out about going under the blade, which may be why there was a large disclaimer on the press notes warning those about to undergo surgery that they might want to look into a different movie. Granted, with a premise like this, you could have some seriously disturbing gore-filled scenes, but that's not what "Awake" is, and even trying to label it as a "psychological thriller" might be taking the easy route than accepting it as an unclassifiable genre film.
Until Clay's operation, it's a fairly straight-forward romantic drama about a well-to-do young man and the forbidden love he's trying to hide from his overbearing mother with a lot of dialogue-driven scenes that are only a few notches above a daytime soap opera. Clay's been good friends with the doctor who he handpicked to perform a life-saving heart transplant, but when we finally get to the operation, the entire nature of the movie and all of the relationships change. Those who may already be slightly nervous about the premise might not be able to endure the grueling scene in question in which we hear Clay's "thought screams" as he feels himself being cut open and unable to move or let the doctors know what's happening, he has to try to find a safe place to go to endure the pain.
It's hard to say much about what happens from there because there's a lot of twists and turns as the rug that was carefully laid-down in the first act is tugged from under our feet, but it's done in short jerky tugs rather than all at once. Essentially, the film turns into an "out of body experience" where Clay walks around his prone body and reflects on past events to try to find out why some people might want the operation to go wrong.
You can tell that a lot of time and thought and research has been put into the construction of this film trying to create realistic settings and build tension while keeping the viewer on their toes, but it's still a movie with problems, big ones, and the two biggest ones are its stars. To put it bluntly, Hayden Christensen can't act and he can barely sell the character or the suspense, although one has to credit him for why the actual operation scene is so effective at shaking one up. There's something about watching horror movie blood and gore that never prepares you for watching a clinical operation, and those who are squeamish about operations will be just as disturbed by the realism of those scenes. Jessica Alba isn't much better as the film's love interest although there's more to the role as the film progresses that gives her a little room to flex the few dramatic muscles she has, even if she's never particularly credible. (Her other muscles are given a chance to show their stuff during a bathtub scene with Christensen early in the movie.) The only really solid performance comes in the form of Lena Olin as Clay's overbearing mother, a rich and emotional role for the underrated actress, but the usually great Terrence Howard continues to slowly wear out his welcome by taking another inconsequential role like this one that could have been played by anyone.
Surprisingly, the anesthesia awareness aspect of the movie i.e. its biggest selling point is over fairly quickly, and a lot of the potential for suspense and tension is lost as that premise is forgotten in favor of a more traditional thriller storyline. Ultimately, things just get too confusing as it tries to tie together a lot of subplots including a flashback to Clay's childhood that seems to have very little relevance to the main story.
The Bottom Line:
Despite the weak acting and pacing problems, there's something intriguing about the way this mind-f*ck thriller implants horrifying surgical realism and an out-of-body experience into a typical murder plot thriller. With better actors in the two main roles, this movie would probably have been great, but with Christensen and Alba, it's just okay, something to see on a rainy day, but only if you don't have too far to drive.