Awake, Netflix’s latest apocalyptic thriller, echoes films like A Quiet Place and Bird Box, in which a single event changes the fate of humanity, forcing its characters into a desperate fight for survival. However, Awake‘s characters and the world it builds aren’t nearly as compelling as those of other similarly themed films, resulting in a sporadically engaging piece of entertainment that ultimately doesn’t leave much of an impression.
Awake centers on Gina Rodriguez’s Jill, a security guard and ex-soldier who also sells prescription pills to make ends meet. Jill’s husband is dead and she’s lost custody of her two kids to her mother-in-law, leaving her teenage son, Noah (Lucius Hoyos), bitter and angry. Then one day, an unexplained event causes all electronics to suddenly stop working. Worse, people soon realize they’re unable to sleep, a condition that leaves them unable to think straight, leading to the collapse of society. When it becomes clear Jill’s young daughter Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt) is still capable of sleeping, Jill hits the road with her and Noah in a desperate bid to keep Matilda safe and get her to scientists searching for a cure that could save the lives of people around the world.
The quickly advancing cognitive decay that drives Awake‘s premise means the story operates on a shortened timeline – especially since, as Finn Jones’ character Brian explains, for some reason the negative impacts of sleeplessness are happening at an accelerated rate. As a result, as soon as the plot gets into gear, it moves full steam ahead, but this leaves no time for things like character development and backstory. While we know Jill cares deeply for her kids and feels guilty about the mistakes she’s made in the past, she’s never as fully realized as many other bad-ass movie moms, which makes it hard to emotionally invest in her or the situation. Meanwhile, although noteworthy actors like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frances Fisher and Shamier Anderson show up in supporting roles, their flimsy characters don’t give them all that much to do.
Furthermore, the film as a whole feels choppy due to co-writer and director Mark Raso’s tendency to drop into the middle of scenes, eliminating the context and motivation behind various plot points. At times, this approach works as a reflection of the characters’ experiences, but at others it just makes the story feel more disjointed. Plus, there isn’t much world-building to do in a world where almost everyone will soon die from lack of sleep, a dead end that robs the story of momentum.
That said, there are several rousing action set pieces; a car crash that sends Jill’s vehicle careening into a lake is shot in an especially unique way and is all the more gripping for it. Plus, as lack of sleep makes people increasingly senseless and erratic, the unpredictability of their actions is a source of nail-biting tension, as are the hallucinations that plague Jill even as she tries to continue to protect Matilda.
Overall, however, there simply isn’t enough meat on the bones of Awake to make the movie feel satisfying. While many similar films offer a sustainable post-apocalyptic premise that captures the imagination, Awake‘s concept, though clever, is also more limited, ultimately leading to a film that feels smaller and less involving.