Awake review – Netflix’s Bird Box-lite thriller is a real snooze

There’s something so distractingly and, errr, sleepily half-assed about the inert new Netflix thriller Awake that watching it is almost as much of a bore as having to then write about it. Seemingly designed purely to lazily fill the column of “If you liked Bird Box then you should also watch” there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before and better, a film that lumbers up to the table with completely empty hands.

The premise is somehow dumber than it sounds: one day the power goes out and an unlikely side-effect is that people are no longer able to sleep. Life without rest goes from frustrating to difficult to deadly but as grim as this deprivation might be to experience IRL, it’s an entirely ineffective gimmick to centre a supposedly horrifying apocalyptic film around. Watching heavy-eyed characters getting confused does not make for seat-edge viewing and the script, based on a story from Gregory Poirier whose uninspiring credits include See Spot Run and The Spy Next Door, isn’t smart enough to do anything with the set-up other than use it as a jump-off for a rote road trip to potential safety.

We follow a family, headed up by Jill (Gina Rodriguez), a troubled single mother who works in security and sells stolen pills on the side, struggling to keep her two semi-estranged kids safe as they travel across the US. What makes their predicament that much more perilous is that her daughter can still actually sleep, for reasons unknown, meaning that those around are eager to sacrifice and/or experiment on her. Their journey finds them bumping into characters played by actors who deserve so much more, from Frances Fisher to Barry Pepper to Shamier Anderson to, most depressingly, an understandably bored Jennifer Jason Leigh, as a possibly nefarious psychiatrist.

It’s all torturously uninteresting, a plodding retread that never once explains or justifies why it made the leap from “what if?” to actual full-length movie. Director Mark Raso, moving from acclaimed indies to disappointing genre filler, does nothing but point and shoot, the film feeling more like a cheap and ultimately canned CBS summer pilot from a few years back than anything else, paling in comparison to A Quiet Place or Bird Box or any one of the similarly themed end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it families in jeopardy tales of late. It’s flat and pedestrian-looking and while making a global catastrophe thriller on a small budget is, natuurlik, a challenge, there’s no real attempt to make the most of a little (if 2010’s Monsters could do it on $500,000, then there’s no excuse for those working with more to at least try something).

The buildup, so very key in films of this ilk, isn’t filled with enough of the clammy slow-burn panic that would help to immerse us in what then happens after. The pacing is notably off – characters go from tired to manic with such speed that the film seems to assume that pre-blip, everyone secured a cosy 10 hours of sleep a night. Within a day or so of no shut-eye, the world has already gone full Mad Max and while, after the last year of off-screen chaos, it’s unrealistic to assume the best of people any more, the script assuming the absolute worst of everyone feels a little overwrought. The final act’s shift into mania is unintentionally amusing, as soldiers mistake pine cones for grenades, and one briefly wonders what a deliberately comedic version of the film might have looked like.

One can see why Rodriguez, an actor who has already shown her mettle as an effervescent and empathetic comic presence, would want to add a genre string to her bow but it’s a shame it’s one that breaks so easily, a showcase that shows her doing very little with even less. The surface similarities with Bird Box will probably push this to the top of Netflix’s top 10 (the Sandra Bullock thriller remains the streamer’s second biggest film ever) but it’s unlikely to stick around for very long. Awake is unforgivably dull, a title that by the end becomes more of a challenge.

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