Writer/director Joby Harold's Awake trades in the scary-as-hell phenomenon known as "anesthesia awareness," in which a patient remains fully conscious during surgery, senses alert, even though his or her body is incapacitated by the anesthesia. It's an unwitting form of torture that this heart-transplant potboiler tries to capture beat by beat (no pun intended), managing to be alternately effective and downright silly.
Before it backs itself into the unfortunate position of having to figure out how to render an active and engaging protagonist from a man reduced to a vegetable, Harold's script spends a surprising bulk of its energies on story set-up and dynamics. Occasionally in the first half, Harold nails a compelling aura of dread and gloom and conveys palpable tension among his characters that overrides the fact that there's nothing particularly strong or complex about any of them. It's when Awake resorts to stock noir tropes and when its narrative options are restricted by its own medical-horror conceit that it degenerates completely.
The phlegmatic Hayden Christensen plays Clay Bradford, a Richie Rich-type Manhattan venture capitalist who lives under the thumb of Lilith (Lena Olin), his domineering (and unsettlingly sexy) mother. What's more, Clay's on borrowed time; he's in dire need of a new heart. It's not all bad news, though: His girlfriend is the delicious Sam Lockwood, a company secretary, played by Jessica Alba. Clay longs to marry her, despite his mother's disapproval.
She also disapproves of Clay's choice of heart surgeon, the stolid Jack Harper (Terrence Howard), who's on the receiving end of several lawsuits. Choosing Harper is Clay's assertion of independence from Lilith, but it's a false, and potentially fatal, move, especially when we see that Harper's assistant is played by Fisher Stevens (has he ever conveyed trustworthiness in the movies?). To say more would be unfair to Harold's story, which depends heavily on the twists and reveals that unfold once Clay's on the table, all of them unsettling, none too surprising.
Once Clay is drugged, Awake opts for the Ghost -meets- It's a Wonderful Life route as the patient/victim leaves his prostrate body, eavesdropping on his surgeons and realizing the conspiracy against him. Clay's only a presence in the narrative inasmuch as his voiceovers are frantic and his desire for the conspiracy to be blown is desperate. Otherwise, we end up with an impotent main character as Lilith takes over in the narrative's greater scheme, and Harper, Sam and the rest of Harold's bunch are left to their fates with Clay still in the sidelines.
That Awake would have turned out the same way, whether or not Clay underwent anesthesia awareness is a sign of poor plotting but, more so, of a potentially cool idea that wasn't ready for prime time. As is, Awake is sub-par material that, incidentally, could have been the year's most unusual comedy were it not so trapped by its own pretense to be a dead-serious thriller, complete with a connect-the-dots assortment of ringleaders, femme fatales and red herrings. Awake manages a weak pulse for a time but dies ultimately in its makers' hands.
Cast: Hayden Christensen, Jessica Alba, Terrence Howard, Lena Olin, Christopher MacDonald, Sam Robards, Arliss Howard, Fisher Stevens and David Harbour
Director/Screenwriter: Joby Harold
Producers: Jason Kliot, John Penotti and Joana Vincente
Rating: R for language, an intense disturbing situation and brief drug use
Running time: 84 min.
Release date: November 30, 2007