This is a movie that should have a medical warning in its trailer. Caution: viewing may be hazardous to your filmgoing fun; side effects can include drowsiness, irritation and difficulty swallowing.
If a more preposterous major release made it to theaters in 2007, I managed to miss it. I wish I could say the same for the feature debut of writer-director Joby Harold. Before it even begins, Awake strains credibility with a couple of introductory paragraphs claiming that, of the 21 million patients who undergo surgery in the US each year, as many as 30,000 do not actually go under when given anesthesia. Instead, the filmmaker would have us believe, these 30,000 Americans lie on the operating table paralyzed but feeling every excruciating slice and flick of the knife.
This may be the holiday shopping season but, sorry, I’m not buying. Are you kidding me? If one farmer gets his arm caught in a thresher and has to saw it off with his own jackknife, the network morning shows are all over the guy like he brought peace to the Middle East. If people were having operations while conscious on a regular basis, they’d be on TV. If that many were, they’d be on TV every day. All day.
Once it actually does begin, the picture proceeds to strain credibility even further. Hayden Christensen plays a 22 year old who inherited billions from his Manhattan real estate mogul dad. He is in desperate need of a heart transplant but can’t seem to get to the top of the waiting list. That’s a good one. Maybe the fledgling director should have tried his hand at a comedy.
I’m guessing Terrence Howard lost a bet. The actor slums here as Christensen’s close friend, a cardiovascular surgeon facing four malpractice suits. In one scene he explains that insurance won’t cover the judgments against him so he’s as desperate for cash as his buddy is for a new ticker. When one suddenly becomes available, the superrich scion insists that Howard handle the procedure. Which I found odd for a couple of reasons: First, his mother (Lena Olin) has secured the services of the most eminent physician in the field and, second, how many hospitals are okay with uninsured doctors in their operating rooms?
No matter, the most farfetched and feebleminded is yet to come. Sure enough, once he’s on the table and anesthesia has been administered, Christensen finds to his horror he can feel everything the surgical team is doing. Now you’d think this would be almost certain to prove the low point in his day. Nope. Because he can also hear everything his friend and coworkers are saying and the topic of discussion is their scheme to kill him and steal his money.
So all this laughable, highly unlikely stuff is happening but the movie’s hook is the phenomenon of “anesthetic awareness” and that’s an undeniably creepy premise––right up there with anything Poe wrote about being buried alive. The minute Howard plunges his knife into Christensen’s chest and you hear the fully conscious patient cry out in voice over pain, the film grabs you. For the better part of, oh, ten minutes Joby Harold has you right where he wants you. And then he does the most confounding thing. He changes the subject.
Amazingly, Christensen’s anesthetic awareness is never mentioned again despite the fact that he is still to undergo not one but two heart transplant procedures. Instead, the filmmaker has the patient’s spirit leave his body and roam the hospital investigating the crime being perpetrated against him. That’s right. While his body is paralyzed on the operating table, his soul snoops around for clues and listens in on people’s conspiratorial conversations. It’s like an episode of CSI directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Well, he wishes anyway. Harold’s directorial debut flatlines long before its final frame but the prognosis for his career remains hopeful. Let’s face it: When you botch the job this badly your first time out, there’s nowhere to go but up.