December 6, 2007

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Awake (R)
Hayden Christensen goes in for heart surgery but finds that while the anesthesia has paralyzed him it has not knocked him out and he can feel and hear every skin-slicing, rib-splitting moment in Awake.

Which sounds disturbing until you remember that the last time he was in surgery, he had all of his limbs cut off, his lungs replaced by a machine and his voice changed to James Earl Jones’.

Clay (Christensen) is a rich boy with a fancy-pants life, an overbearing mother (Lena Olin) and a heart condition. He also has a secret fiancée, Sam (Jessica Alba), who is also his mother’s personal assistant. For whatever wussy reason, Clay can’t tell his mother about Sam. But Clay also can’t not tell his mother about Sam — his heart is wearing out on him and unless he gets a transplant soon, he’s going to be attending his own funeral before he attends his wedding.

Urging Clay to live his best life now is Dr. Jack Harper (Terrence Howard), a doctor who saved Clay’s life during a heart episode and has since become his friend. Marry the girl, tell your mom, have the surgery and live happily ever after (for, statistically speaking, as many as 10 years before he croaks, the movie tells us). After some very young-Anakin-ish whining when Clay finally tells his mother about Sam, Clay decides to heck with it, he’s going to marry Sam that very night. And, wouldn’t you know it, just as the newly married couple is getting ready for some newlywed action, Clay’s buzzer goes off informing him that his brand new heart is in and ready for installation.

It’s Clay’s best day ever!

Once at the hospital, Clay’s mom is not so keen on Dr. Jack performing the surgery. He’s had multiple malpractice suits filed against him, she says, and hey, look, right here next to me is the world’s foremost authority on your type of heart surgery.

Hit the bricks, better surgeon, Clay says. I’m going with my good buddy, Dr. Jack.

Sam and Clay share a tender moment and a loving kiss and then it’s off to surgery for Clay. A clearly drunken anesthesiologist comes wobbling in to the room, briefly throwing off the other doctors and nurses assembled for the procedure. Then, he gets situated, hooks Clay up and tells him to count backwards from 10. And he does and … nothing.

Clay soon realizes he’s completely conscious and, despite being unable to move or blink or do anything to communicate this fact, he quickly understands that he’s going to be aware of every slice and stitch in the next couple of hours. Even more terrifying than that, he soon picks up on the more disturbing overtones of the surgical team’s conversation. Not only is Clay afraid of feeling every cut of the procedure, he fast begins to fear that he’s not meant to survive it.

Awake does what I suspect it was meant to do which is give you another surgical fear — something to fill the space between those stories of doctors chopping off the wrong extremity and those urban legends about waking up in a bathtub full of ice with a note saying someone has just removed your kidney. Christensen isn’t a particularly electrifying actor but he whines well (the first third of the movie) and screams just fine (the final two thirds) so his performance more or less fills the bill. Alba is equally lightweight, but all the movie requires of her is to look believably beautiful enough to make a mama’s boy pull against the apron strings.

Dr. Jack is a slightly more complex role and Howard’s performance of it is slightly more disappointing. He seems conflicted throughout, which almost works except I got the sense that his internal turmoil was not a method-acting thing but more a result of not particularly liking the fact that he is in the movie at all.

Awake has the hints of an interesting medical horror movie but buries that small light in a pile of movie contrivances, weak dialogue, sleepwalking actors and hokey camera work. Forget surgery; I fear finding myself fully conscious during more movies like this. C-

Rated R for language, an intense disturbing situation and brief drug use. (But not, apparently, for all those gory medical scenes unless that’s what “intense disturbing situation” means.) Written and directed by Joby Harold, Awake is an hour and 24 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by The Weinstein Company.