Awake begins with some text claiming that out of the 21 million Americans who receive anesthesia each year, 30,000 of them experience something called “anesthesia awareness,” a condition in which the drugs don’t work like they’re supposed to, and the patient remains conscious and sensible to pain but unable to move or communicate.
In reality, the number of patients who report something like this is closer to 1,500, but it’s still a fairly terrifying prospect to be frozen in this state with a bone-saw-wielding surgeon hovering over you, ready to carve you up while chatting with the other surgeons about their dinner plans. Playing on that fear is a smart move for a filmmaker, but unfortunately it’s the only genuinely shivery touch that this movie has up its sleeve.
The unlucky soul destined for anesthesia awareness is Clayton Beresford Jr. (Hayden Christensen), the son of a deceased billionaire dad and a mom (Lena Olin) who’s domineering enough to make him hide his relationship with her assistant (Jessica Alba). With a congenitally weak heart and a rare blood type, Clay has reason to rejoice when a lifesaving transplant finally becomes available. His surgery goes all kinds of wrong, though — not only does the anesthetic fail to kick in, but he also overhears some members of the surgical team conspiring to murder him on the operating table.
Once you accept the essentially absurd plot, the movie churns along fairly well. A Clay doppelganger travels through his memories looking for clues to why he’s been set up, which leads to a lovely metaphorical shot of Clay’s double walking through the city with all the lights around him going out as his body approaches death. The way the murder plot is unraveled (and who does the unraveling) is managed pretty cleverly, too.
The film might actually have been fun if the two leads generated any screen presence at all, but Christensen and Alba are too blank to give the movie any traction. Terrence Howard shows up here as the surgeon, the fifth movie role he’s essayed this year. (When The Perfect Holiday comes out next week, that will make it six.) Now we can see why he toiled in obscurity for so long before his Oscar-nominated turn in Hustle & Flow in 2005 — he doesn’t know how to pick his projects. The acting honors are stolen by Christopher McDonald as an anesthesiologist who shows up drunk in the OR — first-time writer-director Joby Harold clearly takes a dimmer view of the medical profession than Michael Moore.
The backstory of Clay Sr. and what a bad guy he was gets introduced late in the movie, and this development is both mawkish and insufficiently set up. It fails to give this ambitious thriller the emotional punch that it’s going for. Awake is a tiny wisp of a film, but it’s still something that’ll be just barely watchable when it surfaces on cable in a few months. Just like a successful surgery, when it’s over you’ll hardly remember it.
Starring Hayden Christensen and Jessica Alba. Written and directed by Joby Harold. Rated R. Now playing