You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Such is the case in Awake, where a devastating global phenomenon wipes out all electronics, circuitry, and, most bizarrely, humanity’s ability to sleep.
That’s a big deal. Humans, after all, need to sleep. Without that rest, we quickly lose the ability to think clearly and remember even the simplest patterns. We grow angry and irrational and start to hallucinate. If we go too long without sleep, we’re told here, our brains swell until we cease to function at all. It doesn’t take long to realize that without sleep, everyone has only a few days to live. That is, almost everyone.
Awake follows Jill, a former soldier turned security guard who steals and sells perscription drugs to make some extra money. Her husband died in active duty, she’s fresh out of rehab, and her mother-in-law has custody of her two kids. Basically, things aren’t going too well for her right now. And a worldwide apocalyptic event doesn’t help.
After surviving a horrific car accident caused by this strange event knocking out her brakes, Jill must protect her children from their increasingly violent surroundings while trying to maintain her own sanity. Soon, she makes an earth-shattering realization: Her ten-year-old daughter Matilda can still sleep. Somehow, she wasn’t affected by the event.
Whatever makes Matilda different from everyone else, it also makes her a target. Everyone from a crazed church congregation to the military to Jill’s boss and old friend Dr. Murphy wants to use the girl to find some sort of solution– some giving more thought to Matilda’s safety than others.
Naturally, Jill’s deeply suspicious of anyone who would use her child—even if they say that it’s for the greater good. But she also knows that she’s on the road to sleep-deprived death herself. And if she’s gone, who’s going to take care of Matilda? So she and her teenage son Noah take her on a journey to a hub established by doctors and psychiatrists in the hope that they’ll be able to find a cure.
But Jill’s concern for the future of humanity still takes a backseat to her need to keep her daughter safe. No matter what, her kids come first. As a soldier points a gun at her, demanding to know who she is, a very sleep deprived Jill holds her ground in front of her children, guarding them with her own body, and answers simply, “I’m their mother.”
Jill’s motherly instincts motivate everything that she does. When she’s not fighting off those that want to take Matilda from her, she’s teaching her how to drive a car, how to shoot a gun … anything to help her survive without her in case the worst should happen. Before the world descended into chaos, she went to rehab to kick her drug addiction, and she is sticking to sobriety while trying to reconnect with her children. Though highly skilled in combat, she never hurts anyone when not absolutely necessary. No, she’s not perfect: She still steals and sells the drugs she refuses to take. But all in all, there’s a lot to admire in her.
Awake makes a point of showing that anyone is capable of bravery and heroism, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. An escaped convict who calls himself Dodge rescues Jill, Matilda, and Noah from his fellow inmates, and he protects the children once they reach the hub. Jill reflects on the torture and suffering she inflicted as a soldier with regret and horror, haunted by the incredible pain she caused. Even Matilda gives herself up to a group of armed soldiers, essentially sacrificing her own bubble of protection to help the rest of the world. As the soldiers point guns at her, she repeats through tears, “I can sleep, I can sleep.”
While much of the world descends into panic and pandemonium, some are able to hold onto their integrity and find redemption even as their minds slowly slip away.
Jill finds solace from her internal pain in meditation; she tells her mother-in-law Doris that it provides her a moment of respite from chaos of the world. Doris invites her to a church meeting, but Jill declines; later, at that same church, a pastor tells Matilda about how he miraculously came back to life after a drug overdose, causing him to devote his life to Jesus. He prays with Matilda to help her sleep.
This pastor is one of the few in the church who has held onto his common sense and compassion; while the rest of the congregation tries to use the death of Jesus to justify sacrificing Matilda in an attempt to regain their sleep, he protects her unwaveringly, and even as some of his congregants want to sacrifice Matilda to God (in a horrific echo of Jesus’ own sacrifice, with one saying he’s willing to be Pontius Pilate), the pastor stands firm against this wild twisting of Scripture. Later, Matilda prays on her own.
Jill, Noah, and Matilda encounter a group of nudists standing inexplicably in the middle of the road; they’re able to drive straight through without interference, but we see full nudity on the way.
Jill finds a keychain in the shape of a naked woman.
Matilda asks Noah if he and his ex-girlfriend ever “did it”; he’s too shocked she even asked it to answer, and she announces mockingly to Jill, “Noah’s never had sex.” He protests and claims that he has.
As she tries to find out a little bit more about Noah’s lovelife, Jill tells Noah that she was “not much older than him” when she gave birth to him, implying it was a teen pregnancy.
A group of escaped convicts confront Jill, with one telling her to give Noah to him and calling Noah a “pretty little b–ch”.
While most of the tension and fear comes from suspenseful situations rather than outright violence, Awake does not shy away from brutality. We see countless dead bodies, each with varying levels of blood, and are often shown the aftermath of many unfortunate situations. A character is shot in the head point blank; it’s extremely sudden and startling, and afterwards we see the graphic gunshot wound. A heavily tattooed car thief kills a man by stomping on his head; we don’t see the actual action, but we hear a sickening sound and are treated to a view of the gory aftermath. A monkey used for tests at the hub is shown with its skull sawed through and its brain exposed, though it is still alive and breathing. Several people are shot and killed onscreen, and bloody injuries are shown briefly in a hospital. Someone dies after receiving a faulty injection.
The main source of terror, however, is the horrific situations to which our characters are constantly subjected. Jill, Noah, and Matilda get into a sudden car accident, in which they tumble into a river and the car slowly floods with water as they try to escape. (Jill suffers a severe gash on her forehead in the accident that should receive stitches, but never does.) A group of people with dead bodies hung around their campsite attacks the family’s car, smashing the windows and attempting to pull them out; Jill stabs them with a screwdriver while Noah bites them and Dodge breaks their arms. People riot in the streets and physically fight each other for sleeping medications.
An incredibly sleep deprived Jill sees a hallucination of Noah attacking her with a knife, and Noah accidentally electrocutes himself. Teaching Matilda how to shoot a gun in a library, Jill fires a couple of rounds into a shelf full of books; Noah comes around the corner and asks if she was shooting at him. It feels as if barely five minutes goes by without Jill and her family being confronted by danger.
Language is frequent, with the f-word being used around 30 times, the s-word used around 10 times, and the c-word once. God’s name is taken in vain six times (at least once with the word “d–n” connected to it), and other profanities such as “d–k“ “pr–k,” “h—” and “b—h” also appear, though much more rarely.
Doris depends on medication to help her sleep, injecting it through a syringe; she even shows Matilda how to properly use it. She offers some to Jill, who declines it, trying to stay clean after rehab. She does, however, enable her mother-in-law’s habits by agreeing to pick up more medication at the pharmacy.
Jill steals prescription drugs and sells them to a skeevy character who rattles off the names of multiple other narcotics. The pastor at Doris’ church tells Matilda he used to be a drug addict, and he shows her a cross tattoo that he got to cover the syringe marks on his arm. Dr. Murphy and the others working at the hub become dependent on a substance developed to slow the effects of sleep deprivation, which we see injected via syringe into the neck.
We see revelers drink beer.
Jill and Noah don’t exactly have the best relationship at first; while they do eventually reconnect and Noah recognizes all that his mother has done for him, we hear him call her a “psycho” and disrespect her constantly. He even refers to her by her first name “Jill” for most of the film.
Noah takes a blood-spattered note from a dead body, and Dodge steals clothing from a suitcase at the site of a plane crash. Jill tries to show Matilda how to use a gun, despite her daughter’s protests; though this is for her own safety and protection, it’s disconcerting to watch a mother force her 10-year-old to use a weapon.
Someone urinates on the side of the road in shadow.
“Most animals were able to sleep after the incident,” a doctor tells Matilda as they observe a sleepless monkey strapped down to a table at the hub, “but chimps, well…they always were closest to humans.”
It’s here that the biggest issue with Awake lies – in its reduction of the value of humanity. People are treated like background characters in a video game, thrown around, injured, and shot without a second thought. Even the true cause behind the incident (spoiler alert: it was a solar flare that somehow changed the electromagnetic wiring in every human) reduces the human race to barely more than machines, like technology in need of a software patch.
It’s difficult to take themes of sacrifice and family seriously from a film that doesn’t seem to value life in the slightest. It doesn’t help that the story offers barely anything new to the post-apocalyptic genre; it feels like a greatest hits reel of its many, many predecessors.
Gina Rodriguez shines as a troubled widow dedicated to defending those she loves, and the story does promote ideas of heroism and the importance of motherhood, but they’re soured by the hollowness of the film’s overall message. It’s obvious that Awake is trying to set up some deep and complex moral quandaries: What is worth sacrificing for the greater good? Where should a mother’s priority lie between her child and the fate of humanity? But, like the foolish builder’s house founded on sand, these questions crumble and collapse without a sound moral anchor. And the film’s reliance on problematic content—nudity, foul language and oh-so-much blood—doesn’t help matters.
“My central message in this film is that maybe the world needs a reset,” writer and director Mark Raso said to Entertainment Weekly. “Everyone needs to stop and look at the world in a different way.” There’s some definite truth to that statement – just probably not in the way it was intended.
Lauren Cook is serving as a 2021 summer intern for the Parenting and Youth department at Focus on the Family. She is studying film and screenwriting at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. You can get her talking for hours about anything from Star Wars to her family to how Inception was the best movie of the 2010s. But more than anything, she’s passionate about showing how every form of art in some way reflects the Gospel. Coffee is a close second.