Gina Rodriguez Stays ‘Awake’ In Netflix’s Hazy Sci-Fi Thriller
“Awake” is the latest example of a particular kind of thriller Netflix is specializing in. The premise is very simple and the narrative becomes a chase or journey. But in this movie the most engaging aspects of the journey tend to rest on the shoulders of Gina Rodriguez, who keeps finding herself in a wildly eclectic selection of action movies. Some are sharp and inventive, others pure rehash. This one bridges both styles with expert technical credits and a story so simplistically confusing that by the end you know who survived, but not exactly why. Yet again we are also invited to ponder an apocalyptic scenario plaguing humanity. Over the last few months we’ve had meteors, viruses and of course, zombies. “Awake” throws at humankind a fate all too familiar to the average American juggling three jobs: Lack of sleep.
Rodriguez plays Jill, a security guard and veteran with PTSD who also hustles drugs on the side for a local dealer. She’s also a single mom with a teenage son, Noah (Lucius Hoyos) and younger daughter, Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt). While driving home there’s a bright flash in the sky and suddenly all technology is wiped out. Not only that, but people have lost the ability to fall asleep. How? The flash was a solar flare. How that causes permanent insomnia is something the film attempts to explain later with tricky jargon. But for now what hurtles the plot forward is that Matilda can indeed fall asleep. This turns her into an instant target for government scientists, represented by Jill’s boss, Dr. Murphy (Jennifer Jason Leigh). But having seen the kind of experiments Murphy has performed on other prisoners, Jill decides to flee with her children and keep them out of government clutches. Maybe they can even figure out a cure along the way.
“Awake” ranks alongside smaller but well-produced Netflix features like “Bird Box” and “Stowaway.” In these films the plot gets going with one easy premise. A solar flare destabilizes humanity, or at least the rural corner of America where Jill and her family live. Everyone can’t sleep which inevitably makes them start to lose their minds. Director Mark Raso stages what amount to good scenes finding a whole within a story that veers all over the place. An early scene has a great, apocalyptic spirit where Matilda hides out in a church led by a preacher with congregants going insane. There are also suspenseful crashes into rivers and near-deaths. The message tends to be the same as in some better recent end of the world thrillers, like the underrated “Greenland,” in which the best and worst of humans gets expressed in times of crisis. An effectively eerie moment begins at a library where Jill and the kids are hanging out, when a group of escaped convicts show up. A pack of them are feral and desperate to do something bad to the family, but another jailbird played by Shamier Anderson seems more willing to lend a helping hand.
But it is the performances by the cast that elevate the material. Because the plot rarely goes beyond a road trip and offers few layers for the mystery at its center, what matters is how well Rodriguez sells it. She gives Jill some emotionally searing moments where the terror of the situation comes through. This is a much better use of her skills than 2019’s awful “Miss Bala,” although she still hasn’t topped the much underrated 2018 “Annihilation.” Ariana Greenblatt threatens to steal the show, however, with a performance full of real fear and strength. She’s a smart kid who is learning as the crisis unfolds. We feel for her as we also root for her to survive. Greenblatt does this particularly well in the final moments of the film which go into real sci-fi thriller territory in strange laboratories where live animals have their skulls cracked open for scientists to examine their brains.
With strong performances and some skillful cinematography, “Awake” is a good showcase of talent. This is its best merit considering the storyline itself never generates much steam beyond individual moments of memorable tension. By the end we wonder what really caused all of this mayhem. Was it really just the solar flare? Like other good fables it brings across some convincing drama centered around the idea of parenting and protecting your children amid mass threats. But for a thriller about the end of civilization the story should offer something more concrete and clear. In “Greenland,” a father rushes to save his family because a meteor is about to obliterate humanity. Over-the-top it may be, but that’s a simple premise with much pathos. “Awake” tries too hard and ends up doing too little. But the acting is pure gold.
“Awake” begins streaming June 9 on Netflix.