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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

AWAKE -- DVD Review by porfle

Hayden Christensen's character, multi-millionaire business tycoon Clay Beresford, Jr., dies on the operating table in AWAKE (2007). That may sound like a greviously inconsiderate spoiler on my part, but it happens about a minute into the movie. After that, the story is told in flashback by his surgeon and best friend, Dr. Jack Harper (Terrence Howard, CRASH, HART'S WAR).

[digression] You wanna talk spoilers? I just watched the trailer that comes with the DVD, and it contains one of THE major surprises of the whole story. The damn thing should have one of those *SPOILER ALERT!* warnings that people post on forums before they spill the beans about something. It's almost as bad as seeing a trailer for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK that has Darth Vader saying...well, you know. So whatever you do, don't watch the trailer before you see the movie! [/digression]

Anyway, Clay seems to have it all--millions of dollars, a wildly successful business that he inherited from his late father, and a lovely young fiancee' named Samantha (Jessica Alba) who's dying to marry him. Only two things keep him from achieving total bliss. One, his domineering, overprotective mother, Lilith (Lena Olin, ROMEO IS BLEEDING, "Alias") who suspects Samantha to be a golddigger and is vehemently against the wedding. Two, the fact that Clay has a bad ticker and is about to undergo a heart transplant.

Oh, and last but not least, three--Clay is that lucky one in 700 patients who experiences "anesthetic awareness", which means that he's wide awake during the surgery even though he can't move. This would have to be a pretty horrific ordeal for someone undergoing a heart transplant, and we suffer with him through every harrowing detail from the first incision to the application of the rib-spreader and beyond. Through it all, we hear Clay's agonized thoughts as he tries to separate himself from the pain and find solace in his memories of Samantha. But before it's over, something totally unexpected happens (I NOT watch the trailer first!) which puts an entirely different, disturbingly sinister spin on the whole procedure and turns AWAKE into a corker of a psychological thriller.

You may be one of those people with an uncanny knack for figuring out what happens next, but I didn't see this one coming at all. It's a doozy of a twist, and it won't be the last. For the rest of the movie, we see Clay's disembodied spirit (or astral projection, perhaps) roaming the halls of the hospital, trying to somehow communicate his dire predicament to anyone who might help. We also see him passing through various memories as a spectator and trying to glean information from them that might make sense of what's going on.

Scriptwriter and first-time director Joby Harold fills the early part of the movie with a succession of formal, almost Kubrick-like compositions--at times you can almost see the proscenium arch--that are obviously intended to represent Clay's ordered, structured world. I was pretty sure that this would be contrasted later on with a more free-flowing, off-kilter style as things began to spin out of control, which is exactly what Harold does to good effect. His direction is low-key but visually interesting, serving the story well without drawing attention to itself.

Harold has a fine cast to work with, including old pros like Lena Olin, Arliss "Tough Break For Hand Job" Howard (FULL METAL JACKET) as the much more experienced surgeon whom Clay's mother would prefer to perform the operation ("My hands have been inside presidents," he tells Clay at one point), and familiar face Christopher McDonald as the last-minute replacement gas-passer Dr. Lupin, who's a bit too tipsy to notice that crimp in the tube as he's administering the anesthetic injection. Jessica Alba acquits herself well as Samantha, and Hayden Christensen, unhampered here by George Lucas' awkward dialogue, is allowed to give a more natural performance than as the future Darth Vader. (Even a line as potentially sappy as "You think my new heart will love you as much as my old one?" comes off well.) Terrence Howard is, as always, a solid presence, as is another familiar face, co-producer Fisher Stevens, as Dr. Harper's somewhat hinky surgical assistant.

The DVD's bonus features include a director's commentary, the infamous "trailer that you shouldn't watch first", deleted scenes, a storyboard-to-film comparison that I skipped because I couldn't care less about storyboard-to-film comparisons, and a "making of" featurette. Presented in letterboxed widescreen format with Dolby Digital sound, the movie looks and sounds dandy to me.

The basic premise of a man remaining conscious during a heart transplant was intriguing enough to draw me into this story, and the doubletake-inducing plot twists that popped up unexpectedly along the way really had me going. It's a pretty original story idea that's fully explored and filled with drama and suspense all the way to the exciting conclusion. My typical-movie-reviewer assessment: (Joel Siegel voice) "You're sure to stay AWAKE during this operation!" Just don't watch that trailer first.

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