— Taking a premise that might fit a Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode—a young billionaire in a state of "anesthetic awareness" (i.e. conscious yet paralyzed) during heart transplant surgery—and expanding it to where the audience is always a step or two ahead of each twist.
— Seeming needlessly overlong at 78 minutes, which is much shorter than non-animated features are generally allowed to get.
— Having Hayden Christensen narrate his metaphysical crisis with all the weak, whiny petulance he brought to Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones.
Defender: Writer-director Joby Harold
Tone Of Commentary: Intelligent, measured, and bogged down in excruciating minutiae. Harold's commentary is a reminder of how much thought and hard work goes into even dire entertainments. There are incredibly detailed explanations of what specific colors, lens choices, and camera movements signify, or how simple set-ups like a conversation inside a limo made the most of cutting-edge digital technology. At a certain point, you wonder if Harold couldn't see the forest for the trees: While he was picking up on things that nobody in the audience would ever notice, like Christensen's make-up ("He's a little orange here in my opinion") or Terrence Howard's salt-and-pepper mustache ("We wanted him to look five or six years older than he really is"), perhaps he missed the larger, more significant problems that dogged his movie. Another case in point: When Christensen and his mother (Lena Olin) have a conversation on the balcony, Harold's eyes drift to the special green and red lights on the Empire State Building in the far distance, noting that they were kept on a couple of hours later than usual just for this production. Meanwhile, all the important stuff in the foreground—you know, the movie—is falling flat.
What went wrong: From the sound of it, Awake was test-screened within an inch of its life. A key confrontation between Christensen's mother and his girlfriend, played by Jessica Alba, was cut after testing poorly with audiences impatient to see him go under the knife. Another critical tracking shot, which Harold believes featured one of Alba's finest and most important bits of acting, was cut in half for time purposes. Of scenes like these, Harold says, "You have to kill your children," but he sounds wistful about it, as if he secretly regrets having a first act that he admits is "truncated." He also admits to having a difficult time finding ways to get inside the head of a hero who spends half the movie motionless on a slab; the solutions—having Christensen narrate while shooting his face in extreme close-up and later giving him a metaphysical "double"—didn't really solve the problem.
Comments on the cast: Harold reserves most of his praise for Howard and Alba. Of Howard, he says that the actor studied the ins and outs of heart transplant surgery so closely that Harold would "probably trust my life with him. Kind Of. Maybe." Of Alba, he comments on her looks ("There's Jessica, being cute again") and frequently points out some subtle piece of acting, but he more often talks about her being a good sport—during an awkward love scene, delivering a blood-curdling scream that alarmed a building's occupants, and a shot that involved a rain machine downpour. ("Poor Jessica had to watch Hayden with his umbrella She wasn't thrilled about it.") And back on the minutiae front, Harold points to an obscured subway billboard featuring a financial analyst character played by Denis O'Hare, who was cut from the film entirely. On the off chance anyone should ever desire a three-hour director's cut of Awake, Harold probably has enough footage for it on the cutting-room floor.
Inevitable dash of pretension: When Harold and his production designer were looking at how to transform the usual bland hospital white into something more dynamic, they referenced Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. So if you're thrown off by the bold swatches of red—evoking blood, in a hospital—lining those stark-white corridors, there's the reason.
Commentary in a nutshell: "We had a tear wrangler who worked diligently for many hours."