Lots of Heart

Don't listen to all the cranky critics ' medical thriller Awake isn't half the disaster it's made out to be.

Awake, the latest film to sneak into theaters courtesy of the Weinstein brothers, is ridiculous, for sure, and at less than 80 minutes, it hardly qualifies as feature-length. But it's also much better than the studio releasing it would have you believe.

Filmed a couple of years ago, it's been sitting on a shelf collecting dust. Its distributors probably had more than a few arguments about releasing it straight to DVD, but it got its theatrical release in a December week when no other major releases were offered. Sending a distinct signal that the film was junk, the movie was not screened for critics.

Bad move. That automatically raises the ire of some critics, who basically slather their nasty pens with pine tar and swing away. There is no way that this film is as bad as the critical consensus is saying (last I checked, Awake had 12 percent at It's no movie miracle, but it engages from start to finish, offers some rewarding twists and boasts a handful of decent performances.

Hayden Christensen, aka Darth Vader, stars as Clay, a rich boy with a bad heart. He's on a donor list for a transplant while living with his dominating mother, Lilith (Lena Olin) and dating Sam (Jessica Alba). He's chosen Dr. Jack Harper (Terrence Howard) as his transplant surgeon, much to the dismay of mother, who wants Dr. Jonathan Neyer (Arliss Howard; no relation to Terrence) to perform the procedure. He's "had his hands in presidents," but he talks in slimy tones, which puts Clay off. In the end, Dr. Harper gets the scalpel.

Clay goes in for his operation and gets put under with anesthesia ' yet he fails to fall completely asleep. He's aware of the conversations in the room, and even feels excruciating pain as they slice open his chest and spread his ribs apart. In a nifty plot device, Clay essentially gets up in his own brain and runs around in his memories, wearing hospital garments and noticing things he didn't see before. Some of the big plot twists are rather obvious, but writer-director Joby Harold delivers them competently.

Jack Mathews, a movie critic for the New York Daily News, says this is "possibly the worst movie of 2007," a bit farfetched considering competition such as the thoroughly awful Kickin' it Old Skool and August Rush. Alba is good as the new wife who carries her beau's meds and desperately wants the approval of her mother-in-law. Olin gets a juicy role as the mysterious mom with dark secrets and perhaps an unhealthy relationship with her son. Howard is also believable as the doctor with a few malpractice suits being filed against him. Awake really does have a decent ensemble cast that does good work with a ridiculous premise; it feels like a quality episode of The Twilight Zone.

Warning: The advertising campaigns reveal way too many plot points. But Awake is still a fairly good medical thriller, containing some gnarly open-heart surgery gore to balance out the joy of looking at the glorious Ms. Alba. It has some plot holes, and it takes some major creative license when it comes to spirituality, the dream state and mortality ' but isn't creative license part of adventurous filmmaking?

Harold, making his writing and directing debut, deserves credit for a decent first effort. Instead, he's getting the humiliation of having his movie dumped into theaters with the "no critic screening" stigma stamped on it. Welcome to the big leagues, Joby!