Awake review: What would happen if nobody could sleep?

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(L-R) Lucius Hoyos as Noah, Gina Rodriguez as Jill, Ariana Greenblatt as Matilda

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In the dystopian sci-fi movie Awake, everyone on Earth suddenly loses the ability to sleep, plunging the world into hysteria.

As scientists race to find a cure, ex-soldier Jill Adams (Gina Rodriguez) discovers that her young daughter Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt) might just possess the means to save mankind.

 Awake’s compelling premise is enough to make the opening of the film enjoyable. Director Mark Raso slowly cranks up the tension – there are some unsettling set pieces, and the film doesn’t waste time trying to explain the phenomenon. Instead, the slow reveal of information does enough to keep you hooked.

Unfortunately, though, Awake soon goes off the rails. Raso is constantly trying to create the same mindset of those who are unable to sleep in the viewers, but it just makes things increasingly confusing.

It also doesn’t help that, by only following Jill’s relationship with Matilda and her son Noah (Lucius Hoyos), Awake is too contained. We learn very little about what’s going on across the world, so when symptoms suddenly escalate and humanity descends into anarchy, it has very little impact.

But what would actually happen if you suddenly couldn’t sleep?

Alastair McLean at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, who specialises in sleep deprivation, says its biggest impact is on interpersonal interactions, as people quickly become quite irritable.

“In terms of performance, one of the most obvious things that happens are microsleeps,” says McLean, in which people fall asleep for up to 30 seconds and can’t remember what happened. “They can occur after 24 hours.”

There is also cognitive slowing, which sees people taking longer to make decisions, and cognitive rigidity, in which individuals can only think about things in one fixed way. Loss of motivation, paranoia, memory and balance issues, mood changes and visual problems can also occur, while some people experience hallucinations and even speech difficulties.

In 1963, 17-year-old Randy Gardner set the record for the longest time a human had gone without sleep, staying awake for 11 days and 25 minutes. Finland’s Toimi Soini and the UK’s Maureen Weston and Tony Wright have allegedly beaten this time, but none of them were studied as closely as Gardner.

Studies of sleep deprivation on animals have also proven to be revealing. “In 1989, Allan Rechtschaffen and his Chicago group studied rats that were sleep deprived. After two to three weeks, they started to die,” says McLean. “You saw the same pattern in all of them. They began to eat more and more as the sleep loss went on. Despite that, they had a fall in body weight.”

A 2020 study by researchers at Harvard Medical School on sleep deprivation in fruit flies also provided the same outcome. The more they didn’t sleep, the greater the increase in a molecule in the gut known as reactive oxidative species.

“If they gave the fruit flies materials to offset the effects of this, they didn’t die,” says McLean. “We’ve been looking for the effects of sleep deprivation in the brain. It looks, though, that it’s the gut that may be critical when it comes to survival.”

Based on the trailer for Awake, McLean agrees that it looks accurate in its use of disorientation and even hallucinations, but says it appears to exaggerate the problems and even speed up the timeframe in which they occur.

By doing just, that Awake strains to repeat the success of thrillers like A Quiet Place and Bird Box. But not only does it lack the ingenuity, tension and star power of these films, it is too aimless, meandering and lacking in heart to come close.

Awake is now available on Netflix .

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