Sleeping Sickness

I watched Awake (2021). This is another example of the ever-growing genre of catastrophe scifi films, in which a global pandemic or similar event is portrayed as being quite different and worse than the actual experience in recent memory. Surprisingly little has said by conspiracists to suggest that this is part of a globalist propaganda effort to etc etc.

We start with a glowing ball of light appearing in space.

This then cuts away to life on Earth. Note that at no point are we ever told exactly what this light was; later we hear an official person suggesting that the catastrophe was somehow to do with solar flare activity, but that is never confirmed or elaborated. Thus we are in the John Wyndham style of disaster scifi: everything is seen from ground level and we never get an omniscient narrator or Grand Scientist/Leader info-dumping the deep background.

On Earth, Jill is working a night shift as security at a university medical lab. She’s also stealing from the stores, and selling the pills on to a local dealer.

She’s got to do this side-hustle as she’s a single mum trying to bring up 2 kids – teenage boy Noah and 10-year old girl Matilda, helped by grandma who doesn’t seem to be too keen on them staying over the night.

The family are driving when The Mysterious Event strikes. There seems to be some sort of burst of light in the sky, and the car radio fizzles out. We later learn that “everything with a microchip was fried”, but the immediate effect is to put Jill and her kids in to a grippingly realistic road accident.

They recover and get back to grandma. Then, like apparently everyone else in America (it is never made clear if The Mysterious Event took down the entire planet – if it was solar-based then we might expect the hemisphere that was in night time when it occurred to be unaffected) they find it impossible to sleep… except for young Matilda.

Jill cycles in to work the next day – there is trouble on the streets, her dealer buddy reports that demand is rocketing. As she tries to secure her own supply of pharmaceuticals her boss Dr Murphy and a bunch of military guys show up. Jill makes clear that she is ex-military herself, might be recalled as a reservist, and she understands this may well be an EMP attack. Already at the hospital on the first day there were guys shouting about Chinese control of infrastructure and how this was the first move in a war that had been coming for years. But no one’s too bothered here now – Murphy just wants to grab what she can as she is headed off to a new “Hub” set up as they have 1 person who can sleep and they need to study this subject as much as possible.

Back home it turns out grandma took Matilda along to her church, where her capacity to doze off has already been acclaimed as a miracle. There are also already members of the congregation raising pagan demands for a sacrifice to appease God, which doesn’t imply much commitment to Christian theology even with the excuse of a sleepless night befuddling them. The pastor has an interlude explaining that he’s a reformed drug addict, just so we understand that this film doesn’t think all religion is stupid or evil. But we still need to get away from these maniacs as the shooting starts soon enough.

Jill realises she needs to get to the “Hub” after rejecting Murphy’s offer earlier. Luckily the map reference for its location is still available, so they just need to get to a library and check a map because Google and all the usual resources are defunct. But first they also need an old car that doesn’t depend on microelectronics. Fun fact: the first apocalyptic story that I know of that dramatised the role of EMP weapons in an attack was the pseudo-documentary novel Warday (1984), though of course that was set in a time when most vehicles were non-digital. This film is generally sticking to a hard-realist style (Jill has to stop for a piss by the roadside), so the relative abundance of old cars could be implausible, unless it’s an implicit comment on the decline of Left-Behind America and small towns where no one can afford the latest models. Presumably all the Army jeeps and trucks we see had internal wiring designed to withstand the power surge, in which case it’s jolly good luck that the solar flare/whatever didn’t exceed the highest power level achievable in current human nuclear weaponry.

Our heroic family set out on an odyssey, seeing wrecked aircraft and crowds of lost, disturbed people. They also see the bad dudes that Jill avoided earlier, who apparently had an encounter with the military.

This gives us some essential background, which puts this film in the category of “Americans find out what it’s like” post-Iraq storytelling.

JILL: Those were Murphy’s guys that shot up that car. I worked with Murphy, overseas. She helped me get a job at the university and helped me with rehab too. She’s a psychiatrist, Noah. Sleep expert. In the desert, she would help set parameters for interrogation. Sleep deprivation, it was torture. They killed people. The kind of things that we would do to try to find answers, it’s not human.

They also collide with a lot of prisoners who’ve broken out of their broken institution, and this puts them in danger but luckily they meet the bad guy with a good heart. A criminal called Dodge, who goes on the journey with them part of the way. We have a philosophical interlude.

DODGE: Burn the books, man, burnt them all. Don’t need those any more.

[MATILDA turns to look at him]

JILL: Ah, eyes! [To DODGE] Can you maybe just not – Focus on the road, please – Not talk to her so she can concentrate, please.

DODGE: Enough people said that the Earth was flat, so the Earth was flat. Then, they said the Earth was round, so the Earth was round.

NOAH: The Earth is round.

DODGE: Prove it.

NOAH: Science proves it.

DODGE [laughing]: Science? And who understands the science, huh?

JILL: Eyes on the road, please, always.

DODGE: Enough people talk about something, right? Then it becomes fact. Then they put it in the books, and then the book becomes fact. Then it’s settled. Then no one understands it anymore, no one even talks about it anymore. Fuck, this is why we gotta burn the books, man.

In some ways this is a zombie movie, but instead of the usual tired cliches we have the more interesting angle that the zombies are insomniacs driven psychotic by the build-up of toxins in their brains. When we finally reach the Hub it turns out that Murphy has no ideas except to keep everyone topped up with a cocktail of stimulants, which of course accelerates the collapse in to a final shootout between bloodshot goons in khaki.

Having stayed tough and real with us so far, the film does finally give us a magical happy ending – two, if you include the unlikelihood that the family could all avoid getting shot in the last battle. It turns out there’s an obvious reason why Matilda is able to sleep, and it’s possible, though not easy, to get Mum and Noah into the same state. God knows how this could be rolled out to the rest of America, if any of it is still alive by this point. Perhaps the answer could have been discovered earlier if Jill had sufficient confidence in this society to take her daughter to the Hub at the start, instead of seeing herself as a solo fighter trying to defend what little she could hold on to as the social fabric disintegrated instantly.

Altogether this is a rather superior, unsentimental post-apocalyptic story. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr. Murphy is giving another installment of her new career playing morally ambiguous technical bureaucrats, following after the roles of Girder in Possessor and Dr. Ventress in Annihilation. The importance of physical libraries also appears, possibly the first time they have a major plot role in a scifi film since Zardoz (1974).

At one point Dr. Murphy mentions “the glymphatic system”, which I’d never heard of before. By a sad coincidence, I watched this film at the same time as news broke that years and years of research into Alzheimer’s Disease may have been misdirected. Amongst on-line comments about this, I saw a reference to a paper about the effects of sleep-deprivation. Maybe Dodge had a point about science after all; at any rate we can sure this will be cited by sceptics of lots of unrelated treatments and diagnoses.

The picture at the top is L-DOPA, used by Dr. Oliver Sacks and others to treat sleeping sickness.

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