Directed by Mark Raso (Kodachrome) and written by he and his brother Joseph (Sneakerella), the sci-fi horror thriller takes place in the immediate future and follows the fallout of a mysterious apocalyptic event that shuts down all electronics and sees most humans on Earth lose the ability to sleep. But in the midst of all the chaos and societal collapse is Matilda (Avengers: Infinity War‘s Ariana Greenblatt), a young girl who has miraculously retained the ability to still fall asleep. Now it’s up to her mother Jill (Annihilation‘s Gina Rodriguez), an ex-soldier, and brother Noah (Heroes Reborn‘s Lucius Hoyos) to get her to the military hub where the only other person with the ability to sleep currently exists, as scientists and the military work to find a cure before everyone eventually succumbs to the perils of longterm sleep deprivation.
For Rodriguez, who actually shot the project two years ago, the idea of this dystopic horror film coming out while the world is still in the grips of a global pandemic, is a bit of a strange experience.
“The world was in a different space then. At the time there was no way I could have imagined that we would be going through what we’re going through now in our world,” Rodriguez tells SYFY WIRE. “And to think about the sci-fi projects all over that expand and extend our imagination, and how it’s been feeling like the last year and a half has felt a little surreal at times.”
The world within Awake is a bit surreal too, as all the various people in Jill’s life and the wider world struggle against the effects of long-term insomnia with varying reactions. There are those who turn to religion right away, hoping for a miracle; while others turn to violence almost immediately, the lack of sleep reducing whatever inhibition they’d previously possessed. Compounding all this is the loss of technology which makes both survival and the search for a cure so much harder.
“Sleep deprivation was something that we went really deep into,” Rodriguez says. “The idea that we could be hit with an electromagnetic wave that shuts down all technology, and just this idea of how often we are dependent on technology, and how much our bodies have become these robotic programs. So just the body breaking down… it is terrifying because it’s very real. As someone who has a husband who had such terrible insomnia, it takes a toll on your body.”
Most of the scares in Awake come not just from the unpredictability of the sleep-deprived people that Jill and her children encounter, but also their own reactions to the events around them, as she and her son fall further into sleepless states. “What’s very scary is seeing a real person experience real trauma,” Rodriguez says. “That’s very frightening. And so that was cool that they played in that space versus putting anything surreal on it.”
And what sets this film apart from other female-led dystopia horror movies like Bird Box and A Quiet Place Part II is the fact that as a widow and a mom who doesn’t have legal custody of her kids, Jill is pretty much on her own right away, with not much of an outside support system beyond the kids’ grandma and her own training.
“She’s trying to figure it out while battling her own demons and her own past,” explains Rodriguez, who drew inspiration from her own mother while playing the part. “In some of our most difficult times, and even in my upbringing, when we had some difficult experiences, [my mom would rise] to challenges in a very selfless, logical, and deeply mindful way.”
Rodriguez feels Jill exhibits that same kind of strength and pragmatism under pressure and is able to model that for her daughter, while not trying to hide her flaws either. “There were moments to really express a different feminine energy and go against a gender norm that is perpetuated, and really show that this woman has garnered so much from so many places and goes beyond her role as a mother,” says the Carmen Sandiego and Jane the Virgin actor.
What’s more, the apocalyptic situations that Jill and her kids find themselves in actually play to her strengths as an ex-soldier, as she works to keep them all alive even as the lack of sleep begins to take its toll. It’s a stark contrast with the world at the beginning of the film, the one Jill is struggling to stay afloat in. Suddenly she knows what to do and how to react as all her training and knowledge kicks in.
“It’s this idea that we do fit somewhere, our strengths do belong somewhere, and we all have this power in us,” says Rodriguez of this shift in her character. “There are things that block that power or inner strength, and sometimes it’s in these situations that someone discovers why they were equipped with [this], why they have always felt like they owned [it, but] didn’t feel like there was a place for their power or their strength.
“That’s what we were trying to really relay, which is just when you see someone, you don’t know where they are, you don’t know their backstory, and you don’t know what they’re capable of,” Rodriguez adds. “And so empathy is so vital, and we are all extraordinary in our own right and in our own path.”
Awake dawns on Netflix on June 9.