Not often do I find myself regretting my initial reactions conveyed in the reviews I write. As policy, I take the time to fully digest what I’ve seen before putting my fingers on the keys.
A review I posted for the film Awaken is one I deeply regret.
If you have read the review (reposted below) you’re aware most of the sentiments therein were positive in nature. The admiration in the original will not be rescinded, the regret is in the superficial nature of the criticism. Thankfully, I was able to sit down with creator, Natalie Burn, to discuss the intricacies of the film.
Ms. Burn beamed with delight given the opportunity to talk about her most recent effort, Awaken. Even through a sometimes scrambled video-chat connection, it was apparent just how proud she is of her creation and with good reason.
Awaken, a film about a group of strangers stranded on an island for the purpose of black market organ harvesting, is a breakthrough for Burn. A passion project to put all of her skills on display.
In a world where all Hollywood productions seem to be going for broke, collecting superstars to create a handful of “super films,” backed with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars, anyone other than the silver screen elite are finding fierce competition for fewer and fewer roles. Burn, like many of her peers, did the only thing that made sense: creating work. “I realized just how little opportunity I had as an actress. I always felt I would make a good action star but the opportunities weren’t there, so I had to create a role for myself.” The role, Billie Kope, is a strong willed woman fighting for her life and more importantly her family.
“I had to prove myself. People didn’t believe I could fight (physically and emotionally in her performance).” As a less recognizable actress, Burn was expected to put together a cast full of name actors in order to secure a commitment from producers and distributors. She called in multiple favors from connections she had made and rallied Jason London, Daryl Hannah, Vinnie Jones, and Edward Furlong among others around the project. “I didn’t originally write myself as the lead, but when given the opportunity, I knew I had to make the most of it. I needed to show everyone (including her cast who signed on not knowing for sure if Burn could pull it off) I could do it all. I needed to prove I was worth the chance people were taking.”
Burn a trained ballet dancer, wanted to show she was not only capable of being another pretty face, but also needed to showcase her physical skills for the role. “I do all my stunts and action scenes. I needed to prove to everyone I could fight.” It’s clear her multifaceted talents are on full display throughout as she wrote, produced, starred, and even sang the closing song to the film. “I wanted to be a role model in this film. I wanted to portray a woman with depth, who could care and love while also kicking butt.”
Contrary to how it may sound, the film is not a gore fest created by the likes of Eli Roth. The story originated from an article Burn read about a young boy who went missing and upon being found, he was missing both of his eyes, stolen by organ thieves. “As an artist I feel I have a responsibility to put awareness of issues into my films. Given the opportunity (to have an audience) why not do something with it? I wanted to make audiences aware of the people who get kidnapped and have their organs taken who’s stories often go untold.” Blood and guts are largely nonexistent in this one however, and the expected organ theft is largely implied. Burn made this a conscious decision, “I didn’t want to distract from the message behind the film.”
Burn is currently having a blast on the film festival circuit. Awaken has already picked up an award for Best Film at the Artemis Film Festival and a Best Actress award for her role at the Sunscreen Film Festival; and the response at other festivals has been overwhelmingly positive. The only thing upsetting Burn these days is an R-rating from the MPAA. She felt (and so did we) a PG-13-rating was more appropriate with the great lengths she went to keep swearing and violence to a minimum. Even that won’t keep Burn down though. She’s happy to talk to at length about her work and it’s clear there is a drive within her that won’t be stopped. It’s easy to find yourself rooting for her both on the screen and in life.
Look for Awaken at a film festival near you and find it on Video On Demand starting July 7, 2015. You can find out more about the film on their Facebook page, on Twitter, and the 7 Heaven Productions website.
Review of Awaken:
Somewhere in the middle of your film watching lifetime, you become very jaded. There becomes fewer things you have never seen before and you watch the best stories get recycled again and again. It can be rather depressing. You turn on a film and immediately start figuring out where the story is going and you attempt to differentiate the stealthy antagonist from all of the red herrings. When you get the details right you’re disappointed because you feel cheated by inferior storytelling.
Upon reading the synopsis for Awaken, it’s easy to assume it’s a standard retread, take a story that’s worked before, make it slightly different, and hope the audience likes the characters enough to pretend they haven’t seen this all a million times. I was positive when I hit play, I would be watching some version of The Most Dangerous Game. When you read about woman who wakes up on an island and is being watched by a group of militants slowly hunting down those imprisoned there, it’s easy to believe you’re watching something completely unoriginal and possibly more terrifying; uninspired.
The opening shot is of star Natalie Burn, waking up on the beach with no explanation as to why she’s there. A stunning shot expanding on the beautiful locale while simultaneously giving the indication things are not as beautiful as it would lead you to believe. It’s very reminiscent of the opening scene in Lost with equally stunning cinematography, but furthering the idea this was not something new.
What happens from that opening sequence shuts the door on all of those preconceived notions.
While there are many similarities to both of the aforementioned productions, the story that unfolds is something worthwhile and I think there might just be a few things you don’t see coming.
What allows this film to work is the deviation from expectations. Burn’s character Billie has a mysterious back story, shown in flashbacks. You can certainly assume this is what leads her to the island (you would be right), but it isn’t for the reason you would expect. Your assumption is Billie is there for the same reason all the others living in tropical captivity (you would be wrong), you assume her imprisonment is calculated and purposeful (you’d be mostly wrong). By the time you can guess where it is headed (at least for me anyway) there is only about 15 minutes left in the film before you reach the “aha moment”, and ultimately, it doesn’t take the exact path you were expecting. To be able to keep a viewer guessing for roughly 85% of your film should be considered a victory for the filmmakers; after all even if you know the outcome at that point, who walks away from something so close to the end?
Now I’m being intentionally vague with plot points here because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but as this deserted island genre has been beaten to death over the years (Gilligan’s Island, Lord of the Flies, Cast Away, etc.), Awaken drifts just far enough from the standard tropes to distinguish itself. Unlike most of it’s predecessors, the film doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing the obvious and more typical infatuations of the genre such as “How do we get out of here?” and characters and relationships drive the plot more than action.
Without giving away the twists and turns of the film, much conversation on the plot itself is hard to have. You will still find a lot of things you have seen before and some of the scenes aren’t as polished as others, but overall Awaken was much more fun than expected. A quality cast including some familiar faces (Edward Furlong, Daryl Hannah, Vinnie Jones), an engrossing story, and solid filmmaking merit watching this one.