Apparently, according to the text appearing on screen at the start of this film, a good number of people fail to lose consciousness when anesthetized, and are able to hear and feel everything happening during a surgical procedure, while being unable to indicate their wakefulness in any way. Boy. That would really, really suck.
I can imagine the screenwriter stumbling across this fact and being filled with wild notions of some offbeat thriller, one centered around an idea that very probably has actually never been done before. It's exactly the sort of idea I would have. Shortly thereafter, I would also realize that it's not an idea which is alone capable of sustaining an entire plot, and would look for other things to go along with it. This second step seems to have been largely skipped.
Hayden Christensen plays Clay Bersford, next in a probably short series of roles the actor has tackled involving young men with mother issues who undergo serious surgical procedures without proper anesthesia. Yes, it's a small niche, and Hayden pretty much has it all to himself. He's extremely and congenitally rich, a man who has everything, except a heart that can actually last a lifetime. Following in the approach of hiring actors based on looks rather than acting ability, his girlfriend Sam is played by Jessica Alba, who wants more than anything for her boyfriend to be able to publicly acknowledge her. He's reticent to admit their nearly year-long relationship to his mother, sneaking around and hiding phone calls in the manner of a man who is having an affair; indeed, that seems to be quite deliberate, as his rather young-looking mother has some undisclosed problems with letting go. But time may be running out for Clay, and his friend and doctor tells him he should seize the moment, marry the girl he loves, and live as much as he can before his number's up. Even an acquisition of a new heart, he reminds the young tycoon, is no guarantee of survival. When a new heart does arrive, Clay and his suddenly very new bride make a beeline for the hospital, anxious to put the looming cloud of worry finally out of the equation and get on with their lives. As the operation began to get under way, I started to get the distinct sense that something was wrong; not with the characters' lives or fortunes, but with the film.
The extremely risky surgery that will either save or doom our protagonist should either come at the beginning of the story and allow us to focus on the aftermath, or come in the final act and serve as an emotinal climax. Coming right smack dab in the middle of the film felt entirely wrong; instead of making a nice parabolic trajectory, the plot development feels more like a softball tossed straight up; its energy exhausted in the climb, it begins almost at once to plunge unswervingly towards its conclusion. Clay is knocked out in preparation for his transplant, but slowly notes that he can still hear and feel what is happening to him, and realizes, with mounting terror, that this will include the part where his chest is about to be sliced open. For the duration of this scene, the film had me. Clay's mounting panic, expressed in a voice-over representing what he feels should be words coming audibly from his mouth, is tremendously effective and scary as all hell; the audience can't help but feel empathy, coupled with a squirming desire for the film to stop being so internalized, to cut away to another character's viewpoint, devoid of the screams and terror, which it sticks to its guns and fails to do. As if things weren't bad enough for our victim, he begins to overhear things being said between those in the room with him that sound very, very wrong, and not even in the expected way of "We're losing him," or "Shit; where'd I put that scalpel?" but very, very bad things. Unable to articulate anything, he begins to wander back through his recent memories in search of what's happening to him on the outside. It's a great conceit, but one ultimately derailed by its own inherent limitations.
The ultimate problem, beyond the lack of a middle part of the story, is this: any film taking place largely within the head of a character is clearly meant to be that character's story. Yet from the moment Clay is anesthetized, he becomes little more than an observer in his own tale. While he gradually is able to piece together the real situation he's landed in, his knowledge is ultimately of no use to him. He can't take any action based upon it. All the remaining action, as opposed to revelation, occurs with the other characters, meaning that the detecting and unravelling of the mystery must take place externally as well, rendering all of the hero's own epiphanies irrelevant. This is where the story structure drags it down: with all the subsequent action inevitably forced, by virtue of plot circumstance, to take place within the hospital, the lead character becomes powerless and unimportant, and with him, the obvious central premise becomes equally unimportant. Someone should've caught this fact early on and pushed for a new draft, but as it is, we end up with a film which could've been really fascinating and unusual, but which finally strangles itself. The only thing of enduring consequence Clay gathers from his condition is a revelation regarding his long-dead father, which feels so unrelated to the actual story that it seems as though it was merely added as a last-minute bit of script doctoring, designed to give the whole thing a point. Regrettably, it doesn't feel like a point that belongs, or could possibly matter to anyone besides Clay. If only the rest of the movie could've been as effective as that initial surgery scene, they might've really had something here.
-review by Matt Murray