Awakenings (1990)

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shh spoilers << synopsis

Many things in this movie spoke to me, mainly the very simple but eloquently put dialogue (I wish script writers wrote my speeches, I would sound so clever) and the beautifully subtle symbolisms throughout the film (I’ll get to these).

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The main message of the movie centers around appreciation for, well, life (the importance of all of it).  It comes directly from Leonard himself as he calls Dr Sayers at 5am with this striking realisation. It is something I definitely agree with and am constantly reminded of every time I open my eyes. With our hectic schedules and stressors, we somehow forget to appreciate the wondrous nature of life. We even forget to appreciate what we already have, just because it seems so commonplace. Take our senses for instance, it’s so incredible how we can feel warmth, see lights, hear laughter.. but somehow that’s become so normal that we forget about it. We look without seeing, live without experiencing. “Can we find beauty only in rare, exceptional instances or does it truly lie all around us?” I believe the latter, just that beauty is more obvious in the first. The image above, I feel, captures this notion so well.

Now, about the dialogue. There’s this one line that really stuck with me, even now (it’s been running laps in my head). I don’t know if it was intended, but it made me think about human nature. It came out when Dr Sayers questioned a Parkinsons specialist about whether Leonard and the others retained their higher functions, whether they knew for a fact that they were indeed brain dead.

“How can you be sure?”

“… because the alternative would be unthinkable”

Those six words floored me. In this case, where the alternative would be that these people were in fact completely present but trapped in their own bodies (although in the movie it was more like someone hit the pause button on their brain functions while their bodies grew, but we didn’t know this then), the alternative is horrifying. So, to protect yourself from the horror (a defense mechanism of some sort), you deny the possibility of that alternative. After all, ignorance is bliss. I think in a way this illustrated how we sometimes refuse to consider something when it’s too horrible, ie; when you’re staring death in the face, the first step is denial.

It also made me think about the Holocaust, the whole Nazi thing, soldiers.. even abusers. How people justified doing such horrible things to others. Imagine you were a soldier, stationed at Auschwitz-Berkenau. Before this, it’s been drilled into you how Jews are responsible for all evils etc. Then, you’re put there and just like Zimbardo’s prison experiment, you begin to abuse and torture. You lead them to gas chambers and crematoriums proudly, believing you’re doing the best for your people. Then, someone asks you if there was a good Jew. You’re probably not going to say yes, because how will you justify all the things you’ve done? Even faced with proof, you’re not going to want to believe it because it goes against your previous beliefs and what you’ve done. So, you’d probably overlook that, looking instead for instances confirming your earlier beliefs to reduce the dissonance you’d be experiencing otherwise. There is no good Jew. There is no alternative.. That’s probably why it worked so well.

Back to the movie, by rejecting this alternative, they ended up condemning individuals (the patients) to a life that really is no life at all. Everyone else operates under this assumption too, so after a while, these individuals, they become less than human, human shaped rocks that require extra care.

After even more time passes, and you’ve left them in this state for years and years when someone (Dr Sayers) proposes the horrifying alternative. Even if it seems possible, you wouldn’t accept this readily. This kind of explains why most professionals (ie; the head of the facility & the Parkinsons expert) shrugged off Dr Sayer’s ideas and were extremely reluctant to provide any help at first.

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As for subtle symbolisms (much more of a positive topic), the picture of feet up here (Leonard and a little girl passing each other on the stairs). The perfection of this scene shattered me (in the best possible way). He was like that child taking her first few steps, despite him being about 40+ (he’d been away for a while and now was back, as he put it< another lovely piece of dialogue), into a world he had always been in but had been unable to experience for the better part of two decades. He had awoken and was looking at the world with new eyes

Another thing, the concept of  lending one’s spirit and will. I feel this is what people, in general, do. We share parts of ourselves with others (usually with reciprocity), which is almost like letting a part of our spirit touch that of another person. This is how we form connections, share our hopes and dreams, help others and also seek help from them. Amazing. I can’t even word it out properly.

I know the movie aimed to be empowering, leaving you with that fuzzy feeling, but somehow it just left me feeling kind of sad. I mean sure, the fuzzy feeling was there but there was this reminder of how life isn’t always fair. After all those awakenings, the chemical window closed and they returned to their earlier state of catatonia. That’s terrifying.. but, I felt that it was quite a perfect ending. You know, when you hate how something is but it feels so perfect that you can’t imagine anything better? Yeah, it’s like that (watch/read “The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas”, you’ll know what I mean). The shortness of their  awakening symbolises how life is, transient. I’m left with the phrase “We’re all going to die. We don’t know when, or how. Yet, we live our lives as though none of this is true”. That scares me a little (but I can’t help thinking how well it fits my takeaways from this movie, that’s cool).

One final thing (I’m sorry, I have a lot of feelings haha) the acting in this movie is incredible. I’ve always thought portraying the mentally disabled was dangerous as it could come off as mockery. However, it’s done really well here (although the lady who screams at pens really made me jump), very genuine. A really minor thing that I felt was a little overdone was how introversion is portrayed, mainly when Dr Sayer couldn’t seem to understand why everyone didn’t enjoy the garden trip like he did. Still, I do think this made the ending (Dr Sayer asking Eleanor out) more, for lack of a better word, epic and memorable. It was like a final hat tip to the title, he awakened to the importance of living life to the fullest and took a step out of his comfort zone.

Also, feedback is welcomed 😀 (please) thanks!

word count: 1169

sorry about the length…

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