Coma (1978)
★★★ / ★★★★

The relationship between feisty Dr. Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold) and ambitious Dr. Bellows (Michael Douglas) was on the rocks. Susan liked to do things her way without compromise while it seemed like all Mark could ever talk about with her was hospital politics. Although “Coma,” based on the screenplay and directed by Michael Crichton, started off like a relationship drama because of a drawn out argument in the couple’s apartment in the beginning of the film, just below its epidermis flowed something more sinister. Several patients in Boston Memorial Hospital, one of them being Dr. Wheeler’s pregnant friend, underwent minor surgeries which required induced unconsciousness via anesthesia. The problem: they never woke up. After further inspection, electroencephalogram tests suggested that the otherwise young and healthy patients showed no sign of brain activity; they were now corpses being kept “alive” by machines. The wonderful thing about the film, one of its two unambiguous elements, was we knew that Dr. Wheeler was our protagonist and everyone else, including her boyfriend, was a suspect. The second clear-cut component involved the illicit goings-on beginning with the hospital. With each passing scene of increasingly gray motivations, the audience was given a piece of information about a possible conspiracy and we followed Dr. Wheeler into all sorts of trouble until she discovered the horrors within her workplace as well as the co-workers she thought she could trust. Because there was an obvious right and wrong, our sympathy was with Dr. Wheeler. She was not always efficient but we rooted for her to come out on top in the end. The filmmakers created a great atmosphere of paranoia. The seemingly endless walls of the hospital were appropriately nondescript, the lingo heard in the air and through telephone wires required a medical handbook of terms for full understanding, and the snip and tear of the flesh during surgeries left a lot to the imagination since not much gore was shown. The sense of detachment made the hospital look like an actual place of business where important things happened instead of a magical place where everyone went to be completely free from their illnesses. An understated but memorable scene, at least for me, involved Dr. Wheeler telling a little boy that there was something wrong with both of his kidneys and they needed to be replaced. He asked when he would get new ones. She couldn’t answer exactly. However, we knew that it would either take a long time or he wouldn’t get them at all. There was a sadness and truth in that scene which resonated with me. I appreciated its level of reality, down to the doctor casually eating his lunch while observing an autopsy within inches from the corpse. However, the film had critical missteps tonally. In its desperate attempt to convince us that what Dr. Wheeler and Dr. Bellows had as a couple was good, although quite brief, it happened just enough times to take me out of the moment completely. The sequence that made me wince most involved Susan and Mark running along the beach, perfect lighting and all, and kissing while lying on the sand. During those moments, I laughed at the film not because it was darkly comic but because it was so cheesy. I felt like I was watching a made-for-TV movie instead of a focused, edgy paranoid medical thriller. Despite being based on Robin Cook’s novel, I’m sure alterations could have been made regarding the tawdry romance given its high level of screenplay. It couldn’t be denied that “Coma” had an imagination. It just needed to play upon its strengths instead of taking a gamble with cornball.

4 replies »

    • It’s definitely worth viewing. A remake is in the works… which, despite this movie’s shortcomings, I don’t think is necessary. But when it comes out, I’ll keep an open mind.

  1. The cheeze really should have been excised both in the novel and in the film. No need for a soft focus shampoo commercial in the middle of a thriller. What was so interesting about the film is that it managed to transfer the primal paranoia the layman has with hospitals and transfer it to someone within the medical establishment; causing the viewer to feel their own natural neuroses about illness and mortality are justified.

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