In the mid-1970s MGM effectively stopped making movies. This decision was forced by a corporate takeover from Las Vegas financier Kirk Kerkorian who proceeded to ransack the vast studio empire, selling off its assets to help finance his plans for the MGM Grand Hotel. In the wake of Kerkorian’s rummage sale MGM did the next best thing to making its own home grown product. It began either financing or acquiring outright movies already made elsewhere under a distribution agreement with the producers to help generate profits. Of this latter ilk is Michael Crichton’s Coma (1978); a bone-chilling suspense thriller based on Robin Cook’s bestselling novel. Like so many suspense movies made during the ‘70s, Coma feeds off of an all-pervasive paranoia most humans share – in this case, our generalized anxieties about going into the hospital for surgery that becomes anything but routine.
Crichton had already proven himself as a director with Westworld (1973), a low budget apocalyptic sci-fi thriller that nevertheless captivated the public’s fancy and made a lot of money for MGM. Interestingly enough, while Westworld’s paranoia comes from our fear of the unknown Coma’s creepy ambiguity stems from the familiar. We’ve all been inside a hospital at least once, either as a patient or casual visitor. We’ve walked the corridors, perhaps peeking into wards where the afflicted and the dying lay in wait of treatment or the inevitable. As such, we know the lay of the land, our natural impulses on high alert even before the film begins, and Crichton and Cook – both doctors before transitioning into their second careers - are diabolically manipulative in exploiting these collective apprehensions.
The screenplay by Crichton begins in earnest with a burgeoning romance between two residents at Boston General: enterprising cool customer, Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas) and the more introspective Susan Wheeler (Genevieve Bujold). Sue is high strung – or, that is to say, she’s meticulous and opinionated. Occasionally, this leads to friction in her private life. Sue becomes personally invested in the case of Nancy Greenly (Lois Chiles) – a close friend who went in for a routine DNC that resulted in irreversible coma. Sue is in shock. But her probing is misperceived by Mark as obsessive overreacting.
Undaunted, Sue uses her charm to bride one of the hospital’s computer technicians (Gary Barton) into printing off a list of all patients who have fallen into unexplained coma at the hospital during the last year. Unfortunately, the spread sheet of names is logged by the central mainframe, alerting Chief of Staff Dr. Harris (Richard Widmark) to Sue’s investigation. Harris counsels Sue to forget the whole matter. But Sue turns next to a pair of pathologists (Ed Harris and Robert Burton) in the hospital morgue, ‘hypothetically’ inquiring how one could artificially induce coma. Her inquisitiveness ruffles the feathers of Chief of Pathology, Dr. George (Rip Torn). Again, Dr. Harris advises Sue to set aside her theories, only this time his kindly words are tinged with a hint of sternness. Reluctantly, Sue agrees.
However, when maintenance man, Kelly (Frank Downing) whets Sue’s appetite about a secret in the boiler room beneath the hospital she agrees to meet him downstairs to continue her investigation. Unfortunately for both, Kelly is murdered by hired killer, Vince (Lance LeGault) before Sue can learn the truth. Masquerading as a delivery man, Vince douses Kelly in a bucket of water, shoving him against the electrical panel. Moments later, Sue discovers Kelly’s body.
After the police have wrapped up their inquiry Sue returns to the boiler room with a flashlight. She discovers a curious divergence in the fuel lines that carry oxygen to O.R. #8 and begins to suspect that healthy people are deliberately being put into comas. Energized by her discovery, Sue is forced to flee Vince – who has been waiting for her - through the abandoned teaching labs. She tricks her assailant by hiding in a freezer with the cadavers used for biological dissection, then rushes home to confide her findings to Mark.
Mark is comforting, but not entirely ready to believe Sue’s outlandish story. Instead, he decided to take Sue on a weekend getaway along the coast. The road trip does wonders for both of them. They unwind, soak up the sun, enjoy the sights and make love. But on their journey back into town, Sue spies an anonymous sign post for the Jefferson Institute. Remembering that Nancy was moved to Jefferson – a long term care facility – Nancy encourages Mark to drive her there. But Sue is dissuaded from entering the facility by nurse, Mrs. Emerson (Elizabeth Ashley) who instead encourages Sue to accompany a pre-scheduled tour that will take place with other residents the following week.
Sue does just that, but then separates from the group to explore uncharted corridors not on the itinerary. What she discovers is that the Jefferson Institute is selling its patient’s internal organs to the highest bidder on the black market. After a harrowing chase with security guards, Sue escapes the Jefferson Institute and returns to Boston General where she informs Dr. Harris of her findings. He’s concerned and offers her a drink; then quietly waits as the powerful narcotic he has slipped into her the glass takes effect. Sue collapses in his office and Dr. Harris notifies his team that he must perform an emergency appendectomy in order to save her life. Actually, he is planning to make Sue a permanent resident of the Jefferson Institute.
Mark hurries to the boiler room where he finds that the oxygen tanks for O.R. #8 have been switched with carbon monoxide. He destroys the connection and Dr. Harris operates on Sue under the presumption that she will never wake up from the surgery. Instead, Sue comes to. Realizing that she will be able to identify him as a conspirator, Harris now sees Mark waiting for him just beyond the O.R. doors with two policemen who are ready to arrest him. The film ends with a defeated Harris slowly turning off the lights in O.R. #8 for the last time.
Coma is a competent mystery yarn; its implausible plotting held together by Crichton’s nibble screenplay that doesn’t dwell too long on any one point, thereby masking its more obviously flawed premise. The film isn’t bad. It just doesn’t make much sense: the cause and effect linkage between Dr. Harris, Dr. George and the Jefferson Institute sketchy at best. After all, why would any uber-wealthy chief of staff risk his reputation and career to pedal black market body parts?
Michael Douglas and Genevieve Bujold make a winning pair. But the film is really more hers than his and Bujold does her part proud. Douglas isn’t given much room in the script, but gives solid support nevertheless. And he manages a slight hint of menace that keeps the audience guessing whether or not he is a part of the conspiracy. Michael Crichton’s direction is very solid, building Sue’s innate uncertainty into a paranoia that collectively infects the audience. Like Sue, we second guess our own deductions, before gradually coming to the terrifying realization that our own worst fears have been realized.
Crichton is so clever about the way he keeps his protagonist just a few quick steps ahead of the game throughout most of the film. For example: during the chase between Sue and Vince through the darkly lit labs, Crichton whets our expectations for a forced confrontation between the two that never happens. We anticipate Vince catching up to Sue, for there to be a struggle and then, predictably, an escape. But none of these outcomes occur. Instead, Sue turns the tables on her attacker and leaves him alone and trapped inside the morgue. This unexpected resolution is much more satisfying than the aforementioned clichés. And Coma is filled with such moments, clever and stylishly created on a budget, but that continue to hold up under today’s more cynical scrutiny. Good stuff, actually – and very much worth renewed viewing on Blu-ray.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray won’t win any awards. Like the film, it’s competent without being spectacular. The single layered 1080p transfer marginally improves in all aspects. Colours are more refined, blacks deeper and contrast tightens. Grain looks more film like. Several sequences are impressive in their depth of field, but on the whole the image is more flat than fabulous. Over all, this hi-def rendering captures the look and feel of a film made in the 1970s and perhaps that’s as it should be. The mono DTS audio is adequate, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounds ever so slightly more robust uncompressed. No extras again. Warner ought to have at least given us an audio commentary or featurette. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)