Robin Cook is a doctor who found his second calling as a novelist writing bestselling medical thrillers—31 of them, to date.
Coma (1977) was his first major novel and probably his best known, because in 1978 another guy who knows a thing or two about bestselling thrillers—Michael Crichton—wrote the screenplay and directed the film version, which starred Michael Douglas, Rip Torn, and Genevieve Bujold.
You’d think that one-two punch would have led to a knockout film, but while “Coma” was a box-office sensation, critics weren’t as enthusiastic. Still, it had that same “Big Brother” paranoia about it that characterized films from the ‘70s, and that made for sustained tension, at least. And, as in the novel, it was hard to tell the good guys from the bad. That alone will make you paranoid.
With the 2012 incarnation of “Coma,” which aired as a two-part miniseries on A&E, director Mikael Salomon (“The Abyss,” “The Andromeda Strain,” “Backdraft”) had the chance to improve upon an imperfect film . . . but comes up short. The first part seems to drag as a set-up for the more dramatic second part, and a shaky reality-camera “Blair Witch Hunt” opening purporting to expose Jefferson Institute for not being what it seems totally eliminates any doubt as to that institution’s sinister bent—if fortress-style guards wasn’t enough to arouse suspicion. But most importantly the good and bad characters are easier to tell apart, and that glorious ‘70s paranoia is missing.
Maybe these days it’s impossible to recapture the Nixonian psychosis that both echoed and superceded the counterculture’s distrust of government, corporate giants, and anything that looked, smelled, or sounded like The Establishment. Without that paranoia and without successfully blurred lines of good and evil, the audience knows way too much way too early.
Emmy-nominated Lauren Ambrose (“Six Feet Under”), who was born the year the original film was made, handles the Bujold role, playing a medical student who’s a “legacy” at the hospital she’s interning at. Her grandfather was one of the legendary figures in the hospital’s history, and that means people have to treat her differently. But in formulaic style she’s established as the “caring one,” wandering off the intern tour to insert herself into the lives of patients who seem to be suffering while other people in the medical profession have this “whatever” attitude, with one of them resting his coffee cup on the chest of a comatose patient. The other interns, like most wannabe doctors these days, are in it for both the patients AND the money . . . and you get the feeling that the latter is more important to many of them. So Susan Wheeler is quickly established as the sensitive one and the inquisitive one, with the rest of them quite content to mind their own business and coast toward their chosen areas of specialization.
Because of the obviousness of plot—and I’m including, here, what should have been THE BIG REVEAL—and because Susan Wheeler seems to show no fear when a normal person would be shared skitless, what could have been high suspense is merely uncomfortable drama.
It’s not for lack of trying. “Coma 2012” features plenty of distinguished and talented actors. Geena Davis plays Dr. Agnetta Lindquist, who calls the shots at the hospital, while Ellen Burstyn plays Mrs. Emerson, her counterpart at a futuristic facility that specializes in the care of coma patients. Those two are the scenery-munchers, who play their characters like caricatures. Then there’s James Woods as Dr. Howard Stark, the chief of staff, and Richard Dreyfuss as Professor Hillside. And a cast like that should have been enough, really, to elevate this two-part film.
But it all too quickly turns into an intern and her supervising doctor (Steven Pasquale, as Dr. Mark Bellows) trying to figure out why this particular hospital seems to have so many patients lapsing into comas in routine surgeries, and why Operating Room 8 in particular has such a bad record. Except that their investigation loses power because the audience has already figured much of it out. And, come on. This so-called Jefferson Institute is more secure than the Pentagon! If a family would really believe that they could have a representative and normal care facility visit with a loved one in a coma who’s wearing a futuristic Silver Surfer suit and stuck on a skewer like a bird being roasted, delivered to them through a mechanized system in a “visitation room” then there’s something wrong with those families.
Susan finds a champion in Dr. Theodore Stark (Woods), who’s, of course, announced as a good guy way too early, while a hospital worker with a mental condition is tabbed as a killer equally prematurely. Nothing telegraphs an evil minion like an over-the-top evil scientist—well, except in this film, where we get more shaky camera flashbacks to show this guy in action. Why would a director choose to incorporate spoilers like that? In “Coma,” which has a 160-minute run time, that’s the real mystery.
The video presentation is neither remarkable nor unremarkable. It’s competent—what you’d expect, really, from a standard def presentation of a 2012 TV miniseries. Colors are desaturated in key scenes to make everything look impersonal and industrial, and there’s a decent level of detail for DVDs, with strong-enough edges. “Coma” is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is similar, with an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround delivering a clear-enough soundtrack with a surprising amount of rear-speaker involvement. The sound doesn’t travel much, but the lack of a dynamic soundtrack is the least of this film’s problems. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, and French.
Other than previews, there are no bonus features. But as a side note, have a look at the back cover notes . . . after you watch this miniseries. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many spoilers on DVD packaging!
With “Coma,” the production values are as good as they are for a Hollywood feature film, and there are worse ways to spend an evening. But the original film is better.