Dr. Wheeler “likes to do things her own way.”
I don’t know about you, but I love conspiracy theories. I mean, wouldn’t it be cool if the government really did recover space-alien bodies at Roswell, and maybe there really is a giant labyrinth of underground tunnels under a mountain somewhere out West where the military is doing top-secret experiments on interplanetary technology?
None of which has anything to do with the 1978 release “Coma,” except the conspiracy angle. This is, after all, a Michael Crichton film, so what would you expect? Crichton? Sure, he’s the guy who wrote “Westworld,” the “Jurassic Park” series, “Looker,” “Disclosure,” “Sphere,” “Timeline,” and a multitude of other credits including the screenplay for “Coma” from a novel by Robin Cook. In addition, he directed over half a dozen movies like “Westworld,” “Looker,” and “Physical Evidence,” as well as this one.
With a solid cast that includes Genevieve Bujold, Michael Douglas, Elizabeth Ashley, Rip Torn, and Richard Widmark, “Coma” could hardly fail. And it doesn’t. Surprisingly, it’s a pretty good thriller. I say “surprisingly” not because it should have been bad but because I hadn’t seen it in over thirty years, and I’d forgotten how good it was. It pleasantly surprised me.
This time we’ve a medical conspiracy on our hands. Another surprise, though, is that it’s Ms. Bujold who stars, not Michael Douglas. This was several years before “Romancing the Stone,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Wall Street,” and the rest. If the studio, MGM, had made the film in, say, 1987 instead of 1978, Douglas might have gotten the lead. As it is, he basically plays second fiddle to Ms. Bujold’s dauntless heroine.
Bujold and Douglas play doctors, Susan Wheeler and Mark Bellows, at Boston Memorial Hospital, the pair of them surgeons and lovers. Crichton develops their characters deliberately at first, along with the action, keeping everything at a low profile. He is not one of these current directors who uses quick edits, extreme close-ups, and ear-shattering musical surges to generate or inflate moments of excitement. In this regard, “Coma” is closer to films like “All the President’s Men” or “Three Days of the Condor” than it is to anything else.
Susan and Mark are going about their lives as most couples do, loving and caring and bickering and threatening to break up, when Susan’s best friend Nancy Greenly (Lois Chiles) goes unexpectedly into an irreversible coma during a routine operation at Boston Memorial. When Susan checks into the situation, she begins to suspect something amiss. She investigates further and discovers that an abnormally high number of the hospital’s patients have gone into comas unexpectedly over the past year or two. As she continues to delve into the hospital’s practices, she starts to uncover a lot more than she bargained for.
The suspense builds slowly as Susan turns up one startling fact after another, all the while everyone around her, including her boyfriend Mark, thinking she’s going a little looney, paranoid. Those especially concerned for her mental health are Dr. George (Rip Torn), the hospital’s Chief of Anesthesiology, and Dr. Harris (Richard Widmark), the Chief of Surgery. Neither of these department heads wants Susan going any further into what Susan thinks may be huge plot to, well, to do what she isn’t sure.
What is most disturbing is that her own boyfriend Mark doesn’t want her to persist with her inquiry. Is it possible that he could have some ulterior motive for not wanting Susan to go on prying into hospital practices? But it’s Michael Douglas. It couldn’t be.
The movie’s tension mounts inch by inch as people stonewall Susan at every turn. Even we as an audience have to wonder if she isn’t just losing a few marbles. Until she visits a site outside the city that cares for the comatose patients from Boston Memorial. Then things start to get really scary.
Anyway, as I say, Crichton does a more than credible job directing his own screenplay, yet he makes some odd choices along the way. For instance, in one scene Susan enters a room where the hospital keeps its patient files; it’s after closing time, and she finds the fellow in charge behind the counter making love to his secretary. It’s kind of amusing, actually, but unnecessary to the story except, perhaps, in some symbolic way, to show that things aren’t always as they appear. In any case, it seems out of place. Later, Susan is climbing up a long ladder attached to a wall several stories high. The scene is moving along well and the pressure building; then Crichton places his camera beneath Bujold’s body and we stare directly up her open skirt. Now, I’m sorry to sound like a dirty old man, but that rather distracts from the rest of the scene, no? Finally, although the film gets a PG rating, it contains a fair number of bare breasts, including Ms. Bujold’s and a number of comatose bodies of nubile young women. I suppose it helps sell the picture.
A final fascinating thing about movies such as this one, thirty or more years old: You never know who you’re going to see in minor roles that you may recognize. In “Coma,” look for Tom Selleck as a hospital patient and Ed Harris as a pathology resident. My, they were young.
So, there you have it: “Coma” is a taut little medical-conspiracy film. Not to be confused with “Comma,” a taught little grammatical-conspiracy film. An easy mistake to make.
WB’s video engineers do a respectable transferring what was probably not the best-looking film in the world to Blu-ray. Obviously doing their best to restore the print and using an MPEG-4/AVC codec and a single-layer BD25, they obtain varying degrees of picture quality. We see a good deal of grain and noise in the opening outdoor shots and a lot of grain in white backgrounds, which in a film set largely in a hospital can be many. But the screen is fairly clean for most of the film, too, and with a bright contrast, it looks at least as good as most broadcast HD television shows. Although the image can be rather soft at times, when the PQ is good, it’s more than acceptable.
The sound comes to us via a fairly ordinary monaural track, which not even lossless DTS-HD Master Audio can do much to improve. The main advantage is that it displays a clear midrange, so all the talk comes through in a natural, easy-to-understand manner. Otherwise, there is little in the way of frequency extremes, dynamic punch, or the like.
Keep saying to yourself: The film’s the thing, the film’s the thing, because there’s precious little else. Warners provide a widescreen, standard-definition theatrical trailer; a healthy thirty-three scene selections; English, French, German, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English and German captions for the hearing impaired. The disc comes in a flimsy Eco-case.
“Coma” is a genuinely suspenseful mystery thriller, with a conspiracy angle unfolding in due course without a lot of fuss and bother. Sure, the whole thing is as preposterous as theories of the Roswell cover-up, but, then, who’s to say Roswell wasn’t real?