Coma (1978)


Medical Thrillers: The 1970s Way

Main Cast: Michael Douglas, Genevieve Bujold

Director: Michael Crichton

You just can’t trust doctors at all, can you? Hell, even doctors can’t trust doctors. When Dr. Susan Wheeler’s (Genevieve Bujold, Dead Ringers) friend slips into a coma during a routine “therapeutic abortion”, the doctor thinks it awful strange and decides to investigate how it happened. When another patient who’s in for a simple knee surgery also slips into a coma during the operation, Dr. Wheeler’s curiosity is roused even more.

What follows is a harrowing couple of weeks at Boston Memorial Hospital, with a hired killer trying to silence Dr. Wheeler, a boyfriend (Michael Douglas) who thinks women are okay to have jobs as long as they cook dinner afterward, and a hospital staff that thinks Wheeler’s obsession with these insignificant coma patients is getting out of hand. Maybe she should take the weekend off and regroup.

Instead, Dr. Wheeler intensifies her search for the truth, even though it’s already gotten one maintenance man killed. And even when she tracks down the medical facility where the comatose patients are being sent, and discovers why they’re being sent there, her paranoia only grows deeper as she tries to figure out who she can trust with the truth.

Michael Crichton’s 1978 adaptation of the Robin Cook novel, Coma, was always one of those movies I had seen parts of here and there, but never bothered to sit and really watch it. That’s probably because I knew there was no supernatural angle, the medical drama didn’t grab my interest, and at 112 minutes, who’s got that kind of time? But I finally bit the bullet and experienced the movie, and I can say I’m glad I did. I still think it’s too long, but for a 1978 movie, this one has a lot going for it.

Genevieve Bujold carries the movie well, giving a very strong performance as the determined doctor for whom women’s lib is less a political issue and more a fact of life. With Douglas’s Dr. Bellows character brushing off her concerns and thinking she’s just loony tunes, Wheeler uncovers the mystery single handedly, only to fall victim to the culprit at the last minute and have to rely on Bellows to swoop in and save the day. It’s a weak moment in an otherwise strong film, but not once do Bujold or her character suggest a hint of weakness.

Crichton’s script is full of the medical jargon I’ve come to expect from his stories, and considering both he and the novel’s author, Cook, were doctors in real life, I assume it’s all legit. And if it’s not, it’s written in a way that convinces you it is, anyway. And that authentic feel just makes the movie feel more complete.

The story behind the mystery comas was well constructed, if a bit far fetched and relying a little too much on no one else getting curious about what’s going on. But let’s be honest, being far fetched doesn’t always mean a movie is bad. I enjoyed this movie a great deal and am glad I finally took the time to see it. As a horror movie, its scares come from real life situations, and that makes it all the more frightening. No one WANTS to go in for any kind of surgery, but we want to believe that, if it happens, we’re under the best care there is. Coma, however, suggests that maybe there are forces at work in the world that have found some loose interpretations of the Hippocratic Oath that favors some above others as opposed to seeing all patients as equals.

It’s a humbling thought and does exactly what Crichton intended, which was to do for hospitals what Jaws did for swimming. I say he managed that just fine.

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