ComaSynopsis: Ten cases. Now 12. Why are young, healthy patients admitted for minor surgery at Boston Memorial Hospital ending up on life support? Dr. Susan Wheeler wants to know. Somebody else wants her dead.

Long before he created ER, Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, Twister) adapted and directed this medical chiller based on Robin Cook’s bestseller. Genevieve Bujold plays Wheeler, trailing clues, clambering along ductways, hiding among morgue cadavers, infiltrating the eerie Jefferson institute (an unforgettable marvel of spooky technology) and persuading her skeptical boyfriend and fellow doctor Mark (Michael Douglas) that her suspicions are not mere paranoia. For thriller fans, Coma is heartpoundingly good medicine.


Coma 8.0

eyelights: Genevieve Bujold. the Jefferson Institute.
eyesores: the simplistic ending.

“No decision is easy, Sue. It only looks that way when you’re young. When you’re older, everything is complicated. There is no black and white, only gray.”

‘Coma’ is a 1978 motion picture by Michael Crichton (yes, the one and the same), based on a novel by Robin Cook. It’s a thriller based in the medical world, which is hardly surprising given that both the author and the writer-director are doctors who have frequently turned to that setting throughout their highly-successful respective careers.

I had been aware of ‘Coma’ for many years. In the mid-’90s, I frequently borrowed laserdiscs from my local library (they had a vast collection, so I bought a second-hand player just to save myself money on rentals), and kept stumbling upon ‘Coma’ – it was a title that either they had too many of, or that didn’t move too much. The cover, which consisted of floating bodies, was eerie, unforgettable.

It wasn’t enough for me to pick it up, but it did plant a seed. And as I grew older, not wiser, it intrigued me slightly more.

Two years ago, when Blockbuster Canada shut its doors, I got the opportunity of picking up a 4-movie pack of Warner Brothers thrillers that included ‘Coma’ in it. It was brand new, dirt cheap and it came with a couple of werewolf movies. Since my gf has a thing for werewolves, I figured that this was a golden  opportunity I simply shouldn’t pass up on.

I would finally get to see ‘Coma’.

‘Coma’ begins by introducing us to our heroine, Susan Wheeler (played by the ever-captivating Geneviève Bujold), a surgical resident at the fictitious Boston Memorial Hospital (actually the Boston City Hospital). When her best friend, Nancy, ends up in a coma during an extremely minor procedure, a distraught Susan decides to investigate the incident to find out what happened.

In so doing she discovers that there have been a larger number of accidental comas at the hospital than one would normally expect for simple procedures (it happens, but it’s usually a rare instance). As she digs deeper, she begins to see unusual patterns in the events that led to these comas, and starts to believe that these exists a conspiracy of silence around these tragedies.

But can she convince anyone of this? And what is hiding behind all of these coma patients?

It may not seem like much, but ‘Coma’ was actually pretty riveting. It careens left and right: just when you’re sure you understand what’s going on and who’s involved, it suddenly throws you again. But what’s superb about it is in how subtly that Crichton shakes your confidence; you’ll likely guess what’s going on, but he finds ways to make you uncertain and to second-guess your conclusions.

In some ways, it reminded me of ‘The Stepford Wives’ and ‘Soylent Green’ in the way that it creates a feeling of paranoia and builds up the tension, if not the momentum of the picture. As Susan continues her investigation and puts the pieces together, forces begins to work against her in various ways, adding danger and layers of tension to the film. And, like these other pictures ‘Coma’ has a deep, dark secret.

I adored that our lead was a smart and capable woman – not just intellectually, but physically, too (impressively enough, Bujold did her own stunts). I’m sick to death of women taking a backseat to men in action and thriller pictures and/or that they need the assistance of a man to get by. Not so in ‘Coma’: Susan pretty much takes everything on by her lonesome, and takes on the challenges with an appropriate mix of courage, ability and vulnerability.

Bujold, of course, is the perfect candidate for the part. Although Julie Christie was the first choice, and then Farrah Fawcett was also considered (likely because the book’s description matched their physiognomy best), I’m glad that Bujold got the part: she displays intelligence and depth – essential components to making Susan credible. She also looks authentic in the part; one can just imagine how little credibility Fawcett would have given it.

Michael Douglas was his usual self as Susan’s boyfriend, who is also a surgery resident at the hospital. The part, surprisingly enough, is secondary; he’s billed in a co-starring capacity, but he only shows up from time to time, mostly when Susan tries to convince others that something is terribly wrong at the hospital. Douglas doesn’t contribute much but also doesn’t deter from the picture in any way.

What I found astounding was to to see actors I was really familiar with in really small parts – cameos, really. For instance, Ed Harris’ got his first motion picture playing a pathology resident, Lois Chiles (whom I barely recognized, even though I’ve seen her a million times in ‘Moonraker‘) plays Nancy, Susan’s friend, and Tom Selleck lept off the screen in a puny part as another patient. Even Rip Torn shows up in a few scenes.

But, if any character stands out in this picture, it’s the mysterious Jefferson Institute, with its impressive architecture, both inside and out. It was vast, desolate, cold, giving it a truly disconcerting vibe, perfectly-suited to the piece. At the time, this was the Xerox headquarters and sales office in Lexington, Massachusetts, which was 10 minutes from downtown Boston. Anyway, this building leaves quite an impression.

(For those who have seen the picture and are interested in seeing what the building looks like now, please visit

‘Coma’ hinges on surprises to be effective, without which the tension would likely be diffused, and I wonder how gripping it will be upon multiple viewings. But it’s such a well-constructed suspense picture, that even if its secrets are already known it will no doubt be satisfying – especially if one buys into its central conceit, which is believable enough to be pretty damned disconcerting.

It was years in the making, but I’m very glad that I’ve finally seen ‘Coma’. It was well worth the wait. I’m a fan.

Post scriptum: It was funny to watch the trailer because it ends with a breathing in a fashion not dissimilar to Darth Vader’s (presumably meant to represent a surgery patient under anesthesia). Given that this was released eight months after the overwhelming success of ‘Star Wars’, one can’t help but imagine that the marketing team decided to capitalize on any connection that they could make. Snicker, snicker… it really doesn’t fit the picture.

Date of viewing: September 28, 2013

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