Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Science Fiction

Review: Coma

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]

I have this fear of doctors. I don’t know whether it comes from a low pain threshold or from years of horror movies. I thought the only genuinely scary scene in The Exorcist was Regan’s spinal tap operation. So Coma was halfway home with me before it ever started: I came ready to be scared to death, knowing that the film’s milieu alone would be enough to do it. Even so, Crichton didn’t really score as many frissons as he might have; and the film ends up a minus rather than a plus, chiefly because of a storyline more devoted to its red herrings than to its corrosive moral implications. The early sequences place us firmly in a world of moral dilemmas, questions that promise some kind of integral relevance to the ordeal we know must come. How far can a woman distance herself from a man in the name of independence before she ceases to be a reasonable, loving human being? How embroiled in hospital administration politics does a young doctor become before he loses sight of the humanism of his calling? What is death? Who should play God? Is abortion for reasons of personal convenience a moral action? … But except for the whodunit’s guilty party’s speech, toward the end, about how “someone has to make these decisions,” the film’s goings-on are never effectively related to the moral questions that abound in its universe.

How a deliberately induced coma, and the subsequent murder of comatose patients to provide organs for an international transplant auctioneer, somehow approach the problem of legal-vs.-clinical death is beyond me; and Crichton, in repeatedly stressing the ethical context of Dr. Susan Wheeler’s horrifying discoveries, seems to have himself acquired some of the paranoid brinksman’s illogic that drives the villain of the piece. Beyond that, for all his moralizing, Crichton is really never interested in anything besides an action-packed story. It’s clear from his pace: Susan (Geneviève Bujold) gets to the heart of the mystery too fast, perceives a pattern too quickly for the methodical scientist she is portrayed as being. The director and scenarist is boldly asking his character to take for granted that the pattern is there to advance the plot, and just get on with the exciting stuff, please. This certainly doesn’t lose Crichton any viewers to the popcorn stand; but what he sacrifices is the greater suspense and impact of a sinister atmosphere developed slowly and carefully, through suspicion and innuendo, rather than an evil posited for the sake of an argument.

The stress placed upon the relationship between Dr. Wheeler and Dr. Bellows (Michael Douglas) early in the film leads us to expect that the film’s concern will be somehow related to the problem of their on-again-off-again romance; but what Crichton is really doing is indulging in some shameless time-killing during a hiatus in the plot’s developments. So impatient is he with the lovers-at-play sequence—which really should be crucial to the meaning of the ordeal Susan goes through, and its impact on both her and Mark—that he comes up with nothing more original for them to do on their day off than run soft-focus along the beach, push each other into the water, and make love in the rushes. I haven’t read the Cook novel, but I suspect the problem of the assertive professional man provided a volatile heart to the action that is apparent in Crichton’s film only in vestigial form. There are good moments that seem to relate to this central dilemma, such as Susan at her best, climbing an interminable ladder among a jungle of pipelines and catwalks, divesting herself of the social trappings of femininity—high-heel shoes and nylons—in order to proceed with a real job of work, and get to the top rather than the bottom of things; or Susan weeping in the head surgeon’s office (is she serious”) while he keeps the Secretary of HEW on hold to offer her his hankie (is he serious?). But the denouement, with Susan anesthetized on an operating table, able to be saved only if her lover believes in her and can find a certain pipeline within a certain number of minutes—much as it must have appealed to the author of The Andromeda Strain—serves nothing in the film, except to milk out of it a few more moments of nail-biting.

Rosemary’s Baby is the touchstone by which a film of this sort is to be judged, and Coma is found distinctly wanting: the paranoid atmosphere is there, as well as the terror and horror, but without the subtlety and the relaxed-but-relentless pace required to build up a credible aura of evil conspiracy. Right off the bat the pathologist in the autopsy room suggests that carbon monoxide would be a nice way to induce coma in an anesthetized patient without fear of detection. No trial-and-error, no detective work. Typical of the film is its use—and abuse—of the sinister figure who stalks Susan in increasingly menacing ways through the early reels, and corners her, in an action climax, in a vault full of cadavers off the anatomy lab. Ever-resourceful Susan slides a rack full of hanging corpses toward the hitman: one by one they come off their hangers and pile on top of the hapless villain, in a metaphoric vengeance of the killed upon the killer. The gunman, who has pursued Susan with a vengeance, becoming increasingly sloppy and careless in his efforts to rub her out, is at this point summarily dismissed from the film, having served his shabby purpose; and thus another thread of plot reveals itself to be only the coarse basting of a loose-woven and unfinished garment, knit in reckless fragments.

© 1978 Robert C. Cumbow

Direction: Michael Crichton. Screenplay: Crichton, after the novel by Robin Moore. Cinematography: Victor Kemper; additional cinematography: Gerald Hirschfeld. Production design: Albert Brenner. ) Editing: David Bretherton. Music: Jerry Goldsmith.
The players: Geneviève Bujold, Michael Douglas, Richard Widmark, Rip Torn, Elizabeth Ashley, Lois Chiles, Tom Selleck, Harry (Hari) Rhodes.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.