‘Coma’ (1978) Delivers an Intense Story With a Fierce Lead [Watch]
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I am pleased to be extolling the virtues of a suspenseful horror-infused science fiction thriller from writer/director Michael Crichton on this installment of The Overlook Motel. More specifically, I am speaking of the 1978 film, Coma. This exciting offering is intense, delivers impressive performances from its core cast, and features a fiercely feminist turn from leading lady Geneviève Bujold.
Coma follows Dr. Susan Wheeler (Bujold), a surgical resident at Boston Memorial Hospital. When she notices what she believes to be a disproportionate number of healthy patients slipping into comas following routine surgeries, the good doctor senses something isn’t right. So, she begins investigating the unexplained deaths. After some digging, Dr. Wheeler makes a series of horrifying discoveries that put her life in grave danger. Unsure who she can trust, Susan races to expose what she’s learned before she becomes the next victim.
Crichton demonstrates a true prowess for crafting tension with this 1978 effort. Via his screenplay, Crichton builds a palpable sense of paranoia. He gives the viewer reason to suspect a number of different characters may be involved in the shady dealings at Boston Memorial. But, most of the details are kept under wraps until it’s absolutely necessary to pull back the curtain and provide answers.
Crichton’s screenplay (and the Robin Cook novel upon which it was based) challenge the idea that healthcare professionals always have our best interests in mind. They both imagine a world where patients are taken advantage of when they are at their most exposed. Going in for a surgical procedure puts someone in about as vulnerable a spot as a person can find themselves in. So, the idea of someone exploiting that for nefarious gain is as unthinkable as it is terrifying. But that very premise makes for a very effective storyline that is used to maximum effect here.
The path to the final reveal in Coma is twisty and unpredictable; by the denouement, the intensity is palpable. Crichton effectively utilizes jarring camerawork, a sinister score, and rampant paranoia to pull the viewer into a dizzying narrative that grows more unnerving with each passing sequence.
The cat-and-mouse dynamic that presents itself when Dr. Wheeler visits the Jefferson Institute, where the coma patients are held, is intense and nerve-shredding. Tense editing work makes the sequence that sees Susan attempting to outrun the institute staff supremely unsettling. The action is further intensified by the sterile and wide-open spaces at the institute that leave Dr. Wheeler nearly nowhere to hide.
Aside from palpable tension and keen directorial oversight, the film also features a particularly strong cast. Geneviève Bujold is magnificent in her turn as Dr. Wheeler. Her portrayal of the surgical resident is dogged and fierce. She rightfully demands equality from her male counterparts. She’s also quick to call out patriarchal hypocrisy, rather than suffering it in silence. In spite of her sometimes-tough exterior, Bujold is careful to give the viewer the occasional glimpse of vulnerability, which serves to make the character even more dynamic. Additionally, showing her in that state serves to underscore the extreme peril in which Dr. Wheeler finds herself. That combination makes her a protagonist that’s easy to invest in.
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Michael Douglas is also effective as Susan’s partner, Dr. Mark Bellows. Douglas deliver a believable and nuanced performance that sees him coming across as likable and potentially genuine. However, subtleties in his portrayal may give the viewer reason to question his intentions before all is eventually revealed.
Coma (1978) is brilliant and ready for rediscovery by a new generation. I can’t say the same, however, about the made-for-television reimagining released in 2012. Sadly, I found that iteration to be sluggishly paced and unable to rise to the level of its predecessor or its source material.
As of the publication of this post, Coma is available to stream on HBO Max. It can also be accessed as a digital rental or purchased on physical media.
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