Jarv’s Birthday Series Redux: Coma (1978)
This is the penultimate review for the Birthday Series Redux, as I’m waiting for the atrocity released on 23rd August 2012 to make it to Lovefilm. However, when I had originally planned this run, the early Michael Crichton scripted medical thriller Coma was going to be the last review. However, sheer laziness won out, and I’ve got to look at something from 2012 as well. Anyway, this is the Birthday Series, and the rules are simple: Review one film released as near to your birthday as possible. Today, it’s Michael Crichton directed Coma, a taut, plausible and downright scary medical thriller that was released on 24th August 1978 in, er, Mexico. Look, it’s bloody difficult finding any release dates for a film back then. Be thankful that I got anything.
Contains Hospital sanctioned organ heists and spoilers below.
The concept of this film is terrifying. The original Robin Cook novel is little more than a potboiler, but as far as conspiracy theories go, the central premise is an absolute cracker. Dr. Susan Wheeler (Genevieve Bujold) is a young doctor on staff, who begins to become seriously concerned when her friend enters a coma during a routine termination. Believing that there must be something wrong at Mercy General (love ironic naming), she becomes convinced after a second patient (Tom Selleck) also enters a coma that there is a sinister link between the cases. Nobody believes her, particularly not her long suffering boyfriend Bellows (Michael Douglas), but she eventually unravels a plot between the Hospital and a high-tech facility for coma patients to harvest organs on an industrial scale.
This is essentially a thriller with a golden premise. We’re, effectively, in race against time territory for much of the last third of the film, and we accept that the consequences of Wheeler’s failure are truly horrifying for her. She has to win out, and so, in a way, we root for the character. Which is just as well, because as portrayed by Bujold (an actress that I’ve never really warmed to), she comes across as a shrill and obnoxious harpy. The early scenes of interaction with Douglas are massively unsympathetic and the script makes her more than a touch self-righteous. As her obsession mounts, we come to see her more as driven and less as obnoxious and sanctimonious, but this may be in consequence to the underlying evil of the movie. This is downright scary, and dangerously plausible, stuff.
The real strength of Coma is in the small moments. The organ auction that takes place towards the end has a wonderfully jaundiced feel to it- the people conducting it seem to be genuinely indifferent to the lives they’ve cynically ended. Their charges weren’t placed into a vegetative state by an act of god or an accident of some description, rather they were cynically murdered by the medical establishment that was supposed to protect them. Wheeler becomes, in contrast to Douglas and practically every other doctor she encounters, the sole advocate of care over expediency; the ultimate arch anti-pragmatist. Simultaneously, the justification by the perpetrator is a blazingly and stupendously well thought out piece of megalomania; this is the standard Doctor’s God Complex written large.
That isn’t to say that the big “thriller” set pieces (particularly the game of cat and mouse in the facility) aren’t exciting and well thought out. There is a notable tension to the climax of the film, because Wheeler is not omniscient or bulletproof. She’s been in serious danger on more than one occasion, and her rescue in this instance is utterly out of her hands. It’s well thought out, actually, because we know the consequences of her defeat, and they’re appalling, but it hinges entirely on Douglas realising that he’s a doctor first and foremost and a politician second.
The direction here is taut, with Crichton attempting to heighten the tension in almost inconsequential moments, such as Wheeler tracing the gas line. However, when it’s on song, Coma is absolutely gripping. A fine example is the initial operation sequence, where the sense of rising panic from the Anaesthetist is absolutely palpable. The climax isn’t as effective as this, because he has to split the action between Bellows running down the gas line and Bujold being operated on, and this does hurt it a touch as the “action” is cut back and forth too many times. In all honesty, I’m not sure how you handle this, because as I recall the book deals with it by following Bellows and not mentioning the operation at all. I could be wrong about this, though, as I haven’t read it in decades.
Coma, while an effective thriller, isn’t perfect. The reveal (actually a problem in the book) relies on an utterly cretinous clue left by the evil mastermind; a mistake that is so stupid it is incredibly out of character that he’d have made it. Furthermore, after the drama at the coma facility, it feels almost anti-climactic to return to Mercy General for a set piece such as this. Furthermore, the film is preachy on more than one occasion, and the canonisation of Wheeler doesn’t feel natural. The novel handled this by having her be a very junior doctor, but the film instead tries hard to sell her as a woman operating in a man’s world. This is palpably obvious in her early exchanges with Bellows that practically scream out “I’m the only person in this film that honours the Hippocratic Oath.” All this stems from the essential problem it has in that the source material isn’t very good. Cook’s novel is a trashy potboiler with a stunning central idea, and this does carry over to the screen.
To finish on a high note, while Coma may be a trashy novel, the idea behind it is superb. This does, on the same score, translate over, and I don’t think I’ve seen a more frightening abuse of realistic technology than the cabbage farm ever put to screen. The sheer terror of ending up brain dead and suspended on wires in a warehouse is brilliantly translated. This is a horrible concept, superbly executed, and Wheeler, while self-righteous, is doing exactly the right thing in shutting it down. It’s (actually) a really depressing logical end result of placing the value of dollars over human life, and given the state of the medical profession in America, a bet you a few have looked at it as something to aspire to, rather than something to fear. This is not meant to be a blueprint.
Overall, Coma is a good minor thriller, and one that I enjoyed immensely this time around. It does, to some extent, rely on the monstrous idea that underpins the film, but the set pieces are handled with aplomb, and there is no shortage of tension. Were some of the niggles ironed out, particularly regarding Wheeler, then this would rise above very good to stunning. Nevertheless, I do recommend this one, and I have been inordinately lucky with films released in 1978. I give Coma 3 cabbages out of a possible 4.
Next up in this series will be the 2012 entry. I’m not decided what that will be yet. I’ll also do the usual summary of the whole damned mess.
The Full List:
- 2011– The Skin I Live In (2.5 out of 4)
- 2010- The Last Exorcism (2.5 out of 4)
- 2009- Post Grad (1 out of 4)
- 2008- The House Bunny (1 out of 4)
- 2007- Knocked Up (1 out of 4)
- 2006- Volver (1 out of 4)
- 2005- Red Eye (2 out of 4)
- 2004- Dead Clowns (Orangutan of Doom)
- 2003- Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (1 out of 4)
- 2002- Talk to Her (4 out of 4)
- 2001- Jeepers Creepers (2 out of 4)
- 2000- Gossip (1 out of 4)
- 1999- All About My Mother (1 out of 4)
- 1998- The X-Files (1 out of 4)
- 1997- Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (2 out of 4)
- 1996- The Last Supper ( 3 out of 4)
- 1995- The Usual Suspects (4 out of 4)
- 1994- Color of Night (2 out of 4)
- 1993- Surf Ninjas (Orangutan of Doom)
- 1992- The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (2 out of 4)
- 1991- Pump Up the Volume (3 out of 4)
- 1990- Wild at Heart (3 out of 4)
- 1989- Bull Durham (3.5 out of 4)
- 1988- Crossing Delancey (Orangutan of Doom)
- 1987- The Big Easy (3 out of 4)
- 1986- Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1 out of 4)
- 1985- Better off Dead (3 out of 4)
- 1984- Oxford Blues (Orangutan of Doom)
- 1983- MetalStorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (2.5 out of 4)
- 1982- The Thing (4 out of 4)
- 1981- Honky Tonk Freeway (0.5 out of 4)
- 1980- Schock (Orangutan of Doom)
- 1979- Rich Kids (2 out of 4)
- 1978- Coma (3 out of 4)