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.

If there's no phlegm in it, then you fucking drink it.

If there’s no phlegm in it, then you fucking drink it.

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.

The penis enlargement operation was going swimmingly.

Don Murphy’s penis enlargement operation was going swimmingly. Once they hired a crane to lift up the flab so they could find it.

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.

Truly horrific. What if he poops on the guy below him?

Truly horrific. What if he poops on the guy below him?

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.

This one is, as the professionals say, a cabbage

This one is, as the professionals say, a cabbage

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.

Until then,



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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

54 responses to “Jarv’s Birthday Series Redux: Coma (1978)”

  1. Droid says :

    How is this fair? You played the Douglas lotto and got what sounds like a decent thriller, and I get that star chamber dogshit.

    On a sidenote, I’d have amused myself by making the rating out of cabbage patch dolls.

    • Droid says :

      BTW, you need to do 2 for 2012 since you’ve got two b’day series running.

      • Jarv says :


        the three closest in Wiki are hit and run, the apparation and premium rush.

        Hit and Run, in particular, sounds dire.

      • Droid says :

        I’ve got H&R. You can get that off me. It’s not very good, but it’s inoffensive.

      • Droid says :

        Shit, I meant PR. Premium Rush. I haven’t seen H&R.

      • Jarv says :

        Was thinking about The Apparition and Premium Rush. There’s also the Keith Lemon Movie to avoid.

      • Droid says :

        No, you don’t avoid Keith Lemon. You embrace him.

      • Jarv says :

        There’s quite a lot actually. Total Retread, I suppose. But I can see me OoD’ing it.

        I hate Keith Lemon.

      • Droid says :

        I’m doing Total Retread. It’s August 4 or something in the US.

      • Droid says :

        I keep telling myself I need to watch it again so I can review it. I just can’t face it though.

      • Droid says :

        I think you should do The Watch.

      • Jarv says :

        Bugger off.

      • Jarv says :

        Man up! You’re nearly at the end of your first run now.

      • Droid says :

        Yeah. I’ve actually got a couple of good movies I think. I know the next one is a good one. I just can’t be arsed.

      • Jarv says :

        What’s your 2010 one?

      • Droid says :

        That’s a difficult one, because it falls smack bang in between two release dates. Most of them I haven’t seen.

        30th July
        Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (No)
        Charlie St. Cloud (No)
        Dinner for Schmucks (Meh)
        The Extra Man (No)
        The Dry Land (No)
        Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel (No)
        What’s the Matter with Kansas? (No)
        Smash His Camera (No)
        Get Low (Okay)

        6th August
        Flipped (Decent)
        The Other Guys (Pretty funny)
        Step Up 3D (No)
        The Disappearance of Alice Creed (No)
        Middle Men (No)
        Twelve (No)
        The Wildest Dream (No)
        Brotherhood (No)
        Cairo Time (No)
        Lebanon (No)
        Spring Fever (No)
        Patrik, Age 1.5 (No)

      • Droid says :

        I’ve also got to find the actual b’day list I made, since I can’t remember what else I have to watch.

      • Jarv says :

        80 and below is usually hard.

      • Jarv says :


        Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Charlie St. Cloud, Dinner for Schmucks, The Extra Man, The Dry Land, Get Low, The Other Guys, Step Up 3D, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, Flipped, Middle Men, Twelve.

        You know it. Step Up 3D. Or Cats and Dogs: The revenge of Kitty Galore

      • Droid says :

        Not Step Up 3D. I could do C&D2 but it wouldn’t be a very good review. I just wouldn’t care enough. None of them are very inspiring.

      • Droid says :

        What did you do for that year? Did you magic up some release date in Timbuktoo so that you could review an actual good movie?

      • Droid says :

        For the other list I mean.

      • Droid says :

        I know for certain it wasn’t the film it should have been.

        Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang
        August 20, 2010

      • Droid says :

        I think you owe us a Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang review.

      • Jarv says :

        Found it by accident. Was release date 27th.

        That’s a bad one, because it fell between 2 dates so I had all sorts. Some of it quite good, that I keep meaning to see if I hadn’t.

        One of my strongest early years that one.

      • Jarv says :

        Having considered it…

        No. Did you not see the pitiful run I had?

      • Jarv says :

        A grand total of 19 from 12 films. Mind you, that’s better than the first time through.

      • Jarv says :

        Feck’s sake 2001-2010 averaged 1.3

        What a shit decade.

        1991-2000 averaged 1.9

        1981-1990 averaged 2.05

        Every decade has been sunk by utter pish though. The 80’s could, in theory, have been a lot higher.

      • Jarv says :

        70’s was 1.6 and this decade average 2.5, but it’s a bit deceptive because we’re talking about 10 from 5 films.

      • Droid says :

        Those were the days.

      • Droid says :

        in 2010 you could have done Make-out with Violence (27th). Strange movie. One that Jonah liked a lot more than I did, but it’s worth watching. Kind of a coming of age movie. With zombies.

      • Jarv says :

        What, for 1978?

        Completely forgotten. I think I googled films released August 1978 and then just checked all of them in imdb until I could find one near.

      • Jarv says :

        Phew. I seem to remember us talking about that at the time.

      • Jarv says :

        That’s what I was thinking. Not anticipating too badly, but the Apparition and PR sound like meh 2 out of 4 efforts. This is the UK release Schedule though:

        Neighbourhood Watch / 20th Century Fox
        Total Recall / Sony Pictures
        Friday 24 August 2012

        Sinister / Momentum Pictures
        Warm Bodies / Entertainment One UK
        24 August 2012

        The Watch (2012)
        Keith Lemon: The Film (2012)
        The Imposter (2012 Documentary)
        Shadow Dancer (2012)
        F for Fake (1973 Documentary) (re-release)
        Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi (2012)
        Tango with Me (2012)

        There’s a lot there to duck.

      • Droid says :

        Well you can scratch three off the list because Warm Bodies was never released in August. It’s out this Feb. The Watch is Neighbourhood watch. Sinister was released in October.

    • Jarv says :

      I nearly did that, but just decided for the common or garden variety cabbage.

      It’s on the HD this. Good, solid movie. I probably overrate it a wee bit because of how much I like the idea of a hospital deliberately brain damaging patients so they can ship them out to a “farm” to be organ heisted.

  2. Droid says :

    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.

    She was euthanizing her friend? Bit harsh.

    • Jarv says :

      Her friend was having an abortion. But really, I could have gone into this in depth, because the abortion is because she’s having an affair- which automatically makes you lose sympathy for the victim. In the book, Wheeler becomes involved after she forms a bond with the selleck character. I’ve no idea why they inserted the friend- we don’t need Wheeler to have a personal attachment, and if anything it lessons the point that she’s the only decent Doctor around.

  3. Jarv says :

    Ratingwise- hovering at a 1.8 average. This is a slightly worse run than last time. Negligible, but depends entirely on last film.

  4. Droid says :

    This year you’ve got… (so far)

    The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
    You’re Next

  5. Xiphos0311 says :

    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

    did you get a bulk pricing for this utter horseshit line?

    • Jarv says :

      It is something that’s based entirely on my European prejudices towards the american medical system. I wasn’t thinking of doctors as much as insurance companies.

      It was mostly tongue in cheek as well- although it is very much the point the film is making.

      • Toadkillerdog says :

        I sawr this when it first came out, but he only thing I recall about seeing it was a goof. I actually saw a microphone boom in one shot. At least I think I did!

        Maybe it was kboom doing some time travelling?

        I distinctly remember seeing that boom, but i do not recall if i liked the flick

  6. ThereWolf says :

    Good film. Not seen it in a long time but I do recall the ‘coma farm’ with all those suspended bodies – creepy. My memory is hazy but I thought the cutting back & forth between the op and Douglas was pretty well done, nerve-wracking. I think Coma did for hospitals what Jaws did for water.

    I’ve got the film on VHS, taped of the telly eons ago – I’ll have to give it another whirl (but it’s Pan & Scan – looks awful).

    Nice one, Jarv.

  7. Just Pillow Talk says :

    So this time out with this series it’s been feast or famine….nothing in between it seems.

  8. tombando says :

    Good movie, as in okay-good, has Sagging PI as a dead body hung on wires. Has some good stuff to it.

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