Coma is a 1970s doctor-on-doctor pile-on, with a French-Canadian’s life at stake.
Who remembers Coma? I do. And so, apparently, does TCM.
The channel showed the 1978 movie a couple of weeks ago. Never one to miss an opportunity to indulge in some teenage nostalgia, I DVR’d the thing and finally got around to watching it this past week.
For those of you (millennials) who don’t recall or never knew, Coma was originally a 1977 bestseller by Robin Cook*. Coma the movie was directed by fellow doctor Michael Crichton, whom many will know for having written the books that later became the basis of pop-culture ephemerena (that’s a combination of ephemera and phenomena) as Jurassic Everything and the current HBO hit Westworld.
Trailer – Coma (1978)
Come to think of it, Crichton probably deserves at least a blog post of his own, something I hope to get around to writing some day.
Anyway, Coma stars French-Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold (born Montreal in 1954) and non-French-Canadian actor Michael Douglas, along with Richard Widmark. Lois Chiles (a Bond girl in Moonraker, Broadcast News) and Tom Selleck also have brief roles; Ed Harris too is there, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo (thanks to my cousin for pointing him out). Like the novel, the movie, too, was a hit.
I am positive I read the book, ‘cos that was the kind of off-the-rack reading I was into then, when I consumed one fat paperback potboiler after another (I was also really into Stephen King). Watching the movie, I wasn’t as sure that I’d seen it already – though I did seem to remember some scenes, like when Bujold’s doctor character pushes a coat-rack of cadavers at a guy who’s tracking her down in her hospital. Also, I remember the iconic scene of naked comatose bodies hanging from the ceiling of some kind of medical warehouse.
Anyway, the movie holds up. It’s of that ilk of ’70s paranoid thrillers (Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, even Soylent Green) with a medical twist. One of the things I love about the movie is that Bujold gets to play a strong female character, a doctor named Susan Wheeler. Wheeler is determined to get to the bottom of nefarious goings-on at her hospital. (Her friend and aerobics buddy, played by Chiles, goes in for an abortion and comes out a coma victim.) I also like that Bujold’s character is a bit of a bitch, especially at the beginning when she’s giving a hard time to her boyfriend, a fellow doctor played by Douglas.
There is some medical talk, but Chrichton (who adapted the script from Cook’s novel) keeps it to a minimum, and it’s always fairly clear what’s going on. There are scenes of genuine suspense, and some creepy set-pieces (the aforementioned cadaver scene and the warehouse scene), and Elizabeth Ashley, who seems to have borrowed her character from The Stepford Wives (another ’70s ephemenom). However, in a movie like this you kind of have to suspend disbelief, like a coma victims hanging from a ceiling, since the conspiracy unfolds in a way that will be familiar to anyone who had seen a movie in the last decade (i.e., Bujold’s character only would have needed to see 20 minutes of Three Days of the Condor to know what was going on). Also, the head baddie’s justification for (spoiler alert) organ harvesting sounds like sub-Network bafflegab (that is, a watered-down version of Ned Beatty’s speech about how there are no more countries, just corporations, in the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky classic).
But another thing that I love about the movie is that it just – ends. That is, there’s no superfluous scenes once the story has wrapped up. This might not sound like a big thing, but it’s something that I’ve really started to appreciate in relation to modern movies, which seem to go on and on, as though looking for an ending that will satisfy everyone. Fade to black, already.
Curious? You can watch the full movie on YouTube here. It’s worth it.
And, if you enjoyed this look back at Coma, you might like my recent assessment of another 70s classic, 12 Ways of Looking at Looking for Mr. Goodbar.
* According to Wikipedia, it was Cook’s second novel, after a 1973 book called Year of the Intern. Wiki also says that “Coma was included in the Fiction category of “The New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year” listing… Though not an official award, Coma has been called 1977’s “number one thriller of the year” by The New York Times Book Review.” Hmmm. He also went on to write a whole shitload of other novels, including his most recent, 2015’s Host.