Michael Crichton may be best known as the author of techno-thrillers such as Jurassic Park, Sphere, and The Andromeda Strain, but he was also heavily involved in the film and television industry. Long before Crichton created the medical drama ER for television, he directed the 1978 film Coma. It is a medical thriller starring Geneviéve Bujold and Michael Douglas. Many of Crichton’s books have been adapted for film, but this is based on the work of another author, Robin Cook. Like Crichton, Cook was a medical doctor whose books centered on the abuse of power and technology. Though Crichton had only directed one other theatrical release, the sci-fi cult-classic Westworld (1973), before tackling Coma, his expertise in the subject matter made him a logical choice. Crichton, who also wrote the screenplay, infused the thriller with drama and suspense.
Bujold plays Susan Wheeler, a resident at a teaching hospital, who is trying her best to keep up with her male colleagues (many of whom are casually sexist). She’s afraid to show her emotions, putting up a tough exterior so the men won’t accuse her of “acting like a girl.” This puts her at odds with her boyfriend Mark (Douglas). He is also a resident at the same hospital, next in line for an upcoming chief resident position. Susan’s life is thrown into turmoil when her best friend undergoes routine surgery and ends up in a coma. Unwilling to accept that it’s just a rare reaction to the anesthesia, Susan does some digging and discovers several other cases of young, healthy patients ending up comatose after minor surgeries.
Convinced there is a larger conspiracy, Susan digs deeper into the underbelly of the hospital’s medical history. Unwilling to rock the boat and jeopardize his future promotion, Mark tries convincing Susan she is overreacting. She soon finds herself alone in her quest for the truth. At the outset Coma seems to be a fairly straightforward medical drama, but amps up into a thriller, even bordering on horror. There are plenty of tense and unnerving moments throughout the last half of the film. The story touches on many subjects including medical ethics, women’s lib, and corruption, making Coma more than just a run-of-the-mill thriller.
Bujold is very good as Susan, showing a woman who is able to take care of herself, while at the same time having her vulnerable moments. Douglas plays more of a supporting character in this film. At the time he had been best known for his work on the TV series The Streets of San Francisco. He also does a good job of keeping us guessing whose side Mark is on. Crichton builds the tension effectively throughout the last act of the film, but the climax itself is a bit of a letdown. It doesn’t ruin what is otherwise an above average thriller, but it did leave me feeling like there should have been just a little more of a bang to end the story.
The Blu-ray is presented in a 1080p AVC-encoded transfer. The picture quality looks of its time, with an inherent graininess that doesn’t detract from the image. Most of the scenes take place in a hospital setting, and Crichton was clearly going for a realistic look. The drab and sometimes run-down nature of a well-worn workplace comes through in this film. The detail is good, even during the darker nighttime scenes. I can’t say the colors are all that vibrant given the white and brown tones that dominate this film, but again that is a stylistic choice that the transfer represents well. The mono soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD MA. The dialogue is clear and easy to understand. Certain sounds stand out nicely such as the beeping heart monitor during the surgery scenes and a whistling tea kettle throughout a pivotal scene of the film. Special features are basically nonexistent except for the original theatrical trailer, which has been enhanced for 16:9.
Overall Coma is an enjoyable thriller worth watching. It’s a cool early role for Michael Douglas, before he became a big star. Any fan of Michael Crichton will also be interested in checking this film out.