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.