Wednesday 22 October 2014

Movie Review: Coma (1978)

A medical conspiracy thriller about mysteriously botched surgeries, Coma enjoys some effective evil-lurks-here moments but provides limited character development and pushes its action elements to some creaky extremes.

At Boston Memorial Hospital, Dr. Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold) is young, bright, talented and fighting against still-pervasive sexism. Her relationship with Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas) is wobbling, but Susan's world is really rocked when her good friend Nancy Greenly (Lois Chiles) undergoes a routine medical procedure, and slips into a permanent coma. Susan tries to investigate the cause, and finds a troubling pattern of similar cases: a high number of otherwise healthy patients are not waking up from simple surgeries at Boston Memorial.

Chief of Anaesthesiology Dr. George (Rip Torn) and Chief of Surgery Dr. Harris (Richard Widmark) both want Susan to stop poking her nose in the hospital's business, as does Mark.  But yet another coma case involving the rugged Sean Murphy (Tom Selleck) convinces Susan that something is very wrong. She learns that all the coma patients are transferred to an intimidating out-of-town medical centre called The Jefferson Institute, where nurse Emerson (Elizabeth Ashley) holds court. Susan pushes ahead with her detective work, and soon finds her own life in real danger.

An adaptation of Robin Cook's bestseller with a script by director Michael Crichton, Coma tries hard but can't fully shake the shackles of a simple premise that takes forever to develop, hindered by what looks like a suspiciously low budget and stilted secondary characters.

As the film rather clumsily winds its way to the painfully obvious illegal organ trade big reveal, it offers a few good elements. Bujold is an enthusiastic contributor, diving into the role of Susan Wheeler with conviction and giving the film's strong feminist stance plenty of steel. Wheeler is battling a male dominated world as much as a sinister conspiracy, and in many ways the condescending treatment she receives from most of the men in her life is as shocking as the coma plot. Bujold turns Wheeler into a pocket of serious energy that will not be silenced, creating a plucky heroine to cheer for.

Also worth watching is the Jefferson Institute, a building so sinister that just the exterior is enough to convince that nothing good can be happening inside. With excellent contributions from cinematographer Victor J. Kemper and the music of Jerry Goldsmith, Crichton lovingly lingers on the soulless concrete facade, and then reveals the inside to be no less hostile. Nurse Emerson, in day-to-day charge of the facility, may as well have a heart of stone and steel, for all the humanity that she displays. It's a relatively small role for Elizabeth Ashley, but a most memorable one.

Otherwise, the film spends too much time with Susan sleuthing through labs to uncover clues, then running down abandoned hallways to escape a faceless killer, in a classic example of doctor-overnight-turns-into-action-woman. She then ups her game and further detaches the film from reality by crawling through remarkably clean and well-lit utility shafts. It's all good non-intellectual fun, Coma's intriguing dose of science ultimately succumbing to traditional action movie chestnuts.

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