Looking back at Michael Crichton’s Coma

Directed by Michael Crichton, Coma was among the eeriest conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s. Aliya takes a look back...

The 1970s was a great decade for the conspiracy thriller. Often the storylines tied in to big political events, such as Three Days Of The Condor (1975) which reflected revelations about the CIA, and All The President’s Men (1976) which dealt directly with Watergate. Those two films in particular have the common link of Robert Redford, who plays the man trapped in the middle of terrifying events. Redford was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1970s because he played the everyman so well in this kind of thriller. He drives the action so we root for him, and we want him to get the answers he’s looking for. He’s a likeable guy.

Things are not so straightforward in the likeability department by the time we come to Coma (1978), and that’s what’s really interesting about it. Geneviève Bujold plays Dr Susan Wheeler, a prickly, driven character who works hard, and stands up for herself at the end of the long day when her boyfriend Mark (Michael Douglas) suggests she might fetch him a beer before starting to cook dinner. The camera doesn’t make friends with her; she stands confrontationally before us and refuses to back down, lifting up her chin, not inviting us to warm to her. She’s brilliant, and she perfectly suits a film that deals with the difficulty women face in communicating effectively with men.

Initially I think we’re meant to feel ambivalent about whether she’s uncovering a conspiracy or not. She doesn’t manage to persuade her boyfriend or her male co-workers that she’s not just having some sort of hysterical episode. We’d believe Robert Redford from the word go – Geneviève Bujold, we’re not so sure about. This element highlights a script that asks you to consider what it’s like to never really be heard.

Here’s the plot: Dr Wheeler’s best friend is scheduled for an abortion, which is approached in a very straightforward fashion. It’s just another day in the operating room for everyone involved until the best friend never wakes up. Unable to accept this loss, Wheeler investigates unexplained outcomes of coma in otherwise healthy patients, and begins to suspect a conspiracy that will make you feel uncomfortable about any further hospital appointments. 

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Coma is the third film that Michael Crichton directed, and comes five years after Westworld (1973) in which he builds similar eerie feelings of tension and isolation. He’s so good at establishing locations. Westworld is one section of a huge theme park in which people live out their fantasies, and Coma uses Boston Memorial Hospital and a very blank white building miles from anywhere called the Jefferson Institute, where the coma patients are stored. Just as the greatest moments of fear in Westworld come from the protagonist running within the labyrinthine structure of the theme park, so the strongest thrills in Coma come when Dr Wheeler flees from danger in those medical establishments, and good use is made of long corridors, medical instruments and cadavers. The lack of music in the first half of the film really works too – the silence makes you aware of your own breathing as you watch her hide.

As further patients fall into comas the stance of the film changes, and occasionally we are shown events from outside Wheeler’s perspective. For instance, we witness a murder that she doesn’t see, and the climax of the film is from an entirely different character’s point of view. It’s difficult to see why that choice was made nowadays, but maybe it does have something to do with apparent scepticism from the cinema studios that a woman could carry this sort of film entirely on her own.

Well, luckily, Michael Douglas is a good enough actor to play both the unhappy boyfriend and the last-minute hero without too much of a jarring effect on the viewer, and he’s far from being the only strong actor in the film. Geneviève Bujold has had a long screen career and has been fascinating in a diverse range of roles from Anne Of The Thousand Days (1969) to Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). There’s also Richard Widmark, Elizabeth Ashley, Rip Torn, and Lois Chiles to watch. Chiles is one of those actors who can gain your sympathy incredibly quickly on screen; she pulls that trick here early on in the film when you might otherwise be wondering who to root for, and she was also so good in The Way We Were (1973) and Broadcast News (1987) amongst other things. 

This is also a great film for spotting people at the start of their acting careers. Ed Harris makes his first film appearance here as a pathology student, and there’s a weird sense of delight when Tom Selleck appears, looking utterly recognisable from the word go. He plays a man who’s in the hospital for a random routine operation that you just know isn’t going to end well.

It’s a shame that the latest Blu-ray release of Coma didn’t take the opportunity to look back at its history with any additional features. I would have loved to get some perspectives on its many interesting aspects, from the way it portrayed the hospital setting to the feminist element it brought to conspiracy thrillers, but the only extra was the original trailer that basically gives you the whole film in a minute, so I’d recommend avoiding that if you haven’t seen it before.

Still, with or without extras, Coma is worth the effort. It touches a few raw nerves and manages to surprise you, and there’s something so disturbing about the imagery, and about the way that the establishment treats Dr Wheeler. One of the great fears of the conspiracy thriller is the fact that nobody can help you to escape from your nightmare; here, that’s brought home to great effect. Claims of Wheeler being confused and overemotional stop the male establishment from taking the situation seriously. When you look back at it, it’s a chilling premise on many levels.

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