One of the few genuine Renaissance men of 20th-century popular culture, Michael Crichton was a doctor-turned-novelist who leveraged his literary success for a lucrative film career as a screenwriter and occasional director. Every facet of his professional identity came together for Coma, his biggest hit as a director: Set in the medical milieu, the thriller features Crichton’s signature style of provocative science fiction. Ironically, however, he didn’t originate the story. Crichton adapted the film from a novel by another doctor-turned-author, Robin Cook. Yet Crichton’s distance from the material was probably a good thing, since his characters and plots often fell short of his wonderful ideas; perhaps owing to its mixed authorship, Coma has one of the smoothest narratives of any of Crichton’s film projects.
The heroine of the piece is Dr. Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold), a surgical resident who uncovers a bizarre conspiracy. It seems an abnormal number of healthy young patients at Boston Memorial Hospital are falling into inexplicable comas during routine surgical procedures. When Susan’s friend Nancy (Lois Chiles) becomes the latest victim, Susan investigates—despite stern warnings from her boss, Chief of Surgery Dr. George Harris (Richard Widmark), to stop snooping. Additionally, Susan doesn’t get much support from her on-again/off-again boyfriend, Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas). A self-absorbed chief resident who condescendingly belittles Susan’s theories, Mark believes Dr. Harris’ appraisal that Susan has succumbed to grief and stress. Alas, Susan’s fears prove justified, because she unearths an insidious connection between Boston Memorial and a mysterious facility called the Jefferson Institute. Before long, the movie accelerates into full-on thriller mode, with a hired killer (Lance LeGault) chasing after Susan to keep her from sharing the explosive truth she’s discovered.
Layered with details about the medical profession that give a strong sense of credibility, Coma is a tight and focused film with carefully modulated suspense elements. The character work is a bit on the rudimentary side, and some supporting players—including Elizabeth Ashley, who plays a nurse at the Jefferson Institute—merely deliver exposition. Still, the piece has a great look, with interesting settings such as the tunnels beneath and within a hospital, and Bujold’s chilly screen persona keeps things from getting too melodramatic. Douglas contrasts her reserved quality with his hot-blooded leading-man charisma, and Widmark, as always, makes a memorable prick. (Watch for future stars Ed Harris, Tom Selleck, and Rip Torn in small roles.) The ending is a bit hackneyed, but the vibe of Coma is so consistently creepy, and the execution of the movie is so slick, that Coma is thoroughly enjoyable escapism.