In 1978, Michael Crichton was well underway in his career as a great suspense/thriller novelist and he had already directed his first feature film, “Westworld.” For his second film, Crichton combined his current job with the vocation he trained for. Set in the world of hospitals and medical advances, “Coma,” based on Robin Cook’s book of the same name, seems like the perfect project for Crichton to tackle.
As the movie opens, Dr. Susan Wheeler is a resident at Boston Memorial Hospital, and her friend goes in for a routine abortion. However, something goes wrong and she ends up in a coma. Confused by what caused it, Wheeler begins to study files and other cases. Turns out, a more than average number of patients seem to be emerging from surgery in a vegetative state. Wheeler doesn’t know who to trust. Her investigation takes her to the Jefferson Institute, a strange almost storage unit to keep coma patients.
One of the reasons that “Coma,” is such a classic for me is because of the sense of paranoia that fills the whole movie. Crichton ratchets up the tension by setting many scenes at night. There’s something creepy about long empty hallways. Paranoia was a prevalent feeling in the films of the 1970s and, the way Crichton uses it in this film, you could almost consider it a co-star.
Crichton’s work, both on the script page and behind the camera, is studied and patient. He’s not intent on showing off. He lets the story dictate the pace. The cast is also excellent. Genevieve Bujold plays Dr. Wheeler. Michael Douglas plays her boyfriend and other members of the hospital staff are played by the always interesting Rip Torn and Richard Widmark.
The movie also features some wonderful set design. The standout set is the Jefferson Institute. Actually the former Xerox office in Lexington, MA, the room where the comatose bodies are floating is a startling and creepy image at first glance, but remains thrilling even after the initial shock wears off.
I always thought “Coma” was a solid, well-crafted thriller but I re-watched it a week ago one night when I couldn’t sleep. Watching it at 4 in the morning, I found myself terrified and riveted and completely sucked in. While I liked this movie before, but it was this most recent viewing that really sold me on the greatness of this movie. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for movies made during the 70s, but “Coma” is a standout. I highly recommend it. -Sam