Going Under: Revisiting COMA (1978)

I spent Labor Day sick in bed. I was feverish, sore and incredibly cranky due to having my weekend plans derailed by a bad cold. On Monday night I began to feel slightly better after binging on Nyquil and chicken soup so I curled up on the couch and turned on the TV. While searching for something to watch I stumbled on the A&E television adaptation of Robin Cook’s 1977 medical thriller Coma.

The new A&E two-part series was directed by Mikael Salomon and produced by Ridley Scott along with his recently deceased brother, Tony. It was a surprisingly entertaining as well as an occasionally batty television movie that featured a solid cast of aging professionals including Ellen Burstyn, James Woods, Geena Davis and Richard Dreyfuss. After its conclusion on Tuesday night I decided to revisit Michael Crichton‘s original 1978 film adaptation of COMA starring Genevieve Bujold, Richard Widmark, Michael Douglas and Rip Torn. I hadn’t seen it in decades so I wasn’t sure what to expect but I had fond memories of the movie. I’m happy to report that Crichton‘s film didn’t disappoint and I actually found COMA even more effective than I had remembered it.

I’ve always thought that Genevieve Bujold was a mesmerizing screen presence. Her dark doe-like features and petite frame make her appear vulnerable but she has a natural vitality that gives her characters an inner strength and wide-eyed intelligence. In COMA Bujold delivers a pitch perfect performance playing a twenty-something surgical resident working at Boston’s Memorial Hospital who’s romantically involved with a young doctor (Michael Douglas). After her best friend (Lois Chiles) admits herself into the hospital for a standard abortion procedure and inexplicably falls into a coma, Bujold’s character is determined to find out what went wrong. Her investigation leads her to discover that dozens of other seemingly healthy patents have suddenly become comatose during routine medical operations and are being transported to a secluded research center called the Jefferson Institute. Being smart, inquisitive and sympathetic to her patient’s plight seem like ideal qualities for any doctor but as Bujold’s character tries to unlock the mysterious goings-on at Memorial Hospital she’s continually derailed by her male colleagues who insist she’s paranoid, hysterical and neurotic. In scene after scene she’s forced to defend herself and her professionalism. As the tension mounts and Bujold finds herself exploring basement boiler rooms in order to get answers she seems to be chipping away at the truth as well as chipping away at the hospital patriarchy.

Taking its cues from films like Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) and Bryan Forbes’s THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975), COMA uses elements of fantasy, science fiction and horror to ask important questions about gender inequality as well as office politics in the wake of the sexual revolution. Today COMA might seem somewhat outdated in its broad portrayal of gender biases (or incredibly pertinent depending on your social outlook) but it’s important to remember that Roe v. Wade was only 4 years old at the time that COMA was made and the medical field was still largely a man’s world where women were destined to take nursing positions.

Bujold’s character is expected to follow orders and her handsome boyfriend (Michael Douglas) seems determined to keep her in line but throughout the film Bujold rejects every attempt to confine her and her ideas. Is Bujold just an emotionally unstable woman trying to blame the hospital for her friend’s medical dilemma? Or are the coma victims pawns in some sinister plan being executed by a Hippocratic brotherhood? I may have given too much of the movie’s basic plot line away but COMA has plenty of unexpected twists and turns that should appeal to mystery and horror enthusiasts as well as science fiction fans. This really is Bujold’s film but Richard Widmark is exceptional as her domineering boss and Rip Torn does a good job of appearing appropriately threatening. Michael Douglas also makes a good sparring partner for Bujold and keep an eye out for future stars Tom Selleck and Ed Harris in small but noteworthy roles.

Director Michael Crichton on the set of COMA.

Director Michael Crichton always seemed to harbor writing ambitions but he set them aside to attend Harvard Medical School in the ‘60s. As he explained in his autobiography Travels, he became increasingly disenchanted with the medical profession and finally gave it up to pursue a writing career that eventually lead him to Hollywood where he started making movies.

“Much of medicine, as it was practiced in those days, I simply didn’t agree with. I didn’t agree that abortion on demand should be illegal. I didn’t agree that patients had no rights and should shut up and do whatever the doctors told them to do. I didn’t agree that, if a procedure presented a hazard, the patient shouldn’t be worried with the facts. I didn’t agree that terminally ill people should have treatment forced upon them, even if they wished to die in peace. I didn’t agree that, when malpractice occurred, doctors should cover it up.” – Michael Crichton, Travels

In one of the film’s most memorable scenes Bujold tours the mysterious Jefferson Institute where coma patients are supposedly being cared for and is ushered into a room where bodies are suspended from the ceiling by thin wires. The effect was particularly eerie and unforgettable in 1978 but it’s still incredibly effective today. These naked and unconscious bodies rightfully generate fear and caution in Bujold’s inquisitive character but they also seem to represent the somewhat helpless and disconnected view of modern medicine that Michael Crichton undoubtedly felt at the time that he made COMA.

Today Crichton is probably best remembered for writing JURASSIC PARK (Steven Spielberg; 1993) as well as writing and producing ER (1994-2009), which became one of the most popular medical dramas on television. But I personally find his early science fiction films including WESTWORLD (1973) and COMA, as well as Robert Wise’s 1971 film THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (based on one of Crichton’s first novels), much more engaging and endearing. There’s a distinctly adult quality to his ‘70s work as well as an element of disillusionment and unfiltered rabble-rousing that I find especially appealing. Crichton seemed to trust his audience’s intelligence in the ‘70s while demanding more of them and those kinds of qualities are largely missing from modern Hollywood films and television shows. Today most entertainment is also squarely aimed at a younger demographic.

Hospitals are scary places. Instead of being warm, intimate and inviting they tend to be cold, reserved and unappealing institutions that unnecessarily generate fear and unease. Doctors and nurses have an exceptionally difficult job to do and a sterile clinical environment may help them approach their work with a clear head and a real sense of purpose but for the rest of us a hospital setting can seem incredibly harsh and just plain frightening. Michael Crichton was well aware of this fact when he made COMA and his film is particularly effective because it successfully transforms a sterilized hospital into a funhouse ride where nothing is exactly as it seems and the truth has become twisted and distorted beyond all reason.

I haven’t even mentioned how I’m sure that David Cronenberg was inspired to cast Genevieve Bujold in his own medical thriller, DEAD RINGERS (1988), after seeing her performance in COMA but you can make that conclusion for yourself. Both COMA and DEAD RINGERS would make for one exceptional double feature and both films are readily available on DVD and currently streaming on Amazon.

You can also view A&E’s recent television adaptation of COMA online.

Further reading:
- Movie Morlock’s Jeff Stafford on COMA
- Robert C. Cumbow on COMA
- Matt Zoller Seitz on A&E’s television adaptation of COMA

0 Response Going Under: Revisiting COMA (1978)
Posted By Susan Doll : September 6, 2012 4:57 pm

I have not seen the original COMA in years either. I am inspired to go back to it after your remarks as I have become very interested in gender politics in films, especially considering current Hollywood’s depiction of women. Contemporary women characters are generally marginalized or, if there are women characters, they are victims, sidekicks, objects of jokes or desires, or merely turned into men with boobs. I tried watching the new COMA and could not get into it. It seemed so visually dull, and the main women characters too young and nondescript.

Posted By Fred : September 6, 2012 5:08 pm

Excellent review of a film that I’m certain quite a few folks had unfortunately forgotten. I saw COMA when it first came out, only one or two other times since, but I really appreciated how Crichton and his cinematographer shot the film in a flat, almost documentary style, making the later scenes in the Jefferson Institute really pop-out, since everything leading up to those scenes had been cold, clinical and hyper-realistic. I didn’t get to see the remake, but I’ll try to catch it on re-runs.

One other early film by Crichton (based on one of his early books) that may be in line for some re-evaluation is THE TERMINAL MAN. I saw this when it was originally released in ’74 and it was universally trashed by the critics. But its premise of computers being used to “cure” illnesses and possible unwanted side-effects was quite prescient. The film featured a great cast and, like COMA and THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, took a very adult approach to the material (as you point out in your review), something that is sadly lacking in today’s cinema.

By the way, you can count me as another fan of Genevieve Bujold, whom I’ve always had a crush on since I first saw her in KING OF HEARTS and ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS.

Posted By Qalice : September 6, 2012 5:32 pm

I’d like to see the original Coma again, too. I remember it well — but I watched some of the re-make and thought it was hilariously bad. So many good actors wasted!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 6, 2012 6:36 pm

The TV adaptation was nowhere near as compelling or as well acted as Crichton’s film version but I honestly found it entertaining. Particularly the second half where it really went off the rails. I was reminded of the numerous TV horror films I used to watch in the ’70s starring big name actors like Kim Novak (SATAN’S TRIANGLE) or James Mason (SALEM’S LOT) but your own mileage will vary of course.

Susan – I was surprised about how blunt the film’s political message was. I obviously hadn’t remembered it all that well but I highly recommend giving it another look.

Fred – Thanks! The photography in COMA is very cold and suits the film’s mood as well as its message. I haven’t seen THE TERMINAL MAN so I didn’t mention it in my post but I’m really curious about it now and I appreciate the recommendation.

Qalice – I can sit through truly awful productions like CHILDREN OF THE LIVING DEAD (2001) and I’ve written about movies like WINTER A GO-GO (1965) for the Morlocks so I freely admit to having questionable taste. As I mentioned above, the COMA TV adaptation can’t compare to the original film but I found it entertaining. Occasionally entertaining for the wrong reasons maybe, but entertaining nonetheless.

Posted By greglafata : September 6, 2012 9:42 pm

Excellent review. This movie looks fascinating.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 7, 2012 8:44 am

I unabashedly love all of Crichton’s early work, even The Terminal Man which I watched again not so long ago for my post here on dystopian sci-fi stories. Even Looker has a lot of fine moments and commentary.

The last shot of Widmark in the O.R. is a great one, too, when the light goes off and he stands there, head low, motionless. Also, Genevieve Bujold is just brilliant. She was a favorite of mine in the seventies and eighties. I do so wish she’d gotten on board as the captain in STAR TREK: VOYAGER as planned. I might have actually watched more of it then.

Posted By swac44 : September 7, 2012 9:26 am

Wow, Satan’s Triangle, there’s a flashback. I was only 8 or so when that aired, and that image of the dead body floating in midair haunted my dreams for years afterwards. I haven’t seen Coma since the days of laserdisc, but I remember enjoying ’70s-modern setting, and Bujold’s performance, not to mention that amazing supporting cast. Guess I’m due for a rewatch, and finally tracking down a copy of The Terminal Man.

Posted By Kingrat : September 7, 2012 12:53 pm

Thanks for reminding us about COMA. I agree completely with your remarks about Genevieve Bujold. The two very different performances in Alan Rudolph’s CHOOSE ME and TROUBLE IN MIND may be her very best.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 7, 2012 4:56 pm

Greg – That last shot of Widmark in COMA is truly fantastic! I was taken aback when I saw it again because I couldn’t exactly remember how the film ended and that’s partially due to Crichton’s subtle directing choices. Might just be one of my favorite ending shots… ever.

Swac44 – SATAN’S TRIANGLE scared me silly too. It’s probably the best “Bermuda Triangle” thriller from the ’70s and Kim Novak is spectacularly creepy at the end.

Kingrat – I’m happy that others appreciate the movie as much as I do. Bujold is always terrific and she did some great films with Alan Rudolph. I’ve always considered Rudolph somewhat of an underrated director.

Posted By Liam Casey : September 8, 2012 4:16 pm

I have not seen “Coma” since it’s original run either. Nice to know that it has held up after 30 years. I had only seen Genevieve Bujold in “Earthquake” and “Swashbuckler” prior to “Coma”. And, although I had liked her in both of those earlier pictures, it was “Coma” that demonstrated to me that she was more than just another very pretty actress.

Posted By Jenni : September 8, 2012 10:33 pm

I was scanning the afternoon tv shows today and one of the cable channels had done a remake of Coma-with young actors I had never seen before. I only stuck around to watch a minute of it. I started the book years ago, when in 8th grade, now I need to pick it up again and read the whole thing. Then I’d seek out the Genevieve Bujold movie.

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