Coma (1978)

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*. This movie was very successful when it was released (hard on the heels of a big bestseller), and I’m not sure why it isn’t better known today. It’s very smart and well turned out, and has some interesting credits.
*. Michael Crichton had Westworld under his belt, but was hardly a household name yet, even as a writer. Michael Douglas was still just a pup and largely unknown. Richard Widmark, Rip Torn, and Elizabeth Ashley are all well cast as the cold front of the establishment. They may be good at what they do, but we sure don’t want them taking care of us.
*. Geneviève Bujold . . . well, she could have been a star. As David Thomson puts it, she “is so remarkable in [Coma] that she makes one conscious of how a steady career has neglected her real virtues.” Or per Pauline Kael: “There’s no way to sanitize this actress. She’s like a soft furry animal and she’s irreducibly curious; she snuggles deep inside the shallow material.”
*. The premise is wildly improbable but still touches a nerve, as most medical horror does. The fact that it’s all delivered in such a flat, professional tone makes it all the more effective. The score is by Jerry Goldsmith, but where is it? One gets the feeling that Crichton found a score unhygienic.
*. It’s also a film in the great tradition of conspiracy thrillers. That totally silent, implacable killer recalls Bill McKinney’s assassin from The Parallax View. The Jefferson Institute is located somewhere out in the hinterlands of Cronenberg country, a brutalist fort like the University of Toronto campuses featured in Stereo. The ending, with Dr. Wheeler strapped down to a gurney and about to be sent to the rendering plant, must be quoting Seconds.

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*. A medical conspiracy works because most of us don’t know very much about medicine (hence all the seemingly authentic but alienating doctor-talk here), and the massive medical establishment is entirely beyond our ken. As Widmark’s Doctor George puts it, medicine has become our new religion. We are totally dependent on it, but don’t really understand it. This is the key to most conspiracy thinking.
*. I don’t much like Widmark’s big speech at the end though. This is a key moment in any conspiracy thriller, where the puppet master (kind of) reveals what’s really going on. Think of the old man at the end of Seconds, or Robert Redford confronting the CIA director at the end of Three Days of the Condor. So when Widmark opens up to Dr. Wheeler we expect something good. But he never addresses what it is he’s doing. Yes, doctors have to make tough decisions, but what does that have to do with killing healthy people and selling their organs on the black market? How is this taking “the long view”? How is it acting for society and not just pursuing the profit motive?
*. Of course we could just conclude, as Dr. Wheeler does, that Widmark is crazy. But that raises other problems. How is it that such a mad scheme has this kind of massive institutional infrastructure behind it? I mean, we’re talking about a whole Federal Department of Body Snatchers. Maybe the organ chop shop being operated in the South American jungle in Turistas was more realistic.
*. Another new wrinkle on old formulas (medical horror, conspiracy thriller) is the not just female but feminist heroine. She’s not going to fetch her romantic partner a beer, and will be sure to duck into the shower first after work. We’re also teased by looking up her skirt as she climbs the ladder out of the basement, only for her to shuck off her impractical pantyhose and drop them on our face. That’s one small step for women’s lib (which is what they called it in 1978).
*. The room of bodies hanging from wires were the iconic image from the film (taken from the cover of the novel), but they’re a good example of how effective art design can be totally impractical. I mean, apparently the way they were suspended was so painful for the extras playing the coma patients that they could only take short shots of them before having to wheel in support. Bodies naturally sag. It’s gravity.
*. This is a fine film and on this most recent re-watch I was surprised by how well it’s held up. Yes, the ending feels rushed and is improbable in the extreme, but that’s Hollywood. And better a movie that ends too quickly than one that takes too long to wrap up. If it never quite generates the requisite excitement for its genre, it still makes for good entertainment.

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