Before “Grey’s Anatomy” introduced us to the lusty antics and high-stakes drama of the surgeons at Seattle Grace Hospital, screenwriter and director Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, ER) wrote and directed the medical thriller Coma, out now on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video. Based on the novel by Robin Cook, this film will make anyone think twice about how safe we really are in a hospital.
Genevieve Bujold is Dr. Susan Wheeler, a surgical resident at Boston Memorial Hospital, and Michael Douglas is Dr. Mark Bellows, her boyfriend and Chief Resident hopeful. At the beginning of the film, the two doctors are struggling with hospital politics and gender politics, as they pertain to their relationship. But the tension is about to rise, and the stakes are a lot higher.
A friend of Susan’s goes in for a routine procedure and ends up in an irreversible coma. Devastated, Susan begins her own investigation into what went wrong. When she notices several similar coma cases, she suspects something more sinister is going on, but as the evidence begins to mount, she’s met with more opposition. Is this all in her head, as her boyfriend and the Chief of Medicine would have her believe? Or has she stumbled onto a nefarious scheme?
For those of you who haven’t seen the movie before, I don’t want to give too much away. I was warned ahead of time not to watch the trailer (included on the Blu-ray!) before watching the film, and I’m glad I took that advice. Crichton does an excellent job of not giving up too much too early, but building tension all the same. He taps into something to which we can all relate: the vulnerability and lack of control of a patient, and the blind trust put into doctors. During a good portion of the first half, the only soundtrack is ambient hospital noise – unsettling, to be sure. With no music cues to clue in the audience, we really aren’t sure who to believe.
We like Susan, and trust Susan, and believe that she believes what she’s saying, but Crichton leaves room for us to doubt Susan. That trace of doubt we have in our protagonist gives us a greater sense of unease. Maybe she is so distraught over the fate of her friend that she’s seeing patterns that don’t exist. Maybe the stress of her relationship with Mark is causing her to imagine things. Maybe the fact that she’s a woman in a man’s world is creating hormonal bouts of hysteria and paranoia. Okay, I would never suggest that last one. But you can hear it in the tone used with her by some of the men in the hospital.
Bujold is great as Susan, infusing the character with enough intelligence to be credible, enough warmth to be likeable, and enough vulnerability to be believable. Douglas gives Mark the confident charm and swagger of a young doctor. Elizabeth Ashley, Richard Widmark and Rip Torn are all delightfully ominous in their roles as medical professionals who may or may not be involved in the alleged conspiracy. Several familiar faces pop up in smaller roles. A fully mustachioed Tom Selleck has a little bit of pre-Magnum P.I. screen time as a hospital patient. Ed Harris makes his film debut as a pathology resident with a full head of blond (!) hair. And look for Joanna Kerns in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her appearance in Susan’s dance class.
The picture quality on this Blu-ray is very good for a catalog title release. A subtle layer of grain remains, but it didn’t detract in the slightest. The release is bare-bones as far as content goes, including only the theatrical trailer beyond the feature. But as I mentioned, don’t watch the trailer until you’ve seen the movie, unless you’re looking for the abridged film. All in all, Coma is definitely worth a look, as a suspenseful thriller without all the gore. But I wouldn’t recommend watching this one the night before surgery.