Almost everyone harbors an inherent fear of hospitals; that's why medical thrillers often get under our skin, mercilessly stoking those irrational apprehensions and raising them to elevated degrees. 'Coma' was one of the first films to ruffle our feathers and plant seeds of doubt about the integrity of the medical community, and though its plot is more than a little beyond the realm of reality, Michael Crichton's suspenseful adaptation of Robin Cook's best-selling novel asks a basic yet deeply disturbing question that cuts to the heart of everyone's phobia of the operating room. What if you checked into a hospital for "minor" surgery, were administered general anesthesia, and never woke up?
When such a fate befalls the best friend of accomplished surgical resident Susan Wheeler (Genevieve Bujold), as well as other random patients at Boston Memorial, the shattered doctor begins looking into potential causes for such a strange and rare phenomenon. Her on-again, off-again boyfriend and colleague, Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas), can't fathom anything could be amiss, nor can the respected chief of surgery, Dr. George Harris (Richard Widmark), but after Susan does some digging, it appears a conspiracy is lurking within the hospital walls, and Susan won't rest until she roots it out. Nefarious forces try to thwart her progress, but Susan won't be deterred, and what she eventually discovers shakes her to her very core.
Crichton and Cook were both doctors, and they bring to 'Coma' an unsettling authenticity that fuels the creepy story. Boston Memorial is depicted as a generic, professionally run hospital with competent, professional staff, which in turn magnifies the impact of the mishaps. And though the particulars of the plot strain credulity, the motivating factors make sense and hit home, and cause our paranoid brains to question whether something like this just might be possible in real life.
In many ways, 'Coma' is a straightforward detective yarn, except the lead investigator is an intern not a cop, and the medical angle adds that extra layer of anxiety that ramps up tension. Crichton, who also wrote the screenplay, isn't the most innovative director; much like his novel-writing, he seems to follow a blueprint, but his straightforward style serves the popcorn material well, as he focuses on driving the narrative forward and keeping us absorbed in the moment.
'Coma' was also one of the first films to feature a woman as an intrepid protagonist standing up to the establishment, ruffling feathers, and refusing to be placated by powerful men. Burgeoning feminism was supposedly a major part of Cook's book, and though Crichton shot 'Coma' during the heyday of women's lib, he toned down the novel's militant slant. Still, there's a palpable air of feminism swirling about the film, which complements discussions of medical ethics and lends a bit of substance to what is really a standard mystery.
Back in the '70s, Bujold was a noteworthy star, and 'Coma' offered her one of her better roles. She exudes intelligence, but is also attractive, emotional, and able to handle the part's physical demands with aplomb. The young Douglas, in his first movie after wrapping 'The Streets of San Francisco' (the TV series that cemented his reputation), makes a fine foil and leading man, exhibiting strength mixed with tenderness and an exasperation over Susan's stubbornness. Douglas is definitely a subordinate here, but his imposing on-screen presence makes it easy to see why he quickly graduated to more dominant roles.
The square-jawed Widmark, always interesting Elizabeth Ashley (as the Mrs. Danvers-like proprietress of the eerie coma facility), and glowering Rip Torn (as a suspicious doctor) all assert themselves well, but one of the unexpected joys of this film is spotting well-known actors in bit parts before they were major stars. Eagle eyes will espy Ed Harris (with copious amounts of hair) in his film debut, and it's impossible to miss the flashy, mustachioed grin of a young, pre-'Magnum' Tom Selleck as one of the hospital's unfortunate victims.
'Coma' stands up amazingly well almost 35 years later; well enough that it was deemed worthy of a TV mini series remake to air next month, co-produced by Ridley Scott and his late brother, Tony. Whether or not the update will rival or surpass the tense original remains to be seen, but the 1978 version still has its incisors, and they bite into our insecurities with as much vigor as they did three decades ago. 'Coma' may not be a classic thriller, but one thing is certain; it won't put you to sleep.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Coma' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. The BD-25 single-layer disc features a video codec of 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack. When the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no promos or previews precede it.
'Coma' is a mixed bag in the video department, featuring one of those schizophrenic transfers that fluctuates between crisp and soft, vibrant and dull, smooth and harsh. The best scenes enjoy excellent contrast and clarity, high levels of details, and vivid hues, while the worst appear lackluster, slightly faded, and a tad worn. The settings - a stark, dreary hospital, low-rent apartments, and utilitarian offices - don't help. There's not much to look at in 'Coma,' and the few exterior scenes, such as a romantic seaside montage, adopt a hazy, muted look that doesn't do the coastal ambience justice.
Grain is visible, and its levels often shift, but print defects have been almost entirely erased, leaving a clean image that's pleasant to watch. Black levels are solid, but not intense, and predominant whites, from doctors' jackets to hospital decor, are bright and well-defined. Color comes at a premium, but even when it appears it looks anemic. Fleshtones are stable and true, and close-ups flaunt solid levels of detail. Background elements are easy to discern, though sharpness is lacking, and no glaring digital enhancements or imperfections could be detected.
For a minor catalogue title, 'Coma' looks just fine. It wasn't a visually stunning film when first released, and it isn't on Blu-ray either.
'Coma' comes equipped with a fairly standard DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track that supplies good quality, if unspectacular, sound. The front-based audio doesn't possess much panache, but Jerry Goldsmith's music score enjoys fine presence and tonal depth, with its ominous underpinnings nicely augmented by solid bass frequencies. A wide enough dynamic scale prevents any distortion from occurring, and crisp accents and subtle atmospherics are well integrated into the mix. Dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, and no age-related defects inhibit the listening experience.
Like the video, the audio of 'Coma' is typical of mainstream '70s movie making - it gets the job done with a minimum of fuss, and as a result, isn't particularly memorable.
The film's original theatrical trailer, which gives away a bit too much of the plot, is the only extra offered. A retrospective featurette with Bujold and Douglas would have been a welcome addition, but no such luck.
As medical thrillers go, 'Coma' remains a taut, absorbing entry in the genre, and after almost 35 years, it still has the power to unnerve those of us with hospital phobias, despite a rather far-fetched plot. Michael Crichton's adaptation of the Robin Cook bestseller moves along at a brisk clip and contains earnest performances from Genevieve Bujold and Michael Douglas that make the material seem better than it is. This catalogue Blu-ray from Warner features standard video and audio transfers, and almost nothing in the way of extras, but if you're looking for a solid suspense yarn with some offbeat twists, then 'Coma' is an effective prescription for a weeknight rental.