Sunday, September 13, 2009

Routine Procedure

In case anyone’s been wondering, part of the reason I haven’t been updating as much lately is because of some very minor surgery that I had recently. It’s not the only reason for my absence but it’s a good one and even though it was minor, surgery is surgery, right? It hurts. It takes some time to recover. That’s all you need to know. But since I made it through I figured I’d take a look at Michael Crichton’s COMA since I didn’t have to worry about some kind of worst case scenario anymore. One of those many movies that somehow always slipped through the cracks for me until now COMA feels a little like a movie I’d already seen even though I hadn’t. This isn’t a criticism of it as much as a comment on how enough of it feels like it’s seeped into other films and TV shows through the years so maybe what was once shocking or surprising (if it was--hey, I don’t know) isn’t really anymore. It’s still interesting in how it tries to inject sexual politics circa 1978 into such a thriller and, ultimately, it is pretty entertaining as long as you don’t spend too much time dwelling on certain plot points.

Dr. Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold) is a surgery resident at Boston General Hospital as is boyfriend Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas) who she shares a somewhat combative relationship with. When close friend Nancy (MOONRAKER’s Lois Chiles) goes into the hospital for a routine abortion something unexpected goes wrong, leaving Nancy in an irreversible coma. Soon after another young, healthy patient goes in for a routine procedure with similar tragic results and when Susan begins to investigate she encounters roadblocks in the form of a hospital staff (as well as her own boyfriend) which seems to believe that these are nothing but tragic accidents. And what does OR #8 have to do with any of this? Nancy’s actions soon catch the attention of Chief of Surgery Dr. George Harris (Richard Widmark, who is of course playing a bit role which will have no bearing on the plot, right?) but even as she begins to sense that she is in true danger, her investigation soon leads her to the door of the mysterious Jefferson Institute run by Mrs. Emerson (Elizabeth Ashley) where certain shocking answers await.

Based on the novel by Robin Cook with a screenplay by Crichton, COMA moves fast and is tightly plotted, maybe to keep one from asking certain questions as much as anything. The basic nature of the mystery seems to be figured out a little too easily in a Nancy Drew-sort of way (including the maintenance man who turns up out of nowhere to point her in the right direction) and it’s hard not to think how much of this basic conspiracy thriller framework has been used a number of times over the years (not to mention Michael Apted’s 1996 medical mystery EXTREME MEASURES) and without coming up with specific examples a number of beats in the plot just feel overly familiar in this day and age. It probably isn’t this film’s fault but it does display how much of it just isn’t very surprising anymore. That’s not to criticize the framework too much and I found myself continually surprised in minor ways like how Bujold’s lowest emotional point in the film turns out to be exactly when she becomes forced into really dealing with the danger of the situation and even some minor bits of dialogue wind up paying off in satisfying ways. That’s not to say that this is an airtight plot and for that matter I could almost imagine a doctor watching the film taking offense that Bujold’s character is the only one who seems to take a genuine concern in what is going on at this hospital—that no other doctor comes off as very worried would make parodying this film pretty easy (I’m guessing that Mad Magazine took a crack at it).

Probably more interesting is the film’s treatment of lead Bujold—she’s presented as a woman fighting her way upstream against the chauvinism around her, even with her boyfriend who she is seen arguing with not too long after the opening credits—one imagines the two of them fighting on the way home from seeing AN UNMARRIED WOMAN. Using this plot as an opportunity to explore such sexual politics is a way to make the film more than it is—when she gets rid of her heels and pantyhose to crawl around in the hospital’s air ducts the symbolism of the moment is tough to ignore and when a character says “I like a woman who drinks scotch” late in the film the implication is that her character has earned such a compliment. Of course, this may or may not be exactly what the goal should be and the nature of the climax which places her in jeopardy as opposed to someone else feels like this theme isn’t quite carried through to the end. How much Crichton was invested in this theme is tough to say considering how Bujold is seen taking a shower in one of the very first scenes in this PG film (not that I’m complaining, he crassly admitted).

Considering the current health care debate going on I was on the lookout for how the film might be relevant to today but the truth is so much of the medical world presented here, in which the idea of a medical institution that is less than honorable may actually have been genuinely shocking, feels pretty far removed from today (we hear about the Jefferson Institute being “government funded” but that seems a little ambiguous). When the chief mastermind is ranting about how the world isn’t black and white near the end the moment is hurt by how simplistic the conflict really is. It occurred to me that a remake set in today’s world which really did address how complicated today’s medical world is would be able to address such things…but it’s tough to imagine that an audience wouldn’t figure out the truth behind what is going on pretty quickly these days. If anything, the presentation of the Jefferson Institute and its eerie, austere lay out both inside and out (I imagine the building being used as part of a liberal arts college) is extremely effective and if the main point of praise to give to COMA is that it’s a decent popcorn thriller that remains engaging over thirty years after its release, then that’s certainly something.

One point of particular interest is the film’s use of the score by Jerry Goldsmith which as part of the film’s approach to its escalating pace doesn’t make its first appearance until nearly fifty minutes in. Once it’s there it barely seems to leave and while some of the stuff sounds a lot like other material Goldsmith was turning out around this time for the likes of THE OMEN, LOGAN’S RUN and even the V’Ger material for STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE it’s still an excellent piece of work and the fact remains that as far as chase music goes you can’t get much better than 70s-era Goldsmith. I should also mention that the Bujold-Douglas weekend getaway is backed up by what on the soundtrack album is titled “Love Theme From COMA” so be sure to cue that up on your next romantic night. The final moments of the movie might in other hands play as an obligatory villain-gets-comeuppance beat but in Goldsmith’s hands it works just great sending everyone off on the right moment (and, presumably, before too many questions get asked).

Whatever the other problems, Bujold does a terrific job in the lead and her inherently icy nature feels like an ideal match with this character who has to prove herself to all the men in the world. Michael Douglas wasn’t quite a movie star at this point (though he did have an Oscar for producing ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST) and his performance here feels a little like he’s being tested to see how he works on the big screen—it’s not the meatiest role but he does some god work playing not a Cary Grant to Bujold’s Audrey Hepburn but someone who the film successfully makes us unsure if he’s in on it or just unwilling to stick his neck out to help her. Elizabeth Ashley seems to be playing her first scene as if she’s one’s of the robots from WESTWORLD—she tones it down a little later on, but just a little. Richard Widmark plays what in terms of this point in his career is pretty much the Richard Widmark role as Dr. Harris, bringing more credibility to the part than someone else might have and Rip Torn is excellent in just two scenes (one with no dialogue) as the hospital’s Chief of Anesthesiology. Tom Selleck (who later starred in Crichton’s RUNAWAY) makes an early appearance as one of the unfortunate patients and Ed Harris definitely makes an impression in his first film role as a pathology resident.

Anyway, I’m recovering now and though I’m not 100% yet I’ve been out in the world, going to movies and even stopped into Tiki Ti one night. Which has nothing to do with COMA but there’s not much else to say about it anyway. It was a big hit at the time and even if the sexual politics play slightly dated today, as interesting as they are, its portrayal of the medical world still succeeds at being a little unnerving. That’s the case for me particularly after having just gone through this sort of thing so I guess that’s all it really needs to do.


Joe Valdez said...

Coma is a favorite of my dad's, though he gets the credits goofed up, mistaking it for a Michael Crichton novel directed by Peter Hyams. With a foundation of interchangable parts -- institution, science, conspiracy -- Dan Brown probably thinks he wrote this.

I'm glad to read that you're getting your sea legs back under you, Peter. Take your time. Your status as a cinema junkie strung out on '70s and '80s drive-in classics appears safe.

Unknown said...

Good to hear you are recovering well, Mr. Peel!

I also watched COMA again, about a year ago... I did not share your mild enthusiasm but it was still interesting to see again, and your dissection is great. I saw the movie originally at a drive-in with my parents and the shot where we see a paranoid Bujold staring out of her high rise with one breast poking out made a strong impression on me. And there it was again, just as unerotic as I remembered.

I'm looking forward to seeing the odd based-on-Crichton TERMINAL MAN again now that it has appeared on DVD.

Unknown said...


There was in fact a Mad Magazine parody called "Coma-Toast"(!). I imagine the lead-in text was like "This thriller is so boring it leaves us..."

According to wikipedia, here's the rundown of Mad's other movie parodies in that year of 1978:

Star Roars
The Dip
The Spy Who Glubbed Me
Clod Encounters of the Absurd Kind
Saturday Night Feeble

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


That's funny, because I was actually surprised to learn that the original novel wasn't actually by Crichton and what with the Goldsmith score it wouldn't be a reach to imagine Hyams directing this at the time. I actually saw the BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT remake over the weekend, which was directed by Hyams (and scored by David Shire!). It wasn't very good at all. Thanks for the kind wishes, it means a lot.


Thanks for that. It never occured to me to look up the Mad parody! Glad you liked the piece, if not the's not great but I suppose it got the job done for me on a minor level.

Jerry Horne said...

Get better Mr Peel!

Mapeel said...

Mr. Peel, I've had my own brushes with surgery. Once you've survived the anesthesia, you will heal. Glad you're up and around town again.

Robert H. said...

COMA the movie is much better than COMA the book... while much of it has been poached by others that followed, it was pretty fresh at the time of its release.


Just watched my copy of this... it was one of the first movies I ever went to, though there was no way I could understand it at that age.

Now, I understand it, but I think that Mike Hodges shot himself in the foot, metaphorically speaking.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Many thanks to you guys for the well wishes. Always a pleasure to hear from you, Mrs. Peel.

I've never seen THE TERMINAL MAN, so I guess I'm going to have to check that one out.

Jeff Allard said...

I haven't seen Coma in many years but it's one of the movies of my childhood that I have the fondest memories of. Every Friday for years my mother and I would sit down with a bowl of popcorn and watch whatever was on the ABC Friday Night Movie and Coma was one that had us both on the edge of our seats. The last time I saw the movie about ten years ago, the heavy-handed depiction of Bujold's character as a indepedant woman struggling against a male dominated world struck me as the most conspicuously dated element. In all other respects, though, I thought it held up as a middle-of-the-road but solidly done mainstream thriller.