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 homemade chicken soup so I curled up on the couch and turned on the TV. While searching for something to watch I stumbled on the recent 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 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 and impactful 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 is 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 expose 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 Bujold finds herself exploring basement boiler rooms in order to get answers while chipping away at the hospital’s long-standing patriarchal system.

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, she 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 plotline 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 always seemed to harbor writing ambitions but he set them aside to attend Harvard Medical School in the 1960s. 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 housing coma patients that 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 cold 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 efforts 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 work in the 1970s as well as an element of disillusionment and unfiltered rabble-rousing that I find especially appealing. Crichton seemed to trust his audience’s intelligence during that decade while demanding more of them but these qualities are largely missing from modern Hollywood films. Today most entertainment is 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 a 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 impactful 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 suspect 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:
– Robert C. Cumbow on COMA
– Matt Zoller Seitz on A&E’s television adaptation of COMA

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written in 2012 for Turner Classic Movies.