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COMA (director/writer: Michael Crichton; screenwriter: based on the novel by Robin Cook; cinematographer: Victor J. Kemper; editor: David Bretherton; music: Jerry Goldsmith; cast: Genevieve Bujold (Dr. Susan Wheeler), Michael Douglas (Dr. Mark Bellows), Elizabeth Ashley (Mrs. Emerson), Rip Torn (Dr. George), Richard Widmark (Dr. Harris), Lois Chiles (Nancy Greenly), Hari Rhodes (Dr. Morelind), Tom Selleck (Sean Murphy), Frank Downing (Kelly, maintenance engineer); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Martin Erlichman; Warner Home Video; 1978)
“More entertaining than credible.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A sci-fi Hitchcockian suspense thriller that gets the hospital setting at its most authentically eerie and keeps things intelligent, for the most part, that is until its exciting climax plays out as more entertaining than credible. Even though the mad-scientist thriller degenerates into silliness, it still registers as much superior than most thrillers. Writer-director Michael Crichton (“Westworld”/”Looker”/”Runaway”) bases the film on the best-selling novel by Robin Cook. Crichton like Cook has a background in medicine and is also a novelist.

Feisty Susan Wheeler (Genevieve Bujold) is a surgical resident at the fictitious Boston Memorial Hospital. She lives with Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas), an ambitious surgeon who is interested in hospital politics and is bucking to be chief resident. When Susan’s 28-year-old married best friend Nancy Greenly (Lois Chiles) undergoes a routine abortion but emerges inexplicably in an irreversible coma, Susan becomes Nancy Drew and begins an investigation that upsets the hospital top administrators. She rattles the illustrious Dr. George (Rip Torn), the head anesthesiologist, who feels miffed she suspects incompetence in his department and reports her rudeness in questioning him over the ten such unexplained coma deaths over the course of a year to Dr. George Harris (Richard Widmark), the prominent chief of surgery. The avuncular Harris is not pleased with her snooping and orders Susan to see the hospital shrink (Hari Rhodes) before returning to duty. Eventually Susan discovers through a paper trail a connection with the deaths, now 12, all happening in the same operating room and the coma victims then being sent to the mysterious Jefferson Institute. It seems the patients are killed on the operating table with carbon monoxide fed in via the anesthetic from the basement and that the Jefferson Institute is selling their organs on the international black market to the highest bidder.

The film only breaks down into brawn over brains when Susan is the woman-in-peril who has to solve the mystery on her own, as her boyfriend doesn’t buy her story (attributing it to female hysteria), and she becomes a marked woman trying to avoid being eliminated by a stalker assassin sent by the doctors in the hospital responsible for the lucrative criminal scheme.

It plays out as a female entitlement film, as Susan shows she’s not afraid to take on the hospital’s old boy chain of command. The film is just excellent when it plays mind games with the viewer by exposing the fear many people have of surgery, the fear of dying as the doctor cuts them, and their phobias about hospitals. It has several chilling scenes, equal to those seen in the best horror pics, which should get your attention; especially, the one of rows of comatose patients hanging suspended by wires in a cold storage room.

The film was a box office smash and helped advance the careers of its younger cast members such as Michael Douglas and Tom Selleck (had a bit part as a coma vic), who went onto superstardom.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”