|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 26 October 1999|
Michael Crichton seems determined to show he can do almost everything a writer-director can do, if not expertly, at least professionally. He's written novels and adapted them for the screen; he's written original screenplays. He's directed scripts he wrote, and scripts other people wrote; he's directed scripts based on his own books and, as here, based on novels by other people. You'd have a hard time finding another figure in movie history with that particular set of accomplishments. And he usually does it all quite well -- sometimes, as with COMA, even better than that.
He turned Robin Cook's best-selling novel (his first) into a screenplay, then directed it with a cool, clean style, demonstrating his own familiarity with big-city hospitals (Crichton was also a doctor). It may not be one of the best suspense films ever made, but it's a good one, even if by now, similar films, including imitations, have stolen the movie's originality.
Genevieve Bujold -- and where has she been lately? -- is Dr. Susan Wheeler; she's no longer an intern, but still not among the most prominent doctors at the Boston hospital where she works. She has to do everything twice as well as the male doctors do just to maintain her position; her egocentric fiancee, Dr. Mark bellows (Michael Douglas) is hardly any help. He's far too busy playing hospital politics.
Susan's closest friend (Lois Chiles) enters the hospital for a routine operation, but something goes wrong, and she's left brain-dead, in a coma. Susan has tried to separate her emotions from her work, and thinks she's still doing that as she stubbornly tries to find out what went wrong. Then she discovers that every so often, a healthy, young patient, in the hospital for minor surgery, has gone into the same kind of irreversible coma. Hospital chief Dr. Harris (Richard Widmark), long Susan's mentor, is sympathetic, but feels she's on a wild goose chase, especially when she begins to suspect icy head of anesthesiology Dr. George (Rip Torn).
The comatose patients are all transferred to the technologically exotic Jefferson Institute, where they are cared for as long as they last. One of the movie's eeriest scenes features a medically-feasible scene of comatose patients suspended on wires; if you remember nothing else from having seen COMA before, you'll remember this.
The deeper Susan probes, the more danger she finds herself in; there's even the classic suspense-movie bit of the hero -- or heroine, here -- crawling through air-conditioning ducts. But only one shot is fired in the course of the taut, intelligent movie.
Crichton keeps everything reined in; the music (by Jerry Goldsmith) is very scant, and not heard at all until well into the film. The crisp, realistic photography is an asset (skip the "standard" side of the DVD), and the sounds are almost too authentic; it really sounds like a hospital.
The cast is also very good; Bujold has always been a very strong performer, and carries the film effortlessly -- everyone else, including Michael Douglas, is a supporting player. Casting Douglas was a good idea; like his father, he's played bad guys often enough that he's a perfectly plausible suspect. Widmark is excellent, but he always has been. An astonishingly young-looking Rip Torn is coldly brilliant. And watch for Tom Selleck as one of the people destined to go into a coma, as well as Ed Harris in a very small role as a pathologist.
There's nothing special about the DVD, other than that it offers both the preferred letterboxed version and the pan-and-scanned version. However, the film itself is quite well done; don't turn to this as an action thriller, because that's not its agenda. Instead, it offers solid, well-crafted suspense. Isn't that enough?