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Movies Kelly Parks Review by
Kelly Parks
Coma
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COMA - 1978
MGM
Rated: USA: PG

Man, I love medical jargon. The TV series E.R. mostly sucks now and I’ve long since lost interest in the characters but I still watch now and then purely for the jargon. “CBC chem 7” and “stat”. Cool stuff, Maynard. But if you put all those cool words in a movie, exactly how many shriek girls is it worth?

COMA is based on the novel of the same name by Robin Cook. The movie was written and directed by Dr. Michael Crichton (THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, THE TERMINAL MAN, JURASSIC PARK, THE 13TH WARRIOR and, oddly enough, E.R. [TV]).

Dr. Susan Wheeler (Geneviéve Bujold: EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, LAST NIGHT, DEAD RINGERS) arrives for work at Boston Memorial hospital. She and her boyfriend Mark (Michael Douglas: THE CHINA SYNDROME, FATAL ATTRACTION, BASIC INSTINCT, BLACK RAIN, THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS, THE GAME, DON'T SAY A WORD) are both surgeons and Mark is waiting to hear if he's getting a promotion to chief resident. In fact Mark's endless fascination and concern with hospital politics is a major annoyance for Susan and leads to big fight between them.

Susan seeks solace in her exercise class where she talks with her best friend Nancy (Lois Chiles: CREEPSHOW 2, IN THE EYE OF THE SNAKE). Nancy has concerns of her own because tomorrow she's going in to Susan's hospital to have an abortion. Susan reassures her that it's a routine procedure.

But we can tell that this procedure is not going to be routine. We see Nancy go in the next day and watch her abortion take place (lots of medical jargon but never boring – it's done quickly). There is a minor moment of concern when her anesthesiologist notices some odd heart rhythms and a dropping blood pressure but that passes and all seems well. But when the operation is over and they try to wake Nancy they discover her pupils are blown (fixed and dilated). She's in a deep coma, completely brain dead.

When Mark delivers the bad news to Susan about her best friend, Susan goes into doctor mode. She doesn't cry or get upset – she just studies the chart to try and find out what went wrong. The only off thing she sees is a notation that a tissue typing lab test was done on Nancy, something not normally done under the circumstances. There's no way this test could have caused the coma but Susan is grasping at straws so she checks with the lab and finds out the central computer randomly orders such tests every once in a while. Susan follows that up farther than she should, actually talking a computer technician into giving her confidential patient records involving similar incidents.

This last item gets her in trouble with the chief of surgery, Dr. George Harris (Richard Widmark: THE SWARM, TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, KISS OF DEATH). It's clear he likes Susan and offers to forget the whole thing if she'll see the staff psychiatrist (Hari Rhodes: CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, THE SATAN BUG, SHOCK CORRIDOR).

Everyone keeps telling Susan that she's in shock and under stress and should just relax and she understandably resents all this patronizing crap. She continues looking into the death of her friend and more and more suspicious aspects come to light. But why would anyone deliberately put people having routine surgery into comas? A conspiracy seems to exist and seems to involve a well-hidden government medical facility called the Jefferson Institute, where people in irreversible comas are "stored." The facility is run by the very robotic Nurse Emerson (Elizabeth Ashley: VAMPIRE'S KISS, A FIRE IN THE SKY [TV], RANCHO DELUXE).

So what is going on? What part or parts of a person in a coma have value? And that's all I'll say about that. Instead, I'll tell you that this is a very cool movie. The way random circumstance causes Susan to uncover this conspiracy feels real and the danger to her builds in a well done and believable manner. The outright dismissal of Susan's claims from everyone is believable too, because what she's saying is so outrageous it couldn't possibly be true. Bujold does a great job as Susan in portraying her as tough and determined but human.

And as for the

!!!SCIENCE MOMENT!!!:
Have I mentioned that I love medical jargon? I have to point out a great scene where Susan is talking to a couple of pathologists about how one would put someone in a coma. The pathologists (one played by Ed Harris: KNIGHTRIDERS, CREEPSHOW, ABSOLUTE POWER, NEEDFUL THINGS, THE FIRM, THE ABYSS, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE) have this great, good-natured banter about the intellectual problem of choosing the right drug, arguing over which method would work best. At one point one of them laughs and says, "We'd all make great murderers."

Not that there aren't flaws. At several points you wonder why Susan doesn't call the cops. The fact that she doesn't when she obviously should begins to strain your suspension of disbelief. Also, the very nature of the enterprise Susan uncovers seems poorly planned when you consider the details. Doctors already make a lot of money. Would they really commit such gruesome crimes for a venture that doesn't really make all that much for them (considering how few their victims have to be to avoid attracting attention)? And why choose upstanding citizens as victims, since their medical mishaps generate so much scrutiny? Why not choose the homeless, prostitutes, etc.? In other words people who won't be missed.

So all of that takes away a shriek girl, but that leaves COMA with a four on the shriek girl scale.

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This review copyright 2005 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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