Coma (1978)

Michael Douglas famously referred to Coma as the first time he was a part of something with a good story, a good cast, and a good director. The latter of those compliments, while true, was at that point based only on Crichton’s debut feature Westworld and his earlier made-for-TV flick Pursuit. The middle statement, about the cast, seems oddly self-serving considering Douglas is in the cast. The actor’s career was likewise young, and oddly enough Mike Crichton and his brother Douglas once published a story under a pseudonym that combined their first names: Michael Douglas.

Whatever conspiracy the Michaels and the Douglases have cooked up here, it probably isn’t as sinister as the conspiracy afoot in Coma. Based on the highly popular novel of the same name by Robin Cook (a friend and contemporary of Crichton’s), the story of Coma is as well thought-out as Douglas claimed. The pairing of Cook and Crichton is a match made in medical thriller heaven, and Crichton’s script treatment of the novel is accurate and respectful of the source material. Slight changes were made, but the overall sense of paranoia that pervades the book is very much intact in Crichton’s screen treatment.

This is no small feat considering the machinery of Hollywood that Crichton so often opposed in his directorial ventures. On Westworld the now-famous point-of-view shots from the android’s perspective were a matter of contention between the director and the production studios, as the new effects would threaten to put the film over budget. Crichton won out, and Westworld now stands as the first film to make use of 2D CGI. One might expect that an adaptation of a popular novel like Coma might make for a more straightforward process, but, alas, one would be wrong.

One story holds that the producers (MGM) were adamant about pursuing Paul Newman for the lead role. Anyone who’s read or seen Coma might recognize a slight disparity at hand in the fact that the lead role in the story is Dr. Susan Wheeler, a woman, and that this Paul Newman persona is a man. “The role is a Paul Newman role,” Crichton admitted in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, describing Coma as an “action-suspense story”. Not to be swayed by the prospect of working with Newman (which certainly would’ve swayed me), Crichton fought to keep a female as the main character. “If a man had done the movie, it would be a much more conventional thing,” he said. He’s right. Coma might still be regarded as a great Paul Newman movie had he been enlisted for the role, but it’d be far more likely to be lost in a sea of medical thrillers.

With that said, Coma isn’t nearly as well regarded as it should be. The striking visuals that Crichton brought to Westworld found application in a much more grounded and realistic world here (see above), and the mix of science fiction and real life recalls Crichton’s earlier drama The Andromeda Strain. Though Coma might not have the scope or the originality of Andromeda, the former point can be forgiven because it works in Coma‘s favor, paring down the events into something that seems more frighteningly realistic. The originality, again, is entirely dependent on the number of hospital-bound medical thrillers (some of which star Paul Newman) with similar conspiracy-style plots. Coma handles that familiar territory with more freshness than most, and it certainly deserves more recognition today.

The reason why Crichton was such a perfect fit for Coma wasn’t just because of the plot similarities to Andromeda or the devotion to the source material. Like Crichton’s best works, Coma deals with science fiction in a way that makes that science seem not very far off — as with Andromeda, this isn’t a galaxy far, far away we’re dealing with here. This is tomorrow, or today, and it’s unsettling to consider these dangerous aspects of science might be right around the corner. The heightened debate over the definition of “death” and the rise of terms like “clinical death” coincided with the release of Coma with almost uncanny timing, giving the sense that Crichton and Robin Cook actually saw the events of Coma unfold in their medical professions. They didn’t, of course, but their storytelling prowess makes it seem so.

Coma is worth watching for the three things Michael Douglas highlighted. The director and screenwriter Crichton was rising in popularity and arguably hitting a peak in the genre upon Coma‘s release. The cast is great, with strong lead performances and little bit parts by then-unknowns like Ed Harris, Tom Selleck, and Rip Torn. Most of all, though, the story being told is a timeless one (an overused term, I know, but really true here). Though Coma is almost four decades old, it still manages to feel oriented toward a future that’s getting closer every day.

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