Coma (1978)

Untitled-1There is an area of surgery that is quite unfamiliar to me: General anesthesia. I have never experienced it before, and Coma makes me want to never ever experience it. It takes the procedure to very dark, and possibly harmful areas, and makes the human being very vulnerable. As soon as we enter the doctor’s office, or the operating room, we are at the mercy of surgeons, interns, nurses. We have no say. Decisions have been made for us, and we have to trust that these same surgeons, interns, and nurses will bring us back to life.

But what if they don’t?

Coma stars Genevieve Bujold as the very hard-boiled doctor at Boston Memorial Hospital, Susan Wheeler, and she loves her job. Maybe a bit too much. When she quarrels with her husband — or live-in boyfriend — Mark (surgery resident at the same hospital, played by Michael Douglas) at the start of the movie, we can tell that she takes her job very seriously. It might even come before her relationship. Mark, on the other hand, is a bit more laid back, even though he loves his office politics. He wants to talk to Susan about his day; she wants to shower and make him cook dinner. It’s a recipe for divorce — or a break up.

Their relationship sours more when Susan suspects their hospital of foul play. Her best friend has been put under GA for a minor operation. If that isn’t suspicious enough, she never wakes up. Pronounced brain dead, she is secretly transferred to a remote facility and is never seen or heard from again. What pushes her even further is her discovery that eleven other patients have suffered the same fate within a year. While she thinks this is abnormal, the rest of her colleagues — including Mark — think she’s paranoid.

Herein lies the reason why Coma is an effective movie. It promises the idea that any one of the hospital’s staff could be a bad guy. Susan doesn’t know who to trust and who to suspect, and neither do we. We follow her on her quest to uncover the truth, and all we have to go on is the hunch she has. Her character, being steadfast and sure-footed, is the reason why we can follow her without question. When she gets the feeling that something isn’t right, so do we. We become tied to her character and slowly begin to suspect everyone. Even the friendly doctor she encounters while running away from a pursuer doesn’t sit in our good books. Not at first anyway. Director Michael Crichton mutates the hospital — and its staff — such that every corridor and every smile is creepy and vacant. The hospital is no longer a welcoming place.

All this is what makes Coma effective, but what makes it scary is knowing that its plot is entirely plausible. We don’t know what happens to us when we are put under. All we can do is hope that when (if) we wake up, we will be cured of whatever is plaguing us. It’s a matter of faith, faith in our surgeons to be honest, professional, and swift. If they are not — and I’m sure there are many of the kind out there — then we may never see the light of day again. This is the thought that is scary, because it can happen without us knowing it, or without us having the power to prevent it. It is an attack on humans at our most exposed and most vulnerable. It is a wicked act that uses smarts, not medicine.

Where Coma falters, though, is in its characterisation, particularly in Susan, who, despite her keen sense of right and wrong, comes off looking like an action hero who knows how to dress well. She will run in high heels, climb up into air ducts in a matter of seconds, and similarly climb on top of full-sized ambulances in the same amount of time. How she has learnt to do this is beyond me, but I guess desperate times call for desperate measures, and Susan is the queen of dealing with desperate times.

General anesthesia is something I want never to have to go through, but I suspect the chances of me escaping it diminish with age. Every doctor and every surgeon, at one point, would have had to make a bad or selfish decision regarding the fate of their patients. They have to know when to give up and call the time of death, even after fighting for hours and hours. They have to exercise fairness and control, and make their patients feel comfortable. Ironically, it’s this same comfort that could possibly put us in danger, if we’re not careful. Or if we’re just unlucky.

Best Moment | The scene in the anatomy lab. Eerie, cold, and haunting. It gets even better when the action shifts to the cold room, where all the bodies are hung up like dead pigs (see picture above).

Worst Moment | Susan climbing up the ambulance in a matter of seconds. Come on.

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