Case Number 24196: Small Claims Court

COMA (1978) (BLU-RAY)

Warner Bros. // 1978 // 113 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // July 25th, 2012

The Charge

The title may explain your reaction...

The Case

Robin Cook is the forgotten member of a ripe mid '70s literary fraternity. From Michael Crichton to Dean Koontz, Peter Straub to Stephen King, the physician turned writer made genre fiction part of the popular landscape. Now, he's a footnote, a facet that finds almost everyone else mentioned before held in high esteem. But back when Watergate warmed the conspiracy-prone cockles of a weary, worn out, post-counterculture public, Cook's Coma was considered a "classic." In truth, it was a garbled techno-speak suspense tome overly touted for its medical accuracy and twist ending. Of course, some forty years late, said finale is as obvious as it is uninteresting. Without spoiling much, there are people on eBay offering something similar to the deceptive bends the baddies in this narrative are desperate to protect -- and for little less than the cost of an iPad.

The story centers around Dr. Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold, Obsession), a surgery resident at the bustling Boston Memorial Hospital. Under the tutelage of Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas, Wall Street), Dr. George (Rip Torn, Men in Black) and Dr. Harris (Richard Widmark, How the West Was Won), she begins to notice a pattern among seemingly healthy patients. After coming in for routine procedures, many of them end up in irreversible comas. When one of her close friends (Lois Chiles, Moonraker) meets the same fate, she decides to investigate. What she uncovers sheds light on some horrifying closed-door deals, which puts everyone in danger.

Coma is a crock, an urban legend retrofitted into a firebrand, high-tech potboiler featuring impossible narrative leaps and illogical character turns. Born out of an era when science was more specious than it is today and linked to whispered warnings about the black market and wealthy entitlement, it's like a non-responsive Michael Bay's The Island mixed with the equally inert Clonus. The main plot device -- that perfectly healthy people are suddenly braindead and being used as organ banks for the privileged -- is as current as a basic cable investigative report, but the whole thing plays out like an extended episode of Medical Center. It doesn't help that Michael Douglas, then mostly known for the hour-long drama The Streets of San Francisco, is our male lead. He had yet to make the jump to legitimate film star. Similarly, hiring flavor-of-the-moment Geneviève Bujold as your female hero asks a lot of an audience. She made be a fine actress, but she's hardly a marquee name (or strong center, for that matter).

In fact, all Coma really has going for it is its mystery and main premise, and once you learn the "horrifying" secret at the core, the movie is more or less over for you. Back a few decades ago, when spoilers were protected as part of the process, audiences went in with little or no prep. Unless they had read the book -- and many had -- they were unaware of the shocks that lay ahead. Now, in the world of instant access to any information desired, the ending and eventual villainous denouement are easily accessible. Heck, even the posters and cover art explain what happens to our "perfectly healthy" patients. No, in order to enjoy Coma, you have to fully suspend all your disbelief and get lost in the twisted suspense that director Michael Crichton (yes, that Michael Crichton) is trying to wring out of it. He does a decent job with the mood and atmosphere, but can't quite cope with the eventual reveal. There's just too much foreknowledge, too many hints of what's happening to feel full-on dread.

Instead, Coma becomes a curiosity, a weird precursor to problem-prone episodics like House, E.R., and Grey's Anatomy. It takes a hot-topic approach and pisses it away on a mediocre middle act and acting that's less than effective. On the plus side, this new Blu-ray release looks pretty good. There's still a soft '70s scheme to the color palette and details are a little lax, but overall the 1.85:1/1080p image is excellent. It's definitely a bump up from previous DVD releases. As for the sound situation, it gets the unusual treatment of a standard 2.0 Mono mix in DTS-HD Master Audio. While hardly immersive, it offers excellent reproduction and ambience resonance. This is especially true of the last-act tease, where both the music and the mix of same really add to the suspense. Sadly, the only bit of added content is a trailer.

Some have fond memories for this otherwise-middling medical thriller. But just like its title, and the period in which it was forged, Coma is a tad...comatose. We're used to far more ripping yarns in 2012. If you're still stuck in the '70s, you might appreciate its dated dynamics. Otherwise, watch out for rogue anesthesiologists and rich people with bad livers.

The Verdict

Guilty; like sitting in a daft doctor's waiting room without a magazine.

Review content copyright © 2012 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 70

Perp Profile
Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)

Audio Formats:
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)

* English (SDH)
* French
* Spanish

Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Distinguishing Marks
* Trailer

* IMDb