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After a patient at her hospital emerges from a routine operation in a coma, Dr. Susan Wheeler learns that several otherwise healthy patients have met the same fate, after which they have been sent off to a mysterious institute. But when she tells her doctor boyfriend, he finds the story hard to believe.
For more about Coma and the Coma Blu-ray release, see Coma Blu-ray Review published by Michael Reuben on July 10, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Genevičve Bujold, Michael Douglas, Rip Torn, Elizabeth Ashley, Richard Widmark, Lois Chiles
Director: Michael Crichton
» See full cast & crew
Coma Blu-ray Review
Doctors Without Boundaries
Reviewed by Michael Reuben, July 10, 2012
Before he settled into his familiar role as a best-selling novelist, Michael Crichton directed a handful of interesting films. One of them, Westworld, remains a minor classic of science fiction, and Coma remains as effective a thriller today as it was in 1978, because, let's face it, going in for surgery hasn't become any less anxiety-inducing. The film's producer has been quoted as saying that he wanted to do for hospitals what Jaws did for the ocean. The popular novel by Robin Cook—who was, like Crichton, a medical school graduate—provided excellent source material. Medical practices and technology have changed substantially in the thirty-four years since Coma, as have many other aspects of the healthcare system, including costs, access and the very structure of the physician's profession. But the basic imbalance of power between patients and providers remains. When you enter a hospital for a surgical procedure, no matter how minor, you surrender your fate and future to an array of professionals and technicians governed by routines and procedures of which you know little or nothing and many of whom you may never see. In point of fact, you no longer know what's going on, and if someone decides to change the program, you may never know the difference. Cook and Crichton crafted an effective paranoid thriller out of this common scenario, and they added what was then an unusual element by making their protagonist a female doctor who is forced to become an action hero.
Drs. Susan Wheeler (Genevičve Bujold) and Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas) are surgical residents at Boston General Hospital, under Chief of Surgery Dr. Harris (Richard Widmark). They're also a couple who keep separate apartments and are struggling with the balance between careers and their life together. Susan is especially impatient with the amount of attention that Mark devotes to hospital politics, as he angles for the chief resident's job currently held by Dr. Bill Chandler (Michael MacRae). Susan shortly has more serious matters to consider. Her best friend, Nancy Greenly (future Moonraker Bond girl Lois Chiles), checks into Boston General for an early-term abortion disguised as a D&C and emerges from what should be a simple procedure brain-dead from the anesthesia. The anesthesiologists huddle around the comatose Nancy, but they can't explain what went wrong. Susan is grief-stricken, and Mark is appropriately supportive. But then Susan finds something odd in her friend's medical file: a tissue-typing report that was ordered anonymously. As Susan pursues inquiries into this anomaly, she meets with discouragement and stonewalling wherever she turns, especially from the head of anesthesiology, Dr. George (Rip Torn), who is exceptionally proprietary about his department's affairs. Or is it more than that? In violation of the confidentiality of medical records, Susan is able to learn of twelve cases of unexplained coma in otherwise healthy young patients admitted for minor procedures in the last year at Boston General. Her extracurricular activities land her in trouble with her boss, and even Mark is pressured to rein her in, but as always happens in conspiratorial thrillers, the bad guys make the mistake of trying to kill someone who only has suspicions. Now Susan knows she's onto something, and she has no choice except to press forward. Coma has a number of effective set pieces that still hold up, in large part because they don't depend on effects but on Genevičve Bujold's convincing portrayal of Susan Wheeler as a woman sufficiently driven to find out what's happening but still ordinary enough to be terrified by what she's doing. Susan's struggles as she climbs and crawls through the ducts and shafts of Boston General following a lead are realistically shot in a step-by-step manner that is textbook suspense cinema. Her flight from a deadly assailant through the neighboring medical school makes inventive use of the surroundings to stage a memorable game of cat and mouse that is probably not for the squeamish, even though the film is rated PG. (Crichton suggests much more than he shows in these scenes.) The most extended sequence is also the source of the film's most famous imagery, because it's set at the Jefferson Institute, a pilot program facility where long-term coma patients are efficiently and cheaply warehoused. Under the supervision of the caretaker, Mrs. Emerson (Elizabeth Ashley), a kind of Nurse Ratched for the inert, patients who will never wake up are suspended by wires in an environment that's climate-controlled, UV-irradiated and monitored by computer. Susan visits with a tour group of physicians, but slips away into unauthorized areas, where she learns some nasty secrets and is then pursued by Mrs. Emerson and her minions through corridors with video surveillance, onto window ledges and across ceiling beams. Susan escapes to what she thinks will be safety, but in a paranoid thriller that's always when danger is closest. There's an interesting speech near the end of Coma where a villain tries to justify the film's dastardly deeds, and if you listen closely, the reasoning has nothing to do with what's actually happening. At the time, the scene played like the ravings of a megalomaniac, but Crichton and Cook may have been cleverer than anyone realized. From the vantage point of today, one can hear portents of arguments from all sides of the current healthcare debate, as if the whole toxic brew were in the early stages of fermentation. As is so often the case, good sci-fi writers sense what's coming. (Trivia note: Keep an eye out for a young Ed Harris as a pathologist with a mildly ghoulish sense of humor. It was his first feature film.)
Coma Blu-ray, Video Quality
Coma looks like it should on Warner's 1080p, AVC-encoded Blu-ray, which is to say that it's a low-key affair with a muted palette, a soft but reasonably detailed picture and an evident grain structure that never gets in the way of the viewer's enjoyment, unless you're one of those people who thinks all films should have their grain removed. Except for the Jefferson Institute, which is clearly intended to look bizarre and otherworldly, Crichton was clearly going for an ordinary, everyday look that would make the increasingly bizarre events of Coma all the more frightening. His cinematographer, Victor J. Kemper, on whose work I've commented elsewhere, was the ideal cameraman for the job, especially in urban environments. The one limitation in Kemper's photography for Coma is that the blacks are almost never truly black, but this is almost certainly a limitation of the source. As has been typical of Warner's catalog output, I did not see any indication of degraining, high frequency filtering or detail stripping, nor did I detect any artificial sharpening. The lack of any special features or multi-track audio options has allowed Warner to get away without even using the entire BD-25, let alone risking compression artifacts.
Coma Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Yes, it's a mono soundtrack, but it's a carefully considered one, and it's well-presented in DTS-HD MA. In roughly the first half of the film, where it's business as usual at Boston General Hospital, Crichton makes little use of underscoring, preferring to let ordinary sounds of hospital life create their own sort of tension. Only later, when it's clear that Dr. Susan Wheeler has stumbled across something nefarious, does Crichton bring in Jerry Goldsmith's suspenseful orchestra, effective as always. Dialogue is clear throughout, and the dynamic range is good enough to register a solid impact with a loud tea kettle whistle that plays a critical part in a tense scene.
Coma Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The only extra is the film's theatrical trailer (2:29) in standard definition, enhanced for 16:9. If you already know the film, it appears to give away much of the plot, but everything is so out of context that I'm not sure it really gives away as much as might appear.
Coma Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Now that we have Coma, it's time to get more of Crichton's work as a director on Blu-ray. Westworld is a classic, but right behind it is Runaway, whose star, Tom Selleck, has a small part in Coma. I'm a great fan of Looker, Crichton's film about the advertising business, which may have dated somewhat, but it does feature Albert Finney, who is always engaging, and includes some memorable sequences involving a unique weapon based on light. The Great Train Robbery, starring Sean Connery as a gentleman thief, is a wildly entertaining heist film whose period detail has been waiting for the Blu-ray format to showcase it. Crichton was an irresistible storyteller in multiple mediums. Coma is a fine example. Highly recommended.
Coma Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Warner SF, Thrillers on Blu-ray (Updated) - March 22, 2012
This summer, Warner Home Entertainment will continue transferring its library catalog onto the HD format. The studio will release Blu-rays for sixteen popular thrillers, including The Butterfly Effect, Coma, Hard to Kill, Next of Kin, Outland, and the Blu-ray ...
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