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What To Watch: Geneviève Bujold Absolutely Rules In ‘Coma’ (1978)

Coma is a 1978 drama about a young female doctor who notices an unnatural amount of comas occurring in her hospital she uncovers a horrible conspiracy.

With anticipation for the upcoming remake of Joel Schumacher‘s 1990 Flatliners getting fans all in a tizzy, I got to thinking about the lack of medical-based big-budget movies of late and more so, about one of my favorites in that admittedly narrow genre, Michael Crichton‘s 1978 flawed but very entertaining Coma, starring Michael Douglas and Geneviève Bujold. It’s a well-made and acted bit of twisted science fiction that has some lulls and gets a little mired in its own premise, but is nonetheless a nail-biter. If you like doctor movies, grab some popcorn and settle in.

THE STORY: Dr. Susan Wheeler (Bujold) resides at Boston Memorial Hospital with her boyfriend Dr. Mark Bellows (Douglas). Their relationship is a testy but sensual one, built around professional development and personal freedoms. All seems normal until Susan’s best friend Nancy Greely (Lois Chiles) has a fairly routine surgery but ends up in a coma, slipping into a brain dead vegetative state. It’s attributed to an allergic reaction. Wheeler is devastated but then turns suspicious when shortly after, another patient, Sean Murphy (Tom Selleck), in for minor surgery on his knee suffers the same problem. Researching it further, she discovers a series of incidents all the same, each related to two very specific things (which I won’t reveal), leading her to believe a conspiracy is at play. Now she’s part of traumatic game of cat mouse that puts her own life on the line.

Coma
Coma, 1978 © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: What is it about 70s movies and authenticity? The decade was chuck full of genuine looking and feeling dramas and thrillers that just feel so darned real, like you could step right into them and walk around. It’s probably because there wasn’t all the trickery available now, with CGI and such turning everything into jaw-dropping visual masterpieces that have left movie shiny but somehow less, I don’t know, natural.

Coma is another in the lot that has a terrific sense of place and time, making everything that much more believable. Crichton, who adapted the the story from Robin Cook‘s novel of the same name, really makes it pop, and if there is anything going for the film, it’s the whole ‘reality’ of the thing. That extends to the dialogue as well, with Crichton serving as screenwriter, with all the sciency stuff never too much to be distracting but just enough to make it sound like it knows what it’s talking about. I love movies like this, one that mix in smarts with a fun mystery. Challenge me in the slightest and I’m hooked. Coma hooks me.

Coma
Coma, 1978 © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

And hooks me good. It makes Susan the detective and we observe and learn and explore just as she does, and Bujold’s voracity in getting to the truth makes her super fun to watch. This was the 70s and powerful female characters who weren’t also dependent on men were only just getting some experimental roles and this was one of them, at least for the most part. Bujold makes Susan a truly independent trailblazer for most of the movie, constantly pointing out that the men in her life treat her differently simply because she is a woman. It’s edgy and smart, and ahead of its time. She’s fantastic.

A GREAT MOMENT: With that in mind, there’s a terrific moment at the opening when that sensibility gets introduced. Both Susan and Mark arrive home from work after interminably long shifts at the hospital, exhausted, dirty, hungry, and in need of some space and compassion. Mark seems to think himself more worthy of sympathy and a little coddling than she does and he tells her to get him a beer before she starts dinner (yikes) as he wants to take a shower, still talking about the politics of work. Well this sets Susan off, rightly pointing out that she too has had a rough day and deserves a break and a shower just as much (not to mention respect), quickly making it clear to the audience how sexist his actions are, even if we don’t pick it up so fast. She heads straight to the bathroom and hops in the shower and the two begin to bicker with Susan refusing to accept his argument that is was nothing and that he ought to be more considerate of her while they are home.

Coma
Coma, 1978 © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The scene is really well done, organic and natural as it establishes the kind of character Susan is and why it will prove to be not just important but crucial as the story unfolds. Bujold is terrific in the role, not making Susan a caricature of a feminist but rather a rational and believable human being with her own standards, ones we are very willing to get behind. This is a great moment.

Coma
Coma, 1978 © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

THE TALLYComa is an intelligent and engrossing thriller with a fun mystery and some very cool science stuff that make this one of the best in the genre. Douglas is equally good as Susan’s boyfriend and keep an eye out for Richard Widmark and a cameo by … what? … a young Ed Harris. Tight direction, a great script and not a bad performance in the bunch, this is well worth checking out. It’s what to watch.

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