Accidental uncovering’s of conspiracy and crime brings about the essential core of Coma. Healthy patients are given strange complications and shipped away to some strange and distant institute. Surely, there is more to this than meets the eye. Michael Crichton directs a paranoia-induced cast through those late-1970s aesthetics with confidence. But confidence does not always equate to quality. While these performers are confident in their abilities (and its director confident in his own), Coma has the intrigue, the desire, and the surprising ensemble necessary to work a chilling little horror. But this is far away from the message Crichton and Robin Cook embed within their writing. What they set out to say and what they end up doing are two different hurdles, neither of which are vaulted with much confidence.
At least the relationship between Dr. Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold) and Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas) is believable. They are stressed and at each other’s throats more often than not. Personal lives do not bleed into their professional relationship, yet the seething burdens they hold for one another do appear from time to time. They rush through those emotions of anger and lust, and their performances show that. Their dialogue, however, does not. Crichton struggles to adapt realistic dialogue to a larger-than-life scenario. Our believability as an audience is stretched here, not by the discoveries Wheeler makes, but by how she talks of them with her on-again, off-again lover.
That much rings true throughout the rest of the film. Commendable supporting performances come from Rip Torn and Elizabeth Ashley, although the writing is the weak spot. They can only do so much with their dialogue. Crichton comes to life in the moments of visual horror, though. Later scenes of a gunman chasing Wheeler through the hospital shows sparks of brilliance for Coma. The film comes to life, unlike the vegetative victims it is so clearly alluding to. Such obvious notes don’t lessen the drama, but they do underline the impact Crichton is gunning for. His direction has a purpose, at least, that much is definitely clear, and with these characters, he does muster up something formidable and engaging. Much of it, though, is through the terror they are provided, and how they adapt to it.
Glum victory is found within Coma, and the lack of punchy optimism during moments of revelation or reveal makes for a thoroughly engaging piece. Its writing is lacking, but there is, at its heart, a thoroughly enjoyable set of characters and choices made by Crichton here. Supporting characters find horror not in what they do, but their reaction to their own failings. Dejected looks are paired with pained tones from the soundtrack, and the inevitabilities that come from their defeat is well-captured. Coma has no issue with capturing those moments, those definable moments of lust and love, terror and tragedy, but it has problems with developing them. The written word is a powerful one, Crichton surely knows that considering his work as an author, yet his screenplay here lacks punch, although the visual success of his piece, and how the actors perform, is a certainly strong trade-off that makes Coma punchy and enjoyable.