AT LAST, the first thriller for pre-meds! Chem 20 got you down? Why not take out your frustrations on future patients vicariously, and go see Coma? This movie is also for anyone who has ever woken up in a hospital bed to see a nurse coming at him with a needle, and cried, "What are you doing with that needle?" Of course, by that time the question is academic: she's already got the damned thing in your arm. And what--heh-heh--if her motives aren't altogether honorable, and you awake to find yourself shanghaied, or worse yet, hanging by some wires next to other dangling, comatose bodies?
It doesn't take much directorial skill to make a hospital seem scary; in fact, that's sort of redundant--hospitals are scary, full of white, sterile halls and nurses with frigid smiles. You don't even have to bring the audience into an operating room and show scalpels slicing up bodies, brains, exposed kidneys and other assorted organs. After a while the normally squeamish fellow will cry "Gross me out!" and sit with his hand close to his face, ready to clap it over his eyes when the next bloody image appears. He may even delude himself into thinking that because he's so tense, the movie must be good. Well, that's not true; the movie just exploits our aversion to operating rooms.
Coma is the worst major film to appear this year, and without a doubt the most offensive. Director Michael Crichton '64 uses operations to keep the audience on its toes, and since the movie is devoid of humor there's nothing to relieve the tension. It's so solemn and literal-minded that it makes The Exorcist look positively expressionistic. Richard Widmark plays the head of a Boston hospital where young, healthy patients keep going into unexplained comas during routine operations. When he explains why he's doing it--the unimportance of the individual compared with the advancement of science--to a drugged Genevieve Bujold, the young doctor who has stumbled onto the terrible secret, the scene rings familiar. Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill and a thousand others have been here before, and one wonders why Widmark isn't indulging in similar eye-rolling or stuttering. Crichton forces him to become a stoic zombie, as if to hide what this really is--a hokey mad-doctor scene--and thus robs it of all possible fun. Coma could use lines like, "You think I'm m-m-mad, don't you?" because without them there's no reason for seeing the movie--it doesn't move very fast, the sluggish climax lets you down, and there aren't enough plot twists to keep a 5-year-old guessing.
Dr. Robin Cook, who wrote the fast, enjoyable book on which the movie is based, goes on Johnny Carson, and instead of saying, "I wrote Coma to make some money and to have a bit of fun with people's fears about hospitals," he says, "I wrote Coma because I felt people should be made aware of the urgent need for organ donors, and of the emerging black market for body parts." Yeah, sure.
MAYBE DOCTORS and medical-school students will have a good time at Coma, nudging each other in delight whenever they recognize an organ, or giggling helplessly every time a decaying body on a dissection table brings back raunchy memories. But most of us aren't doctors, and our tolerance for this sort of thing is low. Why should a director bother to compose a frame so that it's charged with subliminal tension when he can just shove a fresh, juicy kidney into the camera and the audience will dive out of its seats? If you're going to hit an audience over the head, fine--John Frankenheimer can do it with wit and style; in a film like Black Sunday the camera never stops moving and leaves the audience breathless with excitement. But in Coma the camerawork is smooth and dull, and Jerry Goldsmith's quasi-Bartok music underscores only the gravity of the proceedings.
Genevieve Bujold is a wonderful actress--unfailingly charming--but here she battles four forces which succeed in overwhelming her: the hospital administrators, her skeptical fellow-surgeon lover (Michael Douglas), Crichton's tedious script, and her own French accent, which, despite her valiant attempts to obscure it, makes more comebacks than Napoleon. She does give Coma its interesting moments, however; when she climbs a ladder, the camera looks up her dress with unabashed voyeurism.
Coma would be negligible, except that it epitomizes everything wrong with most movie thrillers these days: they have become clinical. Directors like Michael Crichton and William Friedkin put their audiences under the scalpel, and so far audiences have responded enthusiastically. Even good movies like Marathon Man are so crammed with sliced hands and slit throats that they're hard to watch, and films have to be gorier and gorier now to make an impression. It's part of a de-sensitizing, or perhaps, in the case of Coma, an anesthetizing of the audience. No wonder audiences are bored with those wonderful Val Lewton films of the forties, where the terror is in what you don't see. Even Hitchcock's films are beginning to lose their punch.
Now Hitchcock would have had a ball with Coma, and maybe we'd have seen some of Boston, too, where the story is supposedly set--imagine the climactic operation taking place in Fenway Park, or on top of the John Harvard statue. But instead we get Dr. Michael Crichton, and it's goodbye to wit, to hell with the unseen, and a scalpel to the audience's brain.
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