Are hospitals "the cathedrals of our age" and are doctors our "high priests"? Have we given these professionals too much power by putting ourselves in an overly passive relation to them? Are we servants of a medical mystique? Should doctors be the major decision makers on such complicated moral, medical, and legal issues as organ transplantation and the definition of clinical death?
These questions hover in the background of Coma, a movie based on Robin Cook's thriller of the same title. Michael Crichton has written the screen adaptation of this best-selling novel and directed it as well. Genevieve Bujold is featured in the lead role as Dr. Susan Wheeler, a young intern who is unhinged when her best friend Nancy Greely (Lois Chiles) is admitted to Boston Memorial for a routine d&c and then mysteriously succumbs on the operation table to cerebral hypoxia. Dr. Wheeler violates policy by gaining access to the hospital's computer where she obtains a list of other young and healthy patients who have also undergone minor surgery and come out of Operation Room 8 in a comatose state. They all, with the exception of Nancy who died, were sent to Jefferson Institute a mysterious place built for the maintenance of coma victims.
Dr. Wheeler sallies forth on her investigation but meets roadblocks all along the way: the skepticism of her lover Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas) who is more interested in politicking for the job of chief resident than he is in helping her; the hospitality and chilly disdain of Dr. George (Rip Torn), Boston Memorial's Head of Anesthesiology; and the patronizing attitude of Dr. Harris (Richard Widmark), the hospital's chief surgeon who recommends that she drop her investigation and take a long weekend vacation.
Crichton shuttles the story along with only a few bad moves. He has Elizabeth Ashley play the Jefferson Institute administrator as if she were a stiff robot out of a sci-fi flick, and he has Dr. Harris sum up the moral of the story in an overly didactic finale.
Genevieve Bujold puts in one of the strongest performances of her career as the undaunted Dr. Wheeler. Her women's lib ideas about independence in a relationship are as rigorous as her investigation. Consequently, at the crucial moment when she must decide whether to trust Dr. Bellows or deny his loyalty to her, she chooses the latter -complicating the situation further. This interesting slant one women's lib is only on of the several sidebar issues that put Coma a cut above the recent works in the thriller genre.