Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold) is a young doctor at Boston Memorial Hospital and frequently run off her feet by the workload. This is putting a strain on her relationship with boyfriend Mark (Michael Douglas), also a doctor, and they are rowing tonight when they get back to his apartment, first over who should use the shower first, then about putting on the dinner, and finally about Susan's career-mindedness forcing Mark out of her life. They can't reach a truce, so Susan promptly leaves for her own home and the next day talks over her troubles with her best friend Nancy (Lois Chiles) after their aerobics class. Nancy has problems of her own, as she is going into the hospital to have an abortion without her husband knowing, a simple operation that should run smoothly. So why does Nancy end up in a coma?
There was a passage of five years between Michael Crichton's directorial debut, Westworld, and his second film, Coma, but already he had become a bestselling author, as had Robin Cook whose book he adapted for the screen. Crichton drew on his experience as a doctor to render this film's atmosphere as authentic as possible, and you can't argue with the clinical, even chilly air he brought to this project. It starts slowly and deliberately, with none of Jerry Goldsmith's score to make its tension overt until almost halfway through, and to top it all there's a pro-feminist agenda to add a measure of depth to proceedings that now looks exceedingly stagey and obvious, and not only in the way that no man will believe Susan.
Once Susan loses her best friend, who we barely get to know, she's adrift in a man's world and not even Mark will share her concerns that there might well be a conspiracy at work in the hospital. After doing a bit of digging, she discovers that young and relatively healthy patients falling into comas after minor operations is not unusual there - well, it is unusual, but it's also happening a lot. Far too often according to Susan's enquiring mind, and so she starts uncovering an appalling crime; although this may look like a science fiction film, and its medical settings contribute to that impression, it's really a detective story, and at its best in its suspense sequences as the powers that be realise they've been rumbled and will have to crack down.
And so follow a couple of chase setpieces, the first at the hospital where Susan is pursued around its corridors and storage rooms full of preserved corpses by a hitman who has previously bumped off a cleaner who was going to tell all he knew to her. As he showed in Westworld, Crichton knows his way around such scenes and when Susan reaches a facility out in the countryside where a load of evidence is being held (the most famous shots in the movie), she proves resourceful, yet why is it that when she meets her challenge with what might as well be a stereotypical nineteen-forties mad doctor, she has to rely on a man to save her? After all the "right on, sister" business that we've sat through, it's a pity that Crichton fell back on a damsel in distress cliché. Coma is a good thriller for rewatching as it has few moments that really stick in the mind, perhaps because it is lighter than it intended.