Coma (1978 film)

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Coma film poster.jpg
Directed by Michael Crichton
Produced by Martin Erlichman
Screenplay by Michael Crichton
Based on Coma
by Robin Cook
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography Victor J. Kemper
Edited by David Bretherton
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
United Artists
Release date
February 1, 1978[1]
Running time
113 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $4 million[2]
Box office $50 million[3]

Coma is a 1978 American suspense film based on the 1977 novel of the same name by Robin Cook. The film rights were acquired by director Michael Crichton, and the movie was produced by Martin Erlichmann for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The cast includes Geneviève Bujold, Michael Douglas, Elizabeth Ashley, Richard Widmark, and Rip Torn. Among the actors in smaller roles are Tom Selleck, Lois Chiles, and Ed Harris.

The story was adapted again into a two-part television miniseries broadcast September 2012 on A&E television network.[4]


Dr. Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold) is a surgical resident at the prestigious Boston Memorial Hospital. Wheeler is devastated when a patient, Nancy Greely (Lois Chiles), who happens to be her best friend, is pronounced brain-dead and is comatose after minor surgery at the hospital. Initially accepting this as an unfortunate allergic reaction to the anesthetic, her suspicions are aroused when another young and otherwise healthy patient, Sean Murphy (Tom Selleck), also falls comatose during knee surgery for a recent sports injury, but while under a different combination of anesthetics.

Looking at the records, Susan finds that over the previous year an unusual number of other fit, young people have suffered the same fate. She discovers two similarities among the cases: they all took place in the same operating theater (operating room eight), and all the comatose bodies were subsequently moved to a remote facility called the Jefferson Institute. She continues to investigate, and angers Chief of Anesthesiology Dr. George (Rip Torn) - a powerful figure in the hospital whose wife is also an heiress - by asking to review the relevant case patient charts, implying that his own investigation was somehow flawed. Increasingly alone and under mounting pressure from both superiors and colleagues, she begins to wonder if she can even trust her own boyfriend, Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas). She also visits the morgue where a postmortem examination is being performed on the body of her friend Nancy, who had since died. The pathologists are puzzled, and this leads to speculation on how to commit the perfect murder, to which one of the pathologists suggests carbon monoxide poisoning.

Susan is called into the office of Chief of Surgery, Dr. George Harris (Richard Widmark) owing to her trouble with Dr. George, and given a weekend off to help recuperate from the loss of her friend. She and Mark travel to the seaside and spend a relaxing weekend together. On the way back to Boston, however, they happen to drive past a sign indicating the Jefferson Institute. They stop, and Susan pleads that Mark drive back to see it. After traveling a distance from the highway along an access road, an imposing and unmarked concrete building reveals itself. Susan wants to go inside, but Mark refuses, allowing her to go alone while he waits in the car. After pressing the buzzer at the entrance, she is greeted by the stony Nurse Emerson (Elizabeth Ashley). Susan announces herself as Dr. Susan Wheeler, and asks if she can enter, but is informed that the facility is closed to all visitors. She's told, however, that the next tour for physicians is Tuesday morning.

Returning on Tuesday morning to join the tour, conducted by Nurse Emerson, she finds what is apparently an advanced care facility for comatose patients. However, she decides after the tour is over to investigate the large areas of the building that were not visited over its course. Eventually, she discovers that the Jefferson Institute is in fact a front for black-market organ sales, where the patients' organs are sold to the highest bidder. Boston Memorial itself is complicit – purposefully inducing comas in select patients whose organs match those of potential buyers. As she earlier uncovered, the patients are rendered brain-dead via covert carbon monoxide poisoning through a line that leads from a tank in the basement to the OR, and is controlled by a radio signal. While she investigates the Jefferson Institute, she's caught on surveillance cameras by building security, and after a chase, manages to escape atop the roof of an ambulance leaving to transport harvested organs to Logan Airport for delivery.

Initially, Susan thinks that Dr. George is the mastermind of the entire scheme, and she rushes to her supervisor, Dr. Harris, with whom she has been confiding in all along, and explains what she has discovered. Dr. Harris expresses shock, but also seems supportive of her claims – even offering her a celebratory drink, which she accepts. The drink is in fact drugged, and begins to incapacitate Susan while also causing severe abdominal pain that mimics appendicitis. As she begins to lose consciousness, Dr. Harris reveals that it is in fact he who is the mastermind, and rationalizes this with a speech about how physicians must take charge of certain issues themselves, as neither the government nor the general public is informed enough or inclined to do so themselves. He phones in an emergency from his office, and reserves operating room eight, offering to perform the surgery on Susan himself, in order to silence her by rendering her brain-dead under the pretext of an appendectomy. However, as they are preparing for surgery, Dr. Harris is informed that operating room eight is not available. His vehement insistence upon using room eight arouses the suspicions of Mark, who, now realizing the truth, rushes off and finds in the basement the gas tank and line to room eight – disconnecting it before the carbon monoxide can permanently injure Susan.

While in surgery Susan has some medical difficulty, having breathed the carbon monoxide for several minutes, but with the supply cut off, she manages to awaken – much to Dr. Harris' surprise – after surgery, and is wheeled out of the operating room holding Mark's hand. Meanwhile, a defeated Dr. Harris is left back in operating room eight, while two police officers wait outside to arrest him.



Michael Crichton was a friend of Cook. They met when Crichton was doing post-doctoral work in biology at La Jolla's Salk Institute and Cook was a Navy physician stationed at San Diego.[5]

Crichton described the film as like a "Western... if the doctors are the bad guys they are also the good guys."[6]

Crichton says that even though the lead in the book was a female the studio talked about getting Paul Newman to play it, but he fought it. "If a man had done the movie, it would be a much more conventional thing."[6]

Filming started June 20, 1977. Shooting took place at Boston City Hospital and the University of Southern California's dissection room.[6] The institutional-looking, Brutalist-style exterior of the movies's mysterious Jefferson Institute building was, at the time of filming, a headquarters of Xerox Corporation located in Lexington, Massachusetts. It presently serves as headquarters for the Stride Rite shoe company.

Michael Douglas called the film "the first time I've been offered a project with a good story laid out well, a good cast and a good director."[2]

Tom Selleck later would work with Crichton again in the 1984 sci-fi thriller Runaway. Composer Jerry Goldsmith also would work with Crichton on Runaway, contributing his first—and only—all-electronic score.


Coma was a box office success, earning $50 million US (about $185 million in 2016 US dollars). It was generally well received by critics and audiences, and holds a 79% rating with the critic aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, and a 6.9 (out of 10) rating on the film data base website IMDB.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b Douglas in 'Coma' New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 12 May 1977: 70.
  3. ^ Director Michael Crichton Films a Favorite Novelist By MICHAEL OWEN. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 28 Jan 1979: D17.
  4. ^ Munn, Patrick (June 14, 2012). "A&E Sets Premiere Date For Two Part Mini-Series 'Coma'". TV Wise. Retrieved July 16, 2012. 
  5. ^ A Labor of Love for Scorsese Lee, Grant. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 08 Dec 1976: h21.
  6. ^ a b c Dr. Crichton prescribes 'Coma' for medics Daniels, Mary. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 10 Feb 1978: b4.

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