[BD Review] ‘Coma’ Lacks Oomph

The idea of a medically induced coma is not that terrifying. Sometimes patients are so ill that their bodies need a deep rest to heal. The miniseries, Coma, based on the 1977 novel by Robin Cook and the 1978 movie of the same name, uses the idea of comas and pushes them into the horror realm. What if patients, during routine operations, were forced into comas so that they could be used for medical experimentation?

The four-hour series originally aired on A&E in September of this year. The promotional commercials for the program were far more intriguing than the series itself. Condensed into two parts for the DVD, the 160 minutes of Coma are entertaining, but fall short in achieving mind blowing capacity. Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) plays Susan Wheeler, a young medical student who discovers that an alarming number of patients from operating room #8 at Peach Tree Memorial Hospital are falling into comas during surgery.

The series, which was executive produced by Ridley Scott and his brother Tony Scott, falls short in the scares. There is just too much going on. One moment we’re learning that Wheeler’s grandfather was the founder of the hospital, then we are seeing a viral video about the Jefferson Institute which houses coma patients after their insurance lapses and then we’re seeing that the head physicians at the hospital – some of which are having affairs with each other – are entangled in some sort of conspiracy which they are keeping tight lipped about. There is, again, just too much going on.

The biggest flaw of the series is actually the inclusion of a subplot that doesn’t really go anywhere at all. Michael Weston, who actually played a nutcase that took Michael C. Hall for a psychotic joyride on Six Feet Under, does what he does best: he plays a deranged lunatic. He is a creepy patient of Geena Davis’s Dr. Lindquist that was released on her recommendation after he killed a young lady. His character, Peter Arno, stalks Susan Wheeler, trying to kill her while he has hallucinations of trees from the forest that he killed the girl in long ago. It simply does not fit into the story – even when we find out in the end that Dr. Lindquist, who has been medicating and instructing Arno everyday, has moved on to continue her medical expertise in China.

While Lauren Ambrose is strong in her performance, throwing in roles for James Woods and Richard Dreyfess make it seem like it was just so the series could be marketed by name dropping. The standout performance by far is Ellen Burstyn. After not looking at the box in fear of spoilers (I’ve never seen the original film or read the novel) it took a moment to see that it was indeed Chris MacNeil from The Exorcist. Burstyn is gorgeous for her age and watching her performance as Mrs. Emerson is mesmerizing. She has the character down, and with her accent and mannerisms, she is the main focus and it’s a shame that we could expand more on that storyline rather than spending time on Arno and his trees/stalking of Susan.

The DVD is nicely packaged with haunting artwork of a suspended coma patient and all of our big name stars. Sadly, there is nothing special to this DVD. There are no extras, only the option of watching the series in one, two or both parts together. Though the pace is pretty quick, the storyline drags somewhat, which is easy to explain as watching it on television with commercials would have broken it up and perhaps made it easier to swallow.

While the idea of forced coma and ultimate medical experimentation is disturbing, not exploring the ethical elements of using humans as guinea pigs is a big strike against Coma. Perhaps the novel delves into this world paralleling the past of humans playing God, or even the inhumane doings of the Nazis (which did lead to certain breakthroughs in the end) – but the A&E miniseries lacks that little oomph that could have made it that much more.

Official Score