Great, like we all weren’t worried about surgical procedures to begin with. Now there’s the added problem of going under the knife and becoming part of a complex conspiracy that, for whatever reason, puts you in a Silver Surfer costume, dangling from the ceiling.
If you think you know what that conspiracy is just because you read Robin Cook’s thriller ‘Coma‘ or saw the 1978 film adaptation by Michael Crichton, think again. This mini-series produced by Ridley and Tony Scott airing on A&E beginning Labor Day does something far more important than present a new paranoid thriller. It acts as a rejoinder to the three hundred essays suggesting that cable television is the bold, new frontier for storytellers. This new version of ‘Coma’ is a cheap, lame Movie of the Week of the pre-’Sopranos’/’Breaking Bad‘ era. It is lousy, lazy and disposable. Whatever your plans are for Labor Day, don’t think for a minute you need to race home to catch this.
Lauren Ambrose is quite likable as the med student whose last name happens to be the same as one of the hospital’s wings. Despite being to the manor born she lags behind her classmates to hold a confused, elderly patient’s hand, a slightly more elegant way to prove she’s good than just having her hold a sign saying “I’m good.”
But it’s that sort of behavior that will get you left back, at least so says the handsome teaching surgeon played by Steven Pasquale, who just happens to hang out at the same pool as Ambrose and gives her mouth to mouth one afternoon. She almost drowned, so it wasn’t unethical. Later in the story though, when they do shack-up, it’s totally okay, because they’re on the trail of something so unethical that running a poker match in the morgue would still seem fine by comparison.
Turns out that an inordinate number of healthy patients going in for routine surgery are ending up in comas. . .and only young Ambrose (and, eventually, conflicted Pasquale) are able to connect the dots. The film pays some lip service to how this info is covered up, but in an age of texts, tweets and tumblrs, it just seems impossible that no one would notice. Especially since the shenanigans are all happening in the very same operating room. (Number 8, by the way, if you’ve got a scheduled tonsillectomy.)
Since this is a mini-series (about two and a half hours, if you take out all the commercials) there’s plenty of time to introduce a great number of side characters. To sum up, the young people are all wonderful idealists, the full time employees are all horrible misanthropes. Except for James Woods but he’s quickly done away with in one of two absurd “traffic accidents” that has all the subtlety of Dick Van Patten’s hit in Mel Brooks’ ‘High Anxiety.’
So what about that cool ad on the sides of buses with people suspended by creepy tubes? Yes, that’s there, as it was in the original film, though the shooting style here is much more generic. It all feels like a particularly average episode of ‘Fringe‘ instead of the shocking, antiseptic horror found in the 78 version. That film isn’t a masterpiece, but it has a nice paranoid hum. This version chews up a lot of time with a dull, awkwardly paced chase scene.
A handful of well known names come out for quick moments. Richard Dreyfuss is poignant as the ethics professor, James Rebhorn scowls as the bean counter and Ellen Burstyn is good as the mysterious women behind the nefarious “Jefferson Institute.” (She’s also the only one in this whole enterprise, set in Atlanta, who bothers with a Southern accent.) Geena Davis gets the unfortunate task of playing the white coat cougar and, no disrespect, isn’t that successful. How long has she been talking with marbles in her mouth?
In 2008 the Scotts and A&E did a similar number on Michael Crichton’s ‘The Andromeda Strain.’ That was an even bigger disaster because the original 1971 film is so good. If there was a third one in development before Tony Scott’s tragic end, I’m in no hurry to see it.‘Coma’ airs on A&E September 3rd and 4th at 9pm.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.