This week, we’re digging into a director who is really well known, just not as a director. A man who wrote some of the most memorable stories in television and film. This week’s films are:
Michael Crichton – Coma (1978)
Michael Crichton – Looker (1981)
Crichton, of course, is best known as a novelist, and screenwriter. He wrote Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, and created the long running television show, ER. But many people might not know that he was a fairly prolific director in the 70s and 80s. He wrote and directed WestWorld, which was highly influential in the era, and is now a fairly successful show on HBO.
But the directing jobs dried up as the 80s went on. It’s possible he wanted to focus on screenwriting and novels, or perhaps his films just weren’t successful enough. But his films and novels are often related to science fiction. Though he doesn’t delve into spaceships and lasers. His science fiction is much more focused on the near future. Robotics, genetic engineering, the ethics of those fields, and the dangers within. These are things we’re dealing with now. So his stories are still very relateable.
The films I chose today are both from FilmStruck, which had almost all of his films available. I picked the two of these because I hadn’t seen either of them before and the descriptions were intriguing at least.
Let’s get into it.
A young doctor named Susan begins to notice that a strange number of patients are coming out of basic surgery in comas. She begins to investigate after it happens to a close friend of hers. As she gets deeper, the hospital administration, and even her boyfriend Mark seems to be aligned against her. How deep will the conspiracy go, and what will Susan find when she gets to the bottom?
The film is written and directed by Michael Crichton and stars Genevieve Bujold, Michael Douglas, Rip Torn and Richard Widmark. This was a very early film for Michael Douglas, but you can tell he’s a star from the moment he appears on screen. He doesn’t quite steal the show, as his character is kind of bland, but I think anyone seeing this film would have realized he had a long career ahead of him.
Michael Crichton spent time in medical school, and large chunks of the film just feel like we’re watching standard hospital procedure in a teaching hospital. We see rounds, and when we get to the first surgery scene, we watch an extended sequence of an experienced doctor explaining his entire anesthetic procedure to two students. Considering this is a major plot point later, it’s worth it for us to understand how all of this works, but it still feels a little indulgent. However, it does ratchet up the tension later on when the doctor continues explaining the procedure, and the patient doesn’t wake up.
The film has followed Susan up to this point, and she’s been introduced as a strong feminist, which was a bit of a rarity in entertainment at this time. When her boyfriend Mark casually asks her to get him a beer and asks when she’s fixing dinner, she starts a fight over his assumptions about her responsibilities. She leaves over the argument. In the modern era, Susan would have seemed pretty normal, but in the 70s, I imagine it was intended to set her up as fierce and stubborn. And her character is those things, but the film I think manages to avoid the ‘angry feminist’ stereotype and make her sympathetic, but it’s hard telling how she appeared in the era.
The first coma in the film pulls Susan in completely, as it was a friend of hers. She begins investigating, even as people start warning her off of it. We don’t need to wonder if there’s a conspiracy to keep her from learning more about the comas, we see it on screen. After she sneaks some computer data out of the hospital, she is scolded by the chief of surgery, who sends her to a therapist. The therapist then happily tells the chief of surgery everything she said. Further, Mark then is told if he can get her to stop looking into it, he will be strongly considered for chief resident, a position he covets.
It further plays into the feminist angle of the film, wherein Susan’s concerns are ignored and marginalized by a group of powerful men who work to discredit her. It’s a microcosm of the world women face everyday, in which their ideas are ignored or co-opted. Throughout the film, Susan is told that she should stop looking, that the hospital has procedures to deal with this, that the men know better than her. This kind of treatment would feel very familiar to any woman in a position of power.
Susan continues investigating, seeing another patient go in for routine surgery and come out in a coma. This time played by Tom Selleck. This was before Magnum, P.I., and any kind of stardom for Selleck, but like Douglas, he just jumps off the screen. He only has a few lines, and then plays a coma patient and corpse for the rest of the film, but it’s understandable why Crichton picked him for this role. He’s designed to be memorable so that when we see his corpse later on, we know exactly where we’ve seen him before.
Susan follows the clues, discovering a mysterious place called the Jefferson Institute, and suspecting that the head anesthesiologist Dr. George is behind whatever is happening. We also get a really interesting scene where Susan talks to the pathologists(one of which is played by Ed Harris, in his first film role) about how they would cause brain death in an operating room. They explain the easiest way would be to replace the oxygen with carbon monoxide, starving the brain, but keeping the body alive.
She notices that all of the coma patients were in Operating Room 8, and is told by a maintenance worker that he will tell her how it works. He is murdered before he can explain, and Susan has to investigate for herself. She finds a mechanism that pumps carbon monoxide into the oxygen line of the room. So she knows how this is being done, but not who is doing it or why. After she is chased by an assassin through the hospital, and betrayed by Mark, who calls the hospital when she goes to him for help, she goes on the run, deciding to visit the Jefferson Institute on a tour they have.
Here’s where the film really makes it mark. Inside the institute she discovers that they house coma patients with various medical advancements that make their care much cheaper. They hang them from the ceiling by wires to avoid bedsores, and computerized systems ensure that they have the food and oxygen they need. The tour is for medical professionals who might send their patients there, and it seems like not a bad deal.
But as the tour breaks up, Susan stays behind and looks around. As she does, she uncovers the truth, patients are intentionally put into comas and sent to the Jefferson Institute, who are then used as organ farms to the highest bidder. While she’s there, she keeps hearing the staff mention that “George” is the one sending them the patients, who Susan assumes is Dr. George, the anesthesiologist.
Susan manages to get away, and returns to tell her story to Dr. Harris, the head of surgery, but after he fixes her a drink, it’s revealed that his full name is George Harris. He’s drugged her, and is planning to use his method to put her in a coma as well. The drug gives her abdominal pains, which Dr. Harris uses to schedule her an appendectomy in OR 8, where he has his carbon monoxide system setup. As she’s about to be taken in, she tries to warn Mark, her boyfriend, who initially ignores her, but then hears Dr. Harris insist on OR 8, even though it isn’t open at the time he wants. This tips him off that something is wrong, and he runs to the basement, following what she’s told him previously to find the system and turn it off before she’s killed. Of course, in the time of the film, it seems like she’s spent most of the surgery breathing carbon monoxide and even if she isn’t brain dead, it seems almost certain she’d be heavily damaged. But she wakes up just fine, as the film ends and the police come to collect Dr. Harris.
Dr. Roberts is a plastic surgeon who has seen several patients who want incredibly small, precise changes to their facial features for their commercial work. He does the work, and later discovers that several of the women have died under mysterious circumstances. He decides to personally protect the last woman with the same alterations, and as he does, he discovers a plot involving commercial actors, a presidential candidate, and high tech digital technology.
The film is again written and directed by Michael Crichton, and stars Albert Finney, Susan Dey, and James Coburn. I’m used to seeing Albert Finney in various films as an older actor, so it was interesting to see him playing a much younger character.
The film plays like a thriller. After introducing us to the young commercial actress who wants to be ‘perfect’. After she gets extremely minor alterations from Dr. Roberts, we see her in her apartment, getting ready for a date when there’s a knock at the door. As she goes to the door, the film shows a flash, but we don’t see a source. The woman continues to look around her apartment and the flashes continue, but she still doesn’t see anyone. Eventually, the woman is wrapped up in a curtain and then falls out of her balcony window to her death. Only then do we see the assailant, who puts away a strange weapon in a case, drops a pen and a button around the house, and then leaves.
This is all brought to Dr. Roberts attention the next day when he gets a visit from another woman he’s worked on who is scared for her life. She leaves in a hurry before Roberts is visited by a police lieutenant who tells him about the two women that have already died. The film makes a point of the lieutenant returning Roberts pen that he found at the crime scene, along with noticing his suit button which matches the one the assailant dropped.
Roberts then turns into a detective. He goes to find the woman who left his office in a hurry, and as he gets there, she jumps out the window herself, in a particularly gruesome scene. Roberts decides that the last woman, Cindy(played by Susan Dey), requires his protection, and even though he doesn’t date his patients, asks her to a fancy fundraising event which she happily accepts. There, he meets John Reston(played by James Coburn) and his wife, Jennifer, who he’s asking for money to build a new medical center. He discovers that Jennifer is the one who’s been sending him patients with absurdly specific surgery adjustments for her company, which deals with computer visualization.
He gets a taste of what they do the next day when he takes Cindy to a commercial set. They’re using the computer scanning technology and require her to do dozens of takes for a shot to ensure the computer can ‘match her’. Eventually they give up and ask her to come to the office for a scan the next day. Roberts takes her there and gets a tour, where he sees that they make computer generated television ads to ensure that people are staring at the product in the ad, instead of the beautiful people in the ads.
The film makes a couple of interesting commentaries. One on the danger of chasing beauty at all costs, and the other about the danger of letting television run your life. As the film proceeds, Roberts and Cindy discover that the real value of using the computer generated images is that the company can entrance the people watching. They also have a similar technology that they have inserted into a gun, that can blind people. Their goal is to use television to control people’s minds and insert their own political candidates into office.
The technology to place photo-realistic actors into a scene was pretty far fetched in 1981, but it’s not totally unreasonable today. Probably still too expensive for commercials, but films and video games are able to produce incredibly high quality images, and pure photorealism is not far off. Indeed, when we see Cindy come in for a full-body scan, it looks completely normal. Anyone who watches special effects making-of videos has seen the process. But in the film, it’s treated as strange, almost sinister. When she’s asked to remove her clothes, Cindy treats it as an unreasonable request.
We’ve already begun seeing experiments where researchers can recreate the images and voices of anyone they like, and have them say anything they want. Much like with robotics and bio-engineering, Crichton was ahead of the curve. He had an ability to see how technology was developing, and point out ethical issues long before they became mainstream.
The film runs through basic thriller beats. Roberts and Cindy discover what’s actually going on, are almost caught, get away, Cindy is captured, and Roberts is also captured. Roberts though has managed to steal one of the Looker guns, which gives him some advantage. He uses that to knock out some security guards at Reston Industries, where the film spends it’s climax. It’s an extended sequence where Roberts hides in a room full of commercial sets where Reston Industries places it’s virtual actors. It’s never explained why they can’t computer generate the sets along with the actors, but it leads to some funny moments where we see Roberts and his pursuers hiding among family friendly commercials for cleaning products.
In the end, Roberts manages to defeat Reston with the help of the police lieutenant chasing the woman’s killer. He tells Cindy he can’t be her doctor anymore…because he doesn’t date his patients.
The Double Feature
The style of Michael Crichton is pretty straightforward. He’s a thriller/mystery director, and his films usually have a technology bent, and are set in the near future. He explores robotics, genetic engineering, various computing technology, and he often digs deep into the ethics of those technologies. His message is about how humans need to be responsible stewards of the great power technology gives us, and how easily we can lose control of it if we ignore that responsibility.
Ironically, the deep ethical topics he’s covering work so much better in a long-form television environment than in film. This might be why he wrote so many novels. Had he come around 30 years later, he would have hit during ‘peak TV’ and really could have made a bigger impact as a director/showrunner.
Not to say these films aren’t well-done. I think Coma is a very capable thriller that explores medical ethics. There’s a lot of visually stunning imagery within it. Looker is more interesting as an ethical dilemma than as a film. It starts off well, setting up the mystery, but the combination of various technologies and twists and turns don’t fully add up.
My biggest problem with Looker is the fact that I just don’t buy Albert Finney as the sexually desirable man who is capable of fighting off trained professional killers. Perhaps I’m just too invested in Albert Finney as an older actor from his current career, but he still seems old in this film. If it had been Michael Douglas or Tom Selleck in this role, I think I could have gone for it. But the whole thing just seems out of place.
The film also leaves more than a few plotlines dangling. For instance, there’s a subplot where the Reston’s are attempting to frame Roberts as the killer, but after the police lieutenant returns his pen and we later hear the Reston’s mention among themselves that they’ve planted evidence, the entire thing just goes away. The film also does a couple too many turnabouts when it seems like one side or the other has the upper hand. The final sequence in the studio is just far too long as well. It really felt like the film didn’t have enough story to last the entire 90 minutes, and needed to fill time.
Coma on the other hand, feels quite tight at two hours. The action keeps moving, and new information was revealed at the right pace to keep me interested.
Classes are in full swing, and I’m working on my dissertation. Right now I’m trying to get my literature review done, which is a significant portion of the document. I hope that if I can get that in shape and done by the end of September, then I’ll be in good shape to finish the entire thing by the time I’m ready to graduate by the end of the school year. Fingers crossed.
Next week is my 75th post on the blog, and I wanted to do something special. So next week’s films are:
Yasujiro Ozu – Tokyo Story (1953)
Akira Kurosawa – Seven Samurai (1954)
The two greatest Japanese filmmakers of all-time, and both of their greatest films. Seven Samurai is an incredibly long film, but it is my favorite of all time, so hopefully the time will just fly by.
See you then.