A&E catches remake fever just in time for Labor Day with the two-part miniseries “Coma.”
The project, which revisits both the 1978 thriller and the novel of the same name, gathers a sterling cast to tell a pulpy tale of medicine gone wild.
The miniseries, which airs at 9 p.m. EST tonight and wraps at the same time tomorrow, follows the general blueprint of both the previous film and Robin Cook's trend-setting novel. A plucky medical student named Susan Wheeler (Lauren Ambrose, “Sleepwalk with Me”) suspects the high number of comatose patients in her teaching hospital is no accident.
She enlists the aid of a handsome young doctor (Steven Pasquale), an avuncular professor (Richard Dreyfuss) and any colleague dumb enough to give her security access to the hospital files to crack the case.
Meanwhile, the head of a local coma clinic (Ellen Burstyn) seems downright suspicious every time slinks on screen. Burstyn talks in a purring southern twang, fingers Rosary beads for good fortune (rarely a positive character trait in Hollywood) and boasts a ‘do that all but shouts, “villain!”
Not so fast. Everyone’s motives seem muddy in “Coma” save Susan’s, and even the warm but egotistical Dr. Stark (James Woods) could be connected to the crush of new coma patients.
The big question, which gets a rather dispirited reveal tomorrow night, is who would want to force healthy people into comas … and why.
Part 1 sets up the story, introduces the key characters and lets us know Susan isn’t the helpless type. Her resourcefulness actually hurts Part 2, as her character squares off with a villain hardly worth her time in an extended, and ponderous, chase.
“Coma,” co-produced by brothers Ridley Scott and the late Tony Scott, mentions for-profit medical motivations in a sly, withering fashion. The film doesn’t go the ObamaCare route, though. It’s more interested in lingering shots of dead bodies, some suspended in the air while others surgically sliced and diced to show some PG-13-style gore.
And any debates about the moral implications of medical research are given short shrift. The miniseries would rather tease us with the image of young, healthy people reduced to a vegetative state than work up a good mental sweat.
Much of the fun found in tonight’s installment fades in part 2 through no fault of Ambrose or her gifted peers. Director Mikael Salomon (“Band of Brothers”) fumbles the creepy elements on screen just when the story should be getting interesting, although the vision of bodies wrapped in silver suits dangling between life and death is an arresting one.
The miniseries puts far too much faith in a heavy with severe mental issues, hardly a match for our scrappy heroine. Surely the fiends behind the coma plot, who seem to have eyes everywhere, knew better than to entrust a man with severe psychosis to keep their plans on track.
Had “Coma” fulfilled some of the promise displayed in tonight’s installment it might have been worth watching now and revisiting come Halloween. Instead, it’s an intermittently solid thriller with an ending not worth the three-plus hour build up.
Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies