This blog post was written as part of MovieRob’s July 2018 Genre Grandeur theme: Bestselling/Popular Novel Adaptations
Long before Michael Crichton resurrected dinosaurs with “Jurassic Park” or even unleashed homicidal cowboy robots on unsuspecting guests (the first time) in WESTWORLD (1973), he wrote a now-classic tale of germ warfare and the scientists who are called in to deal with the aftermath of a satellite that crashes to Earth and unleashes a deadly microorganism.
Published in 1969, “The Andromeda Strain” put Michael Crichton’s name on the map. Compared to his later works such as “Timeline” and even “Jurassic Park”, “The Andromeda Strain” is a much more reserved, detached book that describes the attempts at analyzing the organism and diagnose two survivors with precision.
Renowned director Robert Wise took up the challenge of putting the novel on film. While the book was indeed a popular one, in a lot of ways it isn’t a likely candidate for a movie; it’s a testament to Wise and the crew he assembled that it works as well as it does. Aside from a race against a ticking clock in the final act, there is little action in the story. Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding do a fantastic job of taking what could have been tedious laboratory scenes and turns them into something unsettling and gripping. A sequence where two of the scientists examine the capsule in great detail is helped by revolutionary miniature special effects shots provided by Douglas Trumbull and James Shourt.
Production designer Boris Levin and cinematographer Richard H. Kline team to provide a cold aesthetic to the entire film that works fantastically well (Wise and Kline would again team on the first Star Trek film, giving the Enterprise interiors a similar clinical feel). Gidding also deserves credit in his decision to inject a small bit of diversity into the film by making one scientists in the film a woman (all four are men in Crichton’s novel).
Wise also makes several other shrewd casting decisions. While none of the cast are complete unknowns (James Olson is probably the least recognizable face here), there are no stars in the film. In a behind-the-scenes interview, Wise explained that he would have had a hard time believing a big-name star (he cites Gregory Peck) as a scientist. Instead, actors such as Arthur Hill as the team lead, Jeremy Stone, ground the film with a sense of reality that I agree might have been lost with bigger names. Likewise, David Wayne and Kate Reid, who round out the main cast, are quite good in their roles.
As with his casting decisions, Robert Wise also thought outside of the box when it came to the score for THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN. Not wanting a traditional orchestral score, Wise turned to composer Gil Mellé, who was a pioneer in the realm of electronic and synthesized music. Mellé was most well known at the time for his theme to Rod Serling’s series “Night Gallery” and he had also scored episodes of “Columbo” and later scored “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.”
Mellé’s score to THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN is difficult to describe. It works quite well in the film, but can be somewhat unlistenable in places on its own. Largely nonmelodic, it reminds me somewhat of the classic Louis and Bebe Barron score for FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956).
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN main titles
Much of the unique sound in the score comes from Mellé’s homemade instrument, the “percussotron.” While it is obviously incomplete, there is a very interesting clip on YouTube of Mellé demonstrating the instrument and its use in the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQ28Ze65ixE
Finally, I would be remiss in not mentioning that, while the album may be a somewhat difficult listen, the LP version of the score might be one of the coolest-looking records I have ever seen.
The score does work quite well in the context of the film and only adds to the otherworldly, unnerving feeling that permeates throughout. While some of the technology may be dated now, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN works well as an effective scientific thriller that seems all-too plausible.
Cliff (donning the Rocketeer helmet and rocket for the first time): “How do I look?”
Peevy: “Like a hood ornament.”
When you were a kid, was there anything quite as cool as a rocket pack? Sure, superheroes like Superman can fly, but he’s really an alien from another planet. But a rocket pack? That’s something anyone can strap on and fly off anywhere you wish.
Except that in 1938, the ability to fly takes on a whole other nefarious meaning, because both the U.S. and German armies are trying to develop a working model for military purposes. When the audience first sees the rocket pack, it’s being hauled by two goons across an airfield, with the FBI in hot pursuit, and in the process, they destroy a brand new plane being flown by Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) and manage to stash the rocket in a hanger where it is found by Cliff and his friend/father-figure Peevy (Alan Arkin).
That’s the set-up for the 1991 Disney/Touchstone Pictures film THE ROCKETEER, which was Joe Johnston’s second directorial effort (following on 1989’s HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS). Based on a comic book series, this was Disney’s second foray into comic-inspired films (the first being 1990’s DICK TRACY).
One thing that I completely missed as a kid but sticks out to me now is how, in becoming The Rocketeer, Cliff is really the accidental hero. When he and Peevy find the rocket, neither of them is thinking anything remotely heroic. Their plane crash in the opening sequence also took out a gas truck, and its owner Bigelow (played with wonderful sleeze by Jon Polito) wants them to pay him back for the loss. This makes Cliff’s motivation for keeping and using the rocket one of financial necessity, not a desire to do good or right wrongs.
Not to say that Cliff is a bad guy. He’s just a regular guy with real-world problems, and he sees the rocket as a means to an end. Billy Campbell sometimes gets a bad rap for his performance here, but I rather like him. He’s not especially heroic, but then he really shouldn’t be because he’s not a hero in the normal sense.
He’s also a bit of a dolt when it comes to how he treats his girlfriend, aspiring actress Jenny (Jennifer Connelly). If there’s one fault I can find with the film, it’s that there really isn’t much chemistry between the two actors (despite the fact that they were allegedly dating during filming). This is a relationship because the script says so rather than because the actors sell it, even though they both look the part.
Cliff also quickly finds himself the rival (in more ways than one) with leading man Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton). Sinclair is obviously a take on Errol Flynn, and Dalton is clearly enjoying himself in the role. First, he is revealed to be behind the gangsters who were trying to steal the rocket, as he admonishes the head of the gang, Eddie Valentine (played, in a real stretch of casting, by Paul Sorvino). Later, Sinclair starts to make a move on Jenny, at least in part because he knows she knows who has the rocket.
He’s also sent his henchman, Lothar (Tiny Ron) in search of the rocket. I suppose it’s their way of calling back to the fact that this is a comic book movie, but Lothar is a bit distracting because of his obvious prosthetic makeup that seems like a leftover from DICK TRACY. The character also disappears for stretches at a time, becoming more of a plot convenience than an actual important element.
Getting back to Cliff, it’s interesting in that when he finally uses the rocket, he does it because he has no other choice. In fact, pretty much every time he becomes The Rocketeer, it’s to clean up a mess he’s created: he first has to rescue an over-the-hill pilot who is only flying because he’s trying to help Cliff out; later, Cliff needs to save Jenny from Sinclair after he uses it to escape a couple of FBI agents who also are after the rocket.
It’s this last wrinkle that might be the film’s only (minor) misstep plot-wise. Adding in the FBI adds a fourth group that either has or wants the rocket, and it’s a bit much to keep straight (as a kid, I remember being confused by who was who). I can forgive the added complexity a bit by the fact that these agents are working for the inventor of the rocket, who is none other than Howard Hughes (the always good Terry O’Quinn). He wants the rocket back to keep it from falling into Nazi hands; Neville Sinclair turns out to be a Nazi agent hiding within Hollywood society.
The presence of the FBI also provides one of my favorite little touches in the film. Towards the end, the FBI and the Valentine gang find themselves on the same side, shooting against the Nazis. At one point, Valentine and one of the agents stop firing their machine guns for a moment, look at each other, have this moment of ironic realization, and resume firing.
Despite a few creaky effects that definitely show their age, the film’s climax aboard a Nazi zeppelin works pretty well, and the final resolution that does Sinclair in calls back nicely to an earlier sequence where the rocket is damaged. I also really enjoy how Sinclair’s fiery plunge takes out the “land” in the “Hollywoodland” sign.
When I first saw THE ROCKETEER I really only knew James Horner based on his scores for STAR TREK II and STAR TREK III. Also being a big fan of John Williams’ score for SUPERMAN (1978), I was a little apprehensive about a composer who I felt was more subdued in his approach (silly me).
Indeed, his opening cue is not bombastic in the classic superhero vein. Instead, Horner wrote an absolutely gorgeous, long-lined melody from which to base the score. His main Rocketeer theme is one of my favorites from Horner’s entire body of work, and it is absolutely gorgeous in its first appearance, performed initially by solo piano over the opening credits. He also wrote a “B Theme” for The Rocketeer, which kicks in just as Cliff’s ill-fated flight takes off:
“Main Title / Takeoff”
In a style similar to Williams, Horner also wrote themes for Jenny and for Sinclair. His “Jenny” theme, which follows her character throughout the film, receives a lovely concert arrangement on the soundtrack that is introduced by piano, strings, harp, and solo French horn:
Sinclair’s themes consist of two motifs. The first is a descending motif similar to the one that Horner used in STAR TREK III to represent the Excelsior. The second, more sinister is four rising notes that are usually played in the low brass. Both make several appearances in the track “Neville Sinclair’s House” which plays over Jenny being brought to Sinclair’s home, his (unsuccessful) attempt to seduce her, and her discovery that he is a Nazi agent.
Excerpts from “Neville Sinclair’s House”
Because this is a superhero film, the action music is arguably the most important part of the score. Despite my unfounded initial reservations about the main theme, Horner does a magnificent job in tweaking his themes for the action cues. My favorite bits come from Cliff’s first appearance as the Rocketeer, as he rescues a pilot in mid-air. A bombastic version of the main theme accompanies Cliff’s attempts to successfully pilot the rocket, including two falls that are wonderfully scored by Horner:
“Flying Circus” excerpt #1
He also brings back the second “flying” motif at the end of this sequence, scoring a humerous bit of action as Cliff flies out of control. This also includes one of the moments I definitely remember from the trailers: Cliff plows through a field as two guys who look like they should be selling Bartles and James wine coolers remark, “biiiig gopher.” It’s also perhaps the best use of the Jew’s harp I’ve ever heard in an action cue (an admittedly short list).
“Flying Circus” excerpt #2
One of the unfair criticisms of James Horner is that he tends to recycle themes from previous scores. While he does do this, I don’t think its to any greater degree than most composers. If anything, he tends to reuse rhythms or short phrases rather than whole themes. For THE ROCKETEER, he does keep this to a minimum, save for the Sinclair theme I mentioned earlier, and his chromatic motif from “Genesis Countdown” in STAR TREK II. This latter motif appears most prominently in the build to the climax, which occurs in Griffith Park Observatory. As the tension builds between Cliff and Sinclair over an exchange of the rocket for Jenny, this motif plays prominently in the underscore. As Cliff manages to turn the Valentine gang against Sinclair (because of his Nazi roots), Sinclair then unleashes a hidden squat of Nazi foot soldiers, followed by the reveal of a giant zeppelin hiding behind the observatory (not sure how this is physically possible but go with it). The remainder of the cue is rounded out by the expected action music featuring the main themes as well as Sinclair and Jenny’s themes.
Excerpt from “Rendesvouz at Griffith Park Observatory”
The final selection is from the final climax of the film, which takes place aboard the zeppelin. Once Sinclair is killed, Cliff (now rocket-less) and Jenny run across the top of the zeppelin which is being engulfed in flames. Finally, Hughes and Peevy arrive in the nick of time to rescue them, as a final statement of Sinclair’s theme plays over the Nazi emblem disappearing in the fire.
Excerpt from “The Zepplin”
All in all, THE ROCKETEER is an immensely enjoyable film that unfortunately didn’t do well at the box office. Joe Johnston does a terrific job nailing a period feel (a talent he would also bring to CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER later in his career), and all of the actors perform their roles well. It’s a shame that the film didn’t do as well as it could have on it’s initial release, but it seems to have found an audience thanks to home video. Despite the rash of comic book movies these days, few seem to have the heart and characters of a film like THE ROCKETEER. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you check it out.
Despite the financial success of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979), the film was considered by Paramount Pictures to be a disappointment, owing to spiraling production costs and a script that came together literally at the last minute and that led to a story that left many Trek fans cold.
The end result was that Paramount Pictures decided, if there was to be a second Star Trek film, the budget would have to be considerably smaller. Series creator Gene Roddenberry, who was largely blamed for the cost overruns from the first film, was reduced to an “Executive Consultant” role, while well-regarded TV producer Harve Bennett was put in charge of the franchise.
As he was developing the script with writer Jack B. Sowards, Bennett turned to novelist-turned-director Nicholas Meyer to helm the film. Meyer had recently directed TIME AFTER TIME (1979), but he had almost no familiarity with Star Trek. This actually turned out to be a good thing, since he was able to focus on making the best film possible without staying overly (excessively) reverential to the material.
What better film to pick for the Play to the Whistle Blogathon than one that features a down-on-its-luck team defy the odds and take down a much stronger foe? No, not that one. No, not that one either.
No, I’m talking about the 1989 baseball classic, MAJOR LEAGUE. Written and directed by David S. Ward (best known for writing THE STING (1973) and SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (1993)), the film tells the stirring and emotional story of a band of underdogs who….
…oh who am I kidding. The film is an absolute riot and easily one of the best sports comedies of all time.
The plot is fairly simple: Rachel Phelps, a former exotic dancer, inherits the Cleveland Indians baseball team from her dead husband. Not wanting to live out her days in Cleveland, she hatches a plot to field the worst possible team she can, because if overall attendance drops below a certain threshold, the league will allow her to relocate the team to Miami, Florida.
And boy, what a team they put together. I think the Cleveland Indians of MAJOR LEAGUE should go down as the most colorful sports team in film history. Every major character (player or not) leaves a lasting impression and is perfectly cast:
Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger), the worn down veteran who sees this as his last chance at being a winner;
Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn (Charlie Sheen), the former convict with a blazing fastball and undiagnosed vision problems (and who helped make the song “Wild Thing” into a sports anthem);
Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes), a blazing runner who needs to have his talent catch up a bit with his showboating;
Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert), a slugger from Cuba who prays to the god Jobu because he, “No can hit curveball. Straight ball, I hit very much. But with curveball…bats are afraid.”
and of course, beleaguered Indians announcer Harry Doyle (Bob Uecker), who chugs Jack Daniels during the game and popularized the call, “Juuuuuuust a bit outside!”
Another key to the success of this film is its setting. To fully appreciate the era in which MAJOR LEAGUE was made, we must travel back to an alternate dimension where the Cleveland Browns (American football) were good, while the Cleveland Indians were a complete mess. Cleveland itself has earned a reputation here in the US for being a…well…a dump, and the opening credits, which are set to Randy Newman’s song “Burn On” sets the stage perfectly.
Added context for any non-US readers: the Cuyahoga River is a major river that runs through the city of Cleveland and that has famously caught fire a number of times due to pollution.
Smartly, the vast majority of the movie is spent either on the field or in the clubhouse, allowing the rag-tag group to bounce off of each other. Old-timer pitcher and devout Christian Eddie Harris (Chelcie Ross) tries to start a religious war with Cerrano, prompting one of the famous exchanges in the film:
Cerrano: “Jesus. I like him very much. But he no help with curveball.”
Harris: “Are you trying to say Jesus Christ can’t hit a curveball?”
Likewise, overpriced free-agent Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen), who is more interested in life after baseball than actually playing it, starts a feud with rookie Vaughn and later with Taylor for a lack of effort. He also has a hilarious run in with Cerrano during spring training, with the big Cuban taking one of Dorn’s golf club covers for his bat.
The on-field action is surprisingly good. While no one will confuse many of the stars of the film for real baseball players (Charlie Sheen was at one point offered a scholarship to play college baseball, and his ability to throw a decent fastball helps sell several of the scenes), the filmmakers do a good job of editing around the stars to make it fairly convincing.
Side note: I was amused to find out that the guy who plays the Indians’ nemesis, Yankee slugger Clu Haywood, actually served as the real Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching coach for a time.
The plot of the film plays out as you would largely expect. The team, which starts off terrible, begins to improve. In response, Phelps begins taking away things like transportation (first they are downgraded to a plane that is literally duct taped together and then later to a bus) and therapy equipment like a working whirlpool (which is solved by putting a motor boat engine inside). Eventually the team gets wind of her overall plan to lose and decides that the only course of action left is to win the pennant outright.
Which of course, they do. Surprising? No. But that’s not really the point of the film. The point is how they do it, and MAJOR LEAGUE’s version of the cliche “winning it all” scene is one of my favorites. It ties together a number of threads that were dropped earlier, particularly a scene where Jake Taylor is alone in the stadium and imagines does the famous Babe Ruth “calling his shot” moment and the fact that Taylor’s knees are bad. At the same time it doesn’t take the obvious route of Taylor crushing that game-winning home run.
If I had to find fault with the movie, the only place I can really point to is in a side plot involving Taylor and his ex girlfriend Lynn Wells (Rene Russo). Now, I’ve confessed my irrational dislike for Russo on Twitter, but here I can’t even really blame that. It’s just that this side plot is terribly unnecessary.
Taylor takes Vaughn and Hays out for a celebratory dinner to kick off the season, and he spots Wells having dinner with another guy (who turns out to be Tom, her fiancé). He then proceeds to, well, stalk her through the movie, including a scene where he crashes a party at Tom’s place. Eventually, when he busts in on HER place, they end up sleeping together, and eventually, during the celebration at the end of the pennant-winning game, she reveals that she has left Tom. Because of course, that’s what happens in these kind of movies.
But who cares? I know I didn’t…and Taylor’s behavior is at times obsessive to the point of being creepy. You know what though, that’s not the point of the movie, and their plot doesn’t intrude too much on the film to be damaging. At worst, the scenes between Taylor and Wells amount more to “ok, time to go grab a drink/snack” when you’re watching at home.
Finally, since this is Listening To Film after all, a brief word about the music. I say brief, because there really isn’t much to say about it. Being a late 80s film, there are a number of pop songs used throughout the film, most notably “Wild Thing” by X, which is used as Ricky Vaughn’s entry song. For the rest, James Newton Howard turns in a score that is so unabashedly 80s with prominent synth and rock instrumentation. Most famous is probably the track “Pennant Fever,” which plays over a montage of the Indians slowly improving and gaining ground in the standings.
Newton Howard also wrote a love theme for the film that, again because it was the 80s, was turned into a song for the end credits. The song, called “Most Of All You” and performed by Bill Medley, is again both wonderfully and cringingly pure 80s ballad. It’s one of those songs that, if you grew up in the 80s, you might recognize but not be really sure why.
“Most Of All You” performed by Bill Medley
Ultimately, the songs and the music do work well for the film, because all are part of a pure 80s time capsule of a movie. It’s been a long time since the Cleveland Indians played in Municipal Stadium (affectionately called the Municipal Pig Lot by folks where I grew up). These days, they are competitive, and have been for most years since the mid 90s. But maybe, just maybe, they have the ghosts of Jake Taylor, Ricky Vaughn, and Pedro Cerrano to thank for that success.
MAJOR LEAGUE isn’t a movie that will move you to tears or keep you on the edge of your seat. But it will make you laugh out loud, smile, and have a great time for an hour and a half or so. And isn’t that really what movies are for?
Ever since the success of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, subsequent films in the Star Trek universe have largely been judged by their villains (with STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) being the obvious exception). And like Shinzon in STAR TREK: NEMESIS (2002) and Nero in STAR TREK (2009), many often feel like pale imitations of Khan himself.
However, this is not the case for Klingon General Chang in STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, which in my humble opinion is the only film in the series to challenge WRATH OF KHAN for the top spot among all Star Trek films. Chang is a big part of why I love the film so much, and a lot of that is due to his portrayal by Christopher Plummer.
As an actor who comes from theater, Plummer was the ideal choice to play a Klingon general with a penchant for quoting from the works of Shakespeare (even if they are not, as he remarks in the film, in the “original Klingon”). Unlike some of Trek’s more one-note villains, Chang is at various times cordial, cunning, or ruthless. Plummer’s theater background is most evident in the trial scene, where Chang is called upon to prosecute a case against Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy for the assassination of the Klingon chancellor. He shows tremendous range here, from quiet and almost chatty when he discusses the amount of Romulan ale consumed by McCoy prior to the attack to bombastic when, in perhaps the most famous exchange in the scene, he evokes Adlai Stevenson II’s famous remark to Russian Ambassador Zorin by yelling at Kirk, “…don’t wait for the translation! Answer me now!!!”
Because Chang is not (deliberately) set up as the villain of the film, Plummer also has the added challenge of portraying someone who might be a reluctant ally to the Federation when he comes aboard the Enterprise for an ill-fated diplomatic dinner. His initial encounter with Captain Kirk is not one of hostility but one of admiration, as Chang sees himself and Kirk as two sides of the same coin. Plummer plays both his arrival and departure scenes with the perfect balance of relish, comradeship, and menace so that, despite the good intentions of Chancellor Gorkon, you’re not quite sure what to make of this bald fellow with the bolted-in eyepatch.
His attitude also serves as an interesting mirror on the character of Captain Kirk. Of course, Kirk is portrayed as the hero in these stories, but how would that hero be viewed by his long-time adversaries? While his deeds may not be celebrated, he certainly deserves respect as a warrior, particularly from a race like the Klingons. One gets the sense that Chang has had a similarly distinguished career as Kirk, and it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that his appearance to Kirk and his crew is not dissimilar to how Kirk is viewed by the Klingons. The fact that both Christopher Plummer and William Shatner are classically trained Canadian actors makes the parallel even that much closer.
Both characters also carry with them considerable prejudices as well. While some of Kirk’s is rooted in the death of his son at the hands of the Klingons, there is also the ingrained distrust built up over years of conflict that is shared by both. This is most apparent during the dinner scene, where a comment by Chang is attributed by Kirk to Adolf Hitler just prior to the Nazi invasion of Europe. It also helps that Plummer’s delivery when he responds, “I beg your pardon?” is absolutely perfect. Ultimately though, Kirk is able to overcome these prejudices (admittedly only after being sent to a Klingon gulag) and recognize that it is possible to make peace with one’s enemies.
Chang, of course, isn’t able to make this leap, and because of how he sees Kirk as a mirror of himself, he believes that Kirk is right there with him about there being, “no peace in our time.” It is here during the final battle that Plummer lets loose, chewing the scenery with incredible gusto as he mockingly quotes Shakespeare from his cloaked bird of prey. While I suppose this aspect of his performance could be considered hammy, I just enjoy it so much that I can’t find fault. Chang is clearly having a wonderful time, slowly toying with his adversary, and his shocked expression upon realizing that Kirk has beaten him along with his subdued, “to be…or not to be,” final line is the perfect way for him to go out.
A couple of minor character issues aside — I was never convinced that Chang was anything BUT the bad guy, and his reveal as such in the film is more of a “well duh” moment than a surprise — Christopher Plummer certainly belongs up there with Ricardo Montalban when discussing the best villain portrayals the Star Trek franchise has produced. I cannot imagine another actor in the role, which is perhaps the greatest compliment you can give.
Finally, Christopher Plummer also made his mark in a different role: narrating the first teaser trailer for the film. Set to clips projected over the surface of the Enterprise, it’s probably my favorite Star Trek trailer of all time.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Plummer, Chang, and the trailer, and thanks again to Sean Munger for the chance to revisit one of my favorites.
Few things are as universally fear-inducing like the the need to undergo a surgical procedure, no matter how minor. But what if that relatively minor procedure were the part of something much more nefarious? This is the question posed by the 1978 film COMA, which was based on physician-turned-author Robin Cook’s 1977 bestseller of the same name.
The success of the novel made it a natural for being adapted as a feature film. Enter another writer who had originally attended medical school: Michael Crichton. Crichton had already made a name for himself with a number of novels including “The Andromeda Strain” and “The Terminal Man”, both of which had a medical angle to them. Crichton had also written and directed the technothriller WESTWORLD (1973), and he was called upon to write the screenplay for COMA and also to direct.
The story centers around physician Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold), whose friend undergoes a relatively routine surgical procedure only to end up comatose. Her superiors and colleagues, including fellow resident/boyfriend Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas), encourage her to accept what happened as a random, unfortunate medical event. However, Susan isn’t ready to give up looking for answers, especially when another patient in for orthopedic surgery (look kids, it’s Tom Selleck!) also winds up in a coma.
Through the course of her investigation, Susan runs into resistance from the chief of anesthesiology Dr. George (Rip Torn) and Chief of Surgery Dr. Harris (Richard Widmark), and discovers the mysterious Jefferson Institute, where long-term coma patents are being sent. Her guided tour of the facility (as part of a weekly tour for physicians) produces one of the more striking images in medical cinema: rows of coma patients suspended from the ceiling by wires run through their bones (to prevent bedsores, it’s said). The visual of dozens of patients hanging from wires coupled with the sound of multiple ventilators is effectively eerie, as is the almost robotic way that Ms. Emerson (Elizabeth Ashley) describes the facility (she gives an even more distant and disturbing performance earlier as she meets Susan outside the doors to the Jefferson Institute). The entire scene is wonderfully creepy and simultaneously fantastic and completely plausable.
Here be spoilers
In consultation with two pathologists at the hospital (including Ed Harris in his first film role) begins to suspect that someone has slipped carbon monoxide into the anesthesia. This causes her to begin suspecting Dr. George, and her suspicions are also strengthened when she discovers a radio-controlled gas line that runs into one of the hospital’s operating rooms. Later, when she sneaks away from a tour of the Jefferson Institute, Susan stumbles upon the truth: patients are being put into comas and then moved there so that their organs can be harvested and sold on the black market. When she overhears two workers talking about “George” she becomes convinced of her suspicions.
After a (somewhat hokey) escape from the institute, she brings her findings to Dr. Harris, expecting him to immediately call to have Dr. George arrested. However, it turns out that HE is the one behind everything (his first name is George). Early in the scene, Dr. Harris and Susan both have a drink of scotch. It turns out that he has slipped a drug into her drink that gives her the symptoms of appendicitis. As the drug takes effect, Dr. Harris gives a rather strange soliloquy about medical decision-making (Richard Widmark does good work here, but what he rambles about just doesn’t seem to make sense to me).
I’m fine with Dr. Harris being the ultimate villain (though it’s not really a surprise), but this scene gives rise to my biggest issue with the film. Because of the drug, Dr. Harris is able to convince everyone that she has appendicitis, and that he will be operating on her himself. Of course, the operation will be performed in O.R. 8, which has the secret carbon monoxide line. Luckily for Susan, she is able to clue Mark in enough that he begins to believe what she has been saying. He eventually finds the radio device and stops it before Susan has breathed enough of the poisonous gas to do significant damage.
This is frustrating on a number of levels. Susan has been the driving force throughout the film. Even when everyone else (all men, including her boyfriend) urge her to give up on the investigation, she persists and eventually uncovers the truth. But here, in the final moments of the movie, she becomes a frustratingly cliché “damsel in distress.” Not only that, but Mark has been a naysayer for the entire film, constantly questioning Susan’s line of investigation, but here, he “comes around” at just the nick of time.
I suppose it’s not as bad as in the novel, where Susan’s fate isn’t even addressed (the reader is left hanging as to whether or not she survives), but it’s still annoying to have a film with a driven, professional female main character only to see her sidelined at the very end, dependent on her boyfriend to save her life.
That moment at the end does result in one of my favorite directorial touches that Crichton does in the film (his style is relatively perfunctory, with only a few moments of “flash”). I’m not even sure why I like it as much as I do, but there’s something clever to me about how they (literally) turn out the lights on Dr. Harris and his scheme, followed by a hard crash to the credits:
Of course, this scene also provides a good example of the music in the film, which was composed by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith, who would work with Michael Crichton a year later on THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1979), turns in a score that works incredibly well in the film, but is a rather difficult listen in isolation.
Goldsmith had famously used a device called the Echoplex in previous scores, most notably PLANET OF THE APES (1968) and PATTON (1970). Essentially a tape delay effect, the Echoplex allows for notes to be repeated synthetically (again, the most famous use of this may be the fading trumpet notes in PATTON). For COMA, Goldsmith would again use this effect to a great extent, particularly for a two-chord motif that forms the backbone to the entire score.
“Stranger on the Street”
Notably, the entire first half of the movie is unscored, with the music only beginning once Susan notices a strange man watching her from across the street. I should say that this man follows Susan throughout the middle third of the film, culminating in a VERY creepy visit to where they store medical school cadavers…
This cue features both the Echoplex motif and the main “suspense” theme for the film: an unsettling melodic line in the high strings. Much of the score is similar in feel, working much better in the film than as a stand-alone listen.
“Cape Cod Weekend”
In addition to the main theme, Goldsmith wrote a love theme for Susan Wheeler and Mark Bellows. Played over a, frankly awkward montage, the theme is unfortunately a rather generic pop-score mishmash of “generic Goldsmith melodies.” I don’t mean to sound harsh, but the theme is simply out of place for the rest of the score (and the film), and it comes off as a Goldsmith-lite of sorts. Not one of my favorites…
Worse still, because this was the 70s, the score album contains the requisite disco version that I will spare you from.
Much more interesting is the cue that follows Susan and Mark as they stumble upon the infamous Jefferson Institute. After the main theme returns, this time on low register clarinets, the strange, brutalist-style building comes into view accompanied by a swirl of piano and percussion that sounds reminiscent of Goldsmith’s PLANET OF THE APES (1968) score. After a (I can’t believe I’m going to say this) Herrmann-esque series of low clarinet chords, Susan approaches the building as thick string chords play a motif that is very much similar to what Goldsmith would write a year later in his superb score to STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979).
All in all, COMA is a rather effective and largely realistic medical thriller that suffers somewhat by an unfortunate lapse into a stereotypical “damsel in distress” ending. Given the controversies even today surrounding organ donation, the plot isn’t all that far-fetched. Plot issues aside, all of the actors perform their roles well, and while I can’t really recommend the music as a stand-alone listen, Jerry Goldsmith turns in a typically effective score in the film itself.
If this blogathon has turned you on to the idea of watching some Medicine In The Movies, and you like a solid medical thriller, I definitely recommend checking out COMA. Just don’t watch it if you have any procedures planned in the coming weeks!