“Nautical But Nice”

James Horner and the Music for The Wrath of Khan

This post is written as a part of the Second Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon hosted by Becky at Film Music Central. It also continues my look at the music of the Star Trek film series. For previous reviews: 


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.

Continue reading ““Nautical But Nice””

Ubiquitous Cues: #10

Just for fun, I’m starting a rundown of the Top 10 Ubiquitous Cues in film. This is a list scientifically curated by me sitting down with a notepad and jotting 10 titles down as they came to me. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some, which is what the comments section is for 🙂

In any case, this will be a list of what I think are ten of the most recognizable cues from film, and in one case, it’s not even a cue that was written for the film in question. This is music that almost anyone on the street will recognize, even if they don’t know where it’s from.

“Bishop’s Countdown” – Aliens (1986), James Horner

Case in point, unless you are a film music fan, I doubt you’ll immediately recognize this choice from the track name or perhaps even the film. That said, I can almost guarantee you’ve heard it before.

“Bishop’s Countdown”

During the 1990s-2000s especially, you would hear a portion of this track in a movie trailer each summer (sometimes for multiple movies). Heck, even the trailer to THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (2005) managed to work it in:

How many times can you remember hearing this cue in a movie trailer? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and be on the lookout for the #9 cue coming soon, which will be a bit of an evolutionary step forward.

Review: MAJOR LEAGUE (1989)

This post is written for the Play to the Whistle Blogathon hosted by Kira at Film and TV 101 and Josh at Reffing Movies.


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:

  • ML_castJake 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. 

ML Harris rum
Eddie Harris makes the tragic mistake of stealing Jobu’s rum

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?”

ML hats
“Hats for bats, keep bats warm.” – Pedro Cerrano

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.

ML Haywood
“Haywood leads the league in most offensive categories, including nose hair.”  – Harry Doyle

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.

“Pennant Fever”

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?


“In space, all warriors are cold warriors.”

This post is written for the Christopher Plummer Blogathon hosted by Sean Munger. Thanks for the opportunity to participate, Sean!

plummer-blogathon-banner-2aEver 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.

img_0047As 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!!!”

“Have we not heard the chimes at midnight?”

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.

ffh7ymChang, 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.




Drink Up Me Hearties, Yo Ho!

Looking back at the Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy

Ok, first off: yes, I said the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. I know there are two more films now. To be honest, I haven’t seen them, nor do I really have much interest in doing so. In Pirates 4, the only thing that even piques my interest about it is that Ian McShane plays the villain, and if I’m feeling like I need some Ian McShane, I’ll go watch an an old episode of “Lovejoy.” 

Whew! Anyways…

I remember when the first film, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003) came out. At the time, I just knew it had Johnny Depp in it (and that he was rumored to be quite hilarious) and that it also starred the guy who played Legolas in the Lord of the Rings films. I also knew that it was based on a famous Walt Disney ride (this did not fill me with enthusiasm) and that Jerry Bruckheimer was producing it (this made me slightly more interested, though I found Disney/Bruckheimer to be a very strange pairing).

In any event, my parents, my sister, and I went to see it that summer, and I was more than a little surprised in a good way. The movie is incredibly entertaining, laugh out loud funny in places (I still find the early sequence of Jack Sparrow captaining a much smaller ship than expected and then coming into port as it sinks to be quite hilarious), and plot-wise it’s complex enough that it held my interest throughout.

PiratesOTCaribbean_104PyxurzJohnny Depp is indeed quite good here (it’s a shame that he’s played a variation of the exact same character ever since), as is the rest of the cast. Orlando Bloom does quite a good job playing Orlando Bloom. I had never heard of Keira Knightley before seeing this, and I was quite impressed with her here (this opinion would change in future years and other projects). The stand out to me though was Geoffrey Rush, who is clearly having an absolute blast playing Captain Barbossa. He’s easily the most “piratey” of the pirates here, but he still manages to create a real character vs. just a generic “bad pirate” villain.

The production design and direction is also quite good. Gore Verbinski was a name that I really only knew from THE RING (2002). While I really enjoyed that particular film (it’s one of the few decent American remakes of Asian horror films), I didn’t know what to expect for this type of movie. Thankfully, Verbinski shows that he is more than capable of directing a movie with considerable scope, action, and complex visuals.

9310_klaus-badeltShame though about the music. Klaus Badelt is credited with the score, but a closer look reveals a number of the Remote Control-employed Hans Zimmer acolytes who work on so many of Bruckheimer’s projects. I suppose I should give Badelt and co. something of a pass, since they really had mere days to write music for the film. Alan Silvestri had originally been hired to score the film, but for whatever reason, he was let go fairly early on in the process. Instead, we ended up with a rather generic score that could be used in films from a number of different genres.

The most famous cue from the film, “He’s a Pirate” has become well-known (or possibly infamous) over the years, but to me, it’s another of the same generic 3/4 waltz tempo cues that Zimmer and colleagues have been putting out since GLADIATOR (2000). The fact that it has been overplayed by marching bands and TV sports shows ever since hasn’t helped, and the lack of real instrumentation in favor of synth makes it feel like “Zimmer-lite.”


Here come the sequels…

The success of the first film clearly meant that there would be a sequel, but unfortunately, the filmmakers got a little carried away in terms of scope. Retaining the core group from the first movie, including the actors, director, and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio was a smart move. However, the approach the creators took would turn out to be somewhat problematic. Instead of telling two standalone stories, the two sequels, DEAD MAN’S CHEST (2006) and AT WORLD’S END (2007) would be two parts of a single story.

Perhaps the best comparison here is to the Matrix Trilogy. In both cases, a successful first film led to not one, but two sequels. These sequels would tell a single story across two films and would show much of the same problems: an overwrought plot that could have been better told in a single film. In both sets of films, we ended up with sequences that add bloat rather than contribute to advancing the story.

On balance, I think the Pirates of the Caribbean double sequels work better. The new characters, especially Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), actually make strong, positive contributions to the story (quick: name one new character from the Matrix sequels who actually improves the proceedings).

Jones_with_music_boxDavy Jones is a spectacular amalgam of character work by Nighy and visual effects by ILM. While the environment he is placed in (typically dark and foggy/rainy) helps, he might be, with the possible exception of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, the most convincing CGI character I’d seen to that point. Bill Nighy (whom I would happily watch in anything) gives a quirky take on the character who, in the hands of a lesser actor, could have become a rather two-dimensional monster.

cutler beckettLikewise, Cutler Beckett, who is the other villain of the two sequels, is an already interesting character made even more so by the fact that he is played by Tom Hollander. Beckett is an official of the East India Trading Company, and as such is an enemy to both the film’s heroes and the entire idea of piracy. He represents a more modern sensibility, which threatens the more romanticized pirate lifestyle.

As for the plot, well…frankly there’s too much of it. The first sequel, DEAD MAN’S CHEST, spends an inordinate amount of time getting to the point. Jack Sparrow’s compass is the initial MacGuffin (I say initial because there are more later. Another warning sign.), so everyone is looking for Captain Jack. The problem is, it takes such a long time to find him (something about a black spot curse and him hiding out on an island of cringe-worthy “savage types”) that I had forgotten why they were looking for him in the first place.

Are you bored or offended yet?

On the way, we meet Beckett, his creepy henchman Mercer, Will Turner (Bloom)’s father, a strange woman named Tia Dalma, and are told tales of a Kraken, Davy Jones, and the importance of a chest, a key, and what’s kept inside that chest. The upshot is that all of these plot points do eventually come together in a way that actually makes sense (if you pay attention—something that, based on reviews, critics don’t expect anymore), but it’s a lot to keep straight on a first viewing.

Again, this is a lot like the Matrix sequels, with the audience having to wait through an interminable opening half of MATRIX: RELOADED to actually get to the point. Unlike that series, however, the payoff in AT WORLD’S END is largely satisfying (if again overlong).

Hans+ZimmerAs for the music, Klaus Badelt was jettisoned for the architect of the Media Ventures/Remote Control conglomerate, Hans Zimmer. This move really only provided a marginal improvement for DEAD MAN’S CHEST. Zimmer does provide a new theme (which really seems adapted from Badelt’s music) for Jack Sparrow that bounces from a rather jaunty melody played by the cello to some “Generic Zimmer Waltz” music complete with his usual synthesizer.

His other major thematic contribution is a theme for Davy Jones, which begins and ends as a rather whimsical music box melody that morphs into something more and more tortured as befitting the character.

As for the rest, well, to be honest if really feels like more of the same to me. It’s not bad in the film at all, but it sounds more like a “Remote Control’s Greatest Hits” than anything terribly original.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to film three.

Whether it was because he had more post-production time or he suddenly became inspired by the entire series, Zimmer turned in a score for AT WORLDS END that is miles better than anything that had come before. In addition to building off of his material for DEAD MAN’S CHEST and Badelt’s ubiquitous “He’s a Pirate” theme, Zimmer cranks out two to three massive new themes that, the first time I watched the film, made me wonder where THAT had been all this time.

The first is the more action-oriented theme, which makes its first big appearance during a scene in which the crew finds themselves stranded in Davy Jones’ Locker, and they must flip over the boat to escape (just go with it). The entire scene itself is a lot of fun, and ends on an impressive visual of the ocean “draining” backwards much like the water rushing from a bathtub. Note: I’m also including the cue in isolation in case you don’t want to be spoiled by the actual scene.

The second is a new love theme for Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, which does considerable overtime, since the two actors seem to have almost no chemistry on screen. The theme is itself two parts, the first played for the more somber moments, including a wonderful rendition on the oboe:

The second part is the more dramatic of the two, and also at times represents the overall romanticism of pirate life. It’s first appearance is what truly made me sit up and pay attention to the music of the film the first time I saw it:

Another cue of note is for the climactic final confrontation with Cutler Beckett. Thinking he has fooled Jack Sparrow, Beckett sees the tide turn as the Flying Dutchman reappears only with someone other than Davy Jones in command. The music provides an emotional underscore to Beckett’s ultimate failure as his ship is literally destroyed all around him. As long as you can get over the “sailing ships don’t work like that!” it’s a wonderfully shot sequence that also provides Tom Hollander the opportunity to do something he does so well: play someone who is overly confident only to suddenly realize that he is completely out of his league. Again, both the scene and the cue in isolation are provided below.

Finally, I leave you with a sample from the ending of the film, which contains both the original “He’s a Pirate” theme and Zimmer’s new thematic material. If anything, it will help to emphasize how much better the new music is:

Final Thoughts

The original CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL film was a surprisingly entertaining film when I went to see it in the theater. The sequels, while they have their flaws, are also entertaining, at least for the majority of the time. At worst, I would say there’s a good film in there between the two, with an extra two hours of largely unnecessary, but not bad, material. This is what sets these films apart from the Matrix Trilogy, in my opinion, since those two sequels really only have a handful of scenes that are worth the viewer’s time. Here, you have three films that are highly entertaining, well made, and show Johnny Depp at a stage well before his schtick had become tiring. While it could be a challenge to make it through all three in one sitting (there’s nearly 8 hours of film here!), they would make for a fun weekend. Definitely recommended!

Opinion Battles Round 11 Which Film Should Never Have Had a Sequel?

I’m actually not from way out in left field on this one 🙂

Movie Reviews 101

Opinion Battles Round 11

Which Film Should Never Have Had a Sequel?

We as an audience can find ourselves sitting through endless sequels, prequels and remakes, some we enjoyed others we find ourselves wondering why they made another film in the first place at all. We are going to be looking at the films that should have remained stand-alone movies because the sequels have only ever eaten into the reputation of what was a great film.

If you want to join the next round of Opinion Battles we will be take on our Favourite Performance in a Horror Film, to enter email your choice to moviereviews101@yahoo.co.ukby 11th June 2017.

Darren – Movie Reviews 101

Independence Day

Independence Day is one of the best movies from the 90s and when a sequel was first announced I was thinking ‘No Way How What ERM’ then I saw the trailer and…

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Review: COMA (1978)

Medicine in the Movies Blogathon

oie_yqu5svckigzsThis post was written as part of the Medicine in Movies Blogathon, which is being hosted by Charlene over at Charlene’s (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews.

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 Film

Magnum, P.I., felled by a bum knee

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.

Susan Wheeler confronts Dr. George

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

Coma Ed Harris
Ed Harris, having a bad hair day

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.

Richard Widmark as Dr. Harris

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:

The Music

goldsmithOf 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.

“Jefferson Institute”

The Jefferson Institute Coma 1978
The cozy-looking Jefferson Institute

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).

Final Thoughts

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!