Although he’s known primarily as the writer of cutting edge novels like the “Jurassic Park” series, “Congo”, and “The Terminal Man” (among many, many other titles), Michael Crichton was also a director, with his most high-profile decade coming in the ’80s on films like “Looker”, “Runaway” and “Physical Evidence”. One of his earlier films was 1978’s hospital thriller “Coma”, which, ironically enough, is an adaptation of a novel not written by him, but instead an adaptation of a Robin Cook book.
The hero of “Coma” is actress Genevieve Bujold, who plays a spunky young MD name Susan Wheeler at a Boston area hospital who discovers that sinister shenanigans are taking place right under her nose. Unfortunately for her, the conspiracy goes right to the very top, which makes her investigation into the situation problematic, not to mention dangerous to her health. Michael Douglas plays Bujold’s boyfriend, a fellow doctor and friendly ear, if not necessarily a very helpful one. Richard Widmark and Rip Torn play the heavies, who stand in the way of our resourceful heroine’s quest for justice after her best friend becomes a victim of the conspiracy.
Before he became a writer and director, Michael Crichton was a doctor. Yes, the guy was really, really smart (and would also go on to create the TV show “ER”). This also explains why “Coma’s” hospital scenes are convincing, even if Crichton doesn’t necessarily have all the emotional moments between the characters down. “Coma” works as a somewhat cold thriller (it is mostly set in the sterile environment of a hospital, after all, so I guess that’s appropriate), with some great suspenseful scenes and a pervading sense of paranoia throughout. If you were already a big fan of avoiding hospitals unless as a last resort, “Coma” might convince you to avoid hospitals entirely.
Released for the first time on Blu-ray, “Coma” offers up a good, but not great transfer. This is a 1978 film, after all, so I guess I shouldn’t be too shocked. There isn’t much in the way of bonuses or extras, so it’s basically the movie and its Blu-ray transfer or bust. Well, there is an original theatrical trailer…
Ken Russell’s trippy 1980 sci-fi flick “Altered States” features the big-screen debut of William Hurt, who would go on to do many more wonderful things in his career, still going strong to this day, as well as that of a young Drew Barrymore, two years before “E.T.”. The film also boasts a script by noted playwright Paddy Chayefsky, who adapted from his own novel, the only novel (and as it turns out, the only script) he would ever write, as he passed away a year later. Despite being a product of the ’80s, a time usually known for bad special effects, “Altered States” features some pretty nifty visual effects that still looks good to this day.
An excellent and charming Hurt stars as Eddie Jessup, a Harvard professor who experiments with sensory deprivation with the help of a flotation tank and, uh, chemical assistance that does groovy things to his mind. What begins as a curious need to explore his various states of consciousness and human memory gradually turns into something more, as Eddie begins to experience actual physical transformations during his sessions. Pretty soon, his hold on his humanity becomes tenuous, with Eddie starting to go through transformations even without outside assistance. The threat of devolution, as it turns out, is not so groovy. I mean, who wants to revert back to a hairy ape, am I right?
“Altered States” is a tad too talky in the beginning, but picks up once Eddie starts taking more swims in his flotation tank. The film is directed by Englishman Ken Russell, who has always had something of an obsession with the Church and religion, and those themes show up regularly here. “Altered States” benefits from Russell’s eye for visuals, as well as great music by John Corigliano, along with a trippy flavor that’s helped it develop a cult following since its release. This, despite writer Paddy Chayefsky asking to have his name removed from the film, he was so displeased with the results. “Altered States” certainly takes its subject matter with the utmost seriousness, which, I think actually helps to convince you it’s not nearly as corny as you might think it is. I mean, really? Balls of energy, guys?
The “Altered States” Blu-ray arrives with an original theatrical trailer, but is otherwise devoid of bonus features. This is another one of those “buy it for the Blu-ray format or don’t buy it” releases. It helps that the transfer is outstanding, with colors that really pop, which is a good thing given Russell’s color schemes throughout the movie. Plus, the sound is excellent, so that’s a plus, too.
“Brainstorm” is another big-idea movie from the ’80s, starring the always kooky Christopher Walken (back when he was known more for being an actor with a slight kooky side and less for being, well, mostly just kooky) and Natalie Wood, starring in her final film. Directed by veteran visual effects man Douglas Trumbull (“2001”), “Brainstorm” must have seemed state-of-the-art back in 1983, though kids nowadays might giggle at the huge computer hardware showcased in the film. Advances in technology aside, the movie features some innovative ideas that while it doesn’t fully exploit to their fullest, should get some credit for giving it the ol college try.
Walken stars as Michael Brace, a scientist whose team is developing a new high-tech (well, back then, anyway) contraption that can record a person’s experience to tape. (I can hear the kids now: “Tape? What’s that?” Well, kids, tapes were CDs, before there were CDs.) But while Brace, his wife Karen (Natalie Wood), and their team have humanitarian aims for the device, their corporate backer (and his backers) have other ideas. It’s not long before the military enters the picture, and if you’ve seen any ’80s movies involving the military and scientific inventions, you pretty much know that nothing good can come of this. (Honestly, military villains out to exploit an invention for evil purposes is as generic back then as Middle Eastern terrorists are in today’s Hollywood.)
The first thing you’ll probably notice about “Brainstorm” is the presence of all those bulky, heavy-on-blinking lights computer hardware that stacks the film from end to end in seemingly every scene. I know it’s incredibly unfair to judge a movie even a little purely on this basis, but it’s impossible not to notice. Fortunately, the film has a number of other things going for it, not least of which is Walken’s performance, along with the simply heartbreaking presence of Natalie Wood, who was, yes, so beautiful. Cliff Robertson as the corporate CEO is fantastic, as is Louise Fletcher as Brace’s totally stressed out colleague. And despite its outdated look, you can’t go wrong with a funky, neon-glow bike. The film gets pretty “out there” towards the end, though, and really reminded me of “Altered States” (reviewed above).
The Blu-ray transfer is decent, but I wasn’t blown away by it. For some reason, the film isn’t presented in full widescreen except when you’re seeing things from the POV of someone wearing the device. These scenes are actually very crisp and seems to have benefited the most from the Blu-ray transfer. Unfortunately we’re reminded of this difference everytime the film exits the “recordings”. I have absolutely no idea why this is, but it’s a bit, well, disturbing. (You can actually see the lack of widescreen in the clip above.) So yeah, this is another “buy it for the Blu-ray or don’t buy it” release, with no special features save for a theatrical trailer to be found on the disc.