Susan Wheeler (Lauren Ambrose) walks around inside the Jefferson Institute… (Bob Mahoney, A&E )
The good news about "Coma," A&E's four-hour miniseries adaptation of the Michael Crichton film airing Monday and Tuesday night, is that it's much better than its previous miniseries adaptation of the Michael Crichton book "The Andromeda Strain."
The bad news? It's still not very good.
Or at least it's not as good as it should be, given a cast that includes Lauren Ambrose, Richard Dreyfuss, Geena Davis, James Woods and Ellen Burstyn; it's not even as good as the 1978 film, which, though facing a few of the same problems as this rendition, did not shy away from a subtext both hysterical and socially nuanced.
In that film, as in the book, shifting gender relations were as much a tonal context as the growing fear of technology. Protagonist and surgical resident Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold) fights to be heard not only as the first person to notice that there sure are a lot of folks lapsing into comas at Boston Memorial but also as a woman in both her personal and professional life.
This time around, screenwriter John J. McLaughlin ("Black Swan") and director Mikael Salomon ("Band of Brothers") choose hysteria over nuance. In facing the universal obstacle of remaking a thriller with a big, bad twist at the end, producers Ridley Scott and the late Tony Scott (who also produced A&E's "The Andromeda Strain") apparently decided that since everyone already knows the story of "Coma," McLaughlin could just dismiss the "Is something really happening?" portion of the story in favor of a relentless excavation of "How awful will it be when it's discovered?" and "Which members of the cast are in on it?"
Every shot, every plot device, every anxious swoop of score and burst of dialogue shoves us, with almost palpable impatience, toward the gruesome scenes of what is really up with all those coma patients. Even the props conspire to ensure that we understand that something Just Ain't Right at ol' Peachtree Memorial and its off-site coma care facility, the Jefferson Institute.
Indeed, the story opens with a YouTube-ish film clip by some off-grid investigators who broke into the institute and could not explain why there were no patients. A mash-up of the initial break-in scene from "28 Days Later" and the killer video of "The Ring," this alarmingly ham-fisted hook instantly dispels whatever tension there might still be in the remake.
Then, in case we are particularly slow on the uptake, the real action opens with an operation that ends not just with the patient going into a coma but with the surgeon subsequently tackling a passing orderly and demanding "when is this going to stop?" before going home to commit suicide.
It is at this point that we meet the new Susan Wheeler, played wide-eyed but feisty by Ambrose. If she had been given half a chance, Ambrose could have made a meal out of playing a young woman who goes from thinking her biggest problems as a brand new resident will be a) keeping her hands off the handsome, young Dr. Mark Bellows (Steven Pasquale) and b) living down that her grandfather practically built the hospital, to wondering if there isn't a huge and awful conspiracy sucking the life out of people all around her.
Unfortunately, she isn't given a chance.
If you can live through the ridiculous hustle-forward, no-looking introduction to the story, what follows is entertaining enough, albeit in a mildly campy way. "Coma" has its moments of power, but at twice as long as the original film, it feels only half as scary.