Even routine surgery can turn people into frazzled basket cases, so when Robin Cook’s 1977 bestseller “Coma” debuted, patient concerns must have skyrocketed. Fasting and emergency contact forms? Mere nuisances compared with the worst-case scenario of a doctor intentionally transforming healthy people into brain-dead ciphers.
The thriller, which Michael Crichton turned into a 1978 film starring Michael Douglas and Genevieve Bujold, goes under the knife again, arriving Monday in the form of a two-night, four-hour miniseries on A&E. The event marks the reunion of the team behind the network’s 2008 adaptation of Crichton’s “Andromeda Strain,” including producer-brothers Ridley and Tony Scott (who died Aug. 19) and director Mikael Salomon.
With that list of collaborators — all capable at the art of building tension with movies such as “Alien” and “Spy Game” to their credit— it’s no surprise the miniseries excels when it falls into nail-biting territory. The story isn’t earth-shattering, and the filmmaking isn’t especially imaginative, but the production is a solid piece of suspense.
The story follows Susan Wheeler (played by Lauren Ambrose), a medical resident at Atlanta’s Memorial Hospital. We first meet Susan, an avid swimmer, after a poolside mishap lands her on the receiving end of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation from her attractive adviser, Mark Bellows (Steven Pasquale). Thankfully, Susan quickly proves she’s more than a damsel in distress. The aspiring surgeon takes interest in a troubling trend at the hospital: It appears that young, robust patients undergoing relatively minor procedures — ranging from cyst removal to knee surgery — have ended up comatose. Afterward, they’re shipped off to an enigmatic citadel, the Jefferson Institute, to live out their days.
Susan’s newfound pastimes of hacking into patient files and asking anesthesiologists pointed questions, even crawling through the hospital’s air ducts, don’t win her many friends. Instead, she finds herself with an apartment filled with hidden cameras, a shrinking list of allies and a creepy stalker with a penchant for making bizarre dolls out of paper.
It’s immediately clear that some human intervention is to blame for the unexplained comas, and the miniseries succeeds at keeping the audience guessing. It’s difficult to discern who among the star-studded cast is responsible for the medical mysteries. It could be Susan’s new adviser (who is also, predictably, her love interest) or head of psychiatry Dr. Lindquist (Geena Davis). It might be chief of staff Dr. Starck (James Woods) or Professor Hillside (Richard Dreyfuss). One thing is certain: There is something up with the woman who runs operations at the Jefferson Institute. Mrs. Emerson is played with a sinister smile and a slight limp by Ellen Burstyn. Once she appears, it seems clear why the setting shifted from Boston, the original location, to Atlanta: Evil is that much scarier when it lurks behind good manners and a sweet, Southern drawl.
The movie kicks up the action during the second installment, and Salomon is clearly in his element. As a cinematographer and director of photography for such movies as “The Abyss” and “Backdraft” before moving on to directing, he knows how to construct a climactic scene. Dim lighting and tight camera shots create a moody intensity. And when things get a little strange — one mentally unstable character hallucinates spontaneously growing trees while another struggles with the effects of some serious narcotics — he rises to the challenge, replicating the dreamy visions.
The story tiptoes into sci-fi territory once Susan finds herself inside the factory-like interior of the Jefferson Institute, where patients are dressed in silver suits and suspended from the ceilings.
But in the end, this is mostly a straightforward, if well-made, thriller with a dependable cast. There’s nothing out of the ordinary — no alien invasions or even commentary about the health-care industry. It’s simply a well-reasoned, four-hour argument for why surgery should be avoided at all costs.
Four hours; premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on A&E.