After all, the coma is a blunt but effective dramatic device, one which forces the rest of the characters (and sometimes, as in "If I Stay," the coma patient herself) to decide what's really important in their lives. The coma's suspension between life and lifelessness also makes it a useful tool for horror filmmakers.
And yet, there really aren't that many films that make good use of the coma. Maybe filmmakers think it's a cliché, or too melodramatic. But that means that the films that do make effective use of comas are that much more memorable. Here are 14 of them, most of them guaranteed to make you cry or to scare you out of your wits.
Gallery | 14 Memorable Coma Movies
- 'The Cell' (2000)
Jennifer Lopez is a shrink who uses a virtual reality device to enter the minds of comatose patients and coax them into waking up. When serial killer Vincent D'Onofrio falls into a coma before he can reveal the whereabouts of his last victim, Dr. J. Lo must enter his twisted psyche in order to rescue the trapped young woman. Director Tarsem Singh, at the time best known for shooting R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" video, makes D'Onofrio's nightmare world look like a music video, one with terrific art direction and costumes but with little order and zero moral sense.
- 'Coma' (1978)
In this adaptation of Robin Cook's horror bestseller, Genevieve Bujold is a doctor whose own life is in danger when she discovers that her hospital is inducing comas in seemingly healthy patients in order to harvest their organs. It's a movie that's certain to creep out everyone who's ever been afraid of surgery. (Which is everyone, right?) Look for a pre-fame Tom Selleck as one of the unfortunate patients.
- 'The Dead Zone' (1983)
David Cronenberg's chilling adaptation of the Stephen King novel finds Christopher Walken as the unfortunate Johnny Smith, a schoolteacher rendered comatose in a car accident. He loses several years of his life, several pounds ("It's called the coma diet," he quips later. "Lose weight while you sleep."), the ability to walk, and his fiancée (Brooke Adams), who marries another man and bears his child. But he does gain something: a clairvoyant power that makes him see horrific visions of the lives (past, present, or future) of anyone he touches. (The visions are never of happy experiences; no visits to the beach or playtime with kittens.) Walken appears effectively haunted and tormented in what has become one of his signature performances.
- 'The Descendants' (2011)
When an accident sends his wife into an irreversible coma, Hawaiian lawyer George Clooney's priorities come into sharp focus. He repairs his strained relationship with his two daughters, and he comes to a fateful decision about the tract of unspoiled land owned by his extended family (he's the trustee who must decide between competing developers eager to buy the land for a fortune that will make all of Clooney's relatives rich). He also must sort through his feelings toward his dying wife, as he discovers that she'd been having an affair. Given the glum scenario, you might expect the movie to be a tough slog to watch, but director Alexander Payne makes sure that it's full of unexpected warmth and humor. The usually take-charge Clooney makes a surprisingly good befuddled dad, and Shailene Woodley is excellent in her big-screen breakthrough role as the exasperated elder daughter.
- 'Fantastic Voyage' (1966)
A scientist's coma is the pretext for this classic sci-fi spectacle about a miniaturized medical team, shrunk to microscopic size in a race against time to enter the scientist's body and repair his potentially lethal blood clot from the inside. There's a lot of Cold War intrigue and a subplot about a saboteur among the team members, but the movie is fondly remembered for its striking visuals inside the human body. Oh, and for being an early showcase for Raquel Welch, as one of the team members.
- 'Hard to Kill' (1990)
Steven Seagal had an early, career-defining hit with this tale of a cop who uncovers a police corruption scandal, only to have the corrupt cops invade his home, kill his wife, and leave him comatose for seven years. When he wakes up, he's bent on revenge against the killers, who don't know yet that he's not dead. Fortunately, he has a beautiful nurse (Kelly LeBrock) to help him get back into fighting shape. Once he's back, bones get cracked, necks get snapped, and wisecracks get dropped like lead balloons. Like its hero, the movie is blunt, brutal, and gets the job done.
- 'Insidious' (2011)
The popular horror franchise launched with this film in which Patrick Wilson and his young son both fall into apparent comas; actually, their souls have left their bodies for a purgatory called The Further, where they face off against demons and tormented spirits. Meanwhile, their bodies become empty vessels, ripe for possession by those same malevolent souls. One possessive spirit in particular, that of a murderous old woman, gets a backstory in the second film; a third chapter is due next year.
- 'Just Like Heaven' (2005)
Landscape architect Mark Ruffalo moves into an apartment haunted by grouchy doctor Reese Witherspoon, who doesn't realize she's a spirit. The two fall in love, only to discover that Witherspoon isn't actually dead but in a coma after a car accident. Reuniting her spirit with her body proves tricky, especially since the body is about to be taken off life support. Finally restored to her body by true love's kiss, sleeping beauty Witherspoon awakens but has no memory of her prince. Thanks to the coma twist, this is a very odd movie, one that evolves from a romantic comedy into a tearjerking medical drama.
- 'Kill Bill: Vol. 1' (2003)
Attacked on her wedding day by her old colleagues, assassin Uma Thurman falls into a coma for four years. When she's awakened by a mosquito bite, the fetus she's carrying is long gone, and she discovers that a hospital orderly (Michael Bowen) has been pimping out her comatose body to necrophiliac johns. At that moment, Quentin Tarantino's heroine embarks on an epic, two-film journey of revenge, starting with the orderly and his latest client and continuing throughout the roster of her old Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, to end at last with Bill (David Carradine), the team leader and father of her child. Unlike other vengeance-minded coma patients on this list, Thurman's Bride feels remorse, knowing that her bloodshed will only result in further violence and heartbreak. That doesn't stop her, though, from picking up her samurai sword and lopping off limbs of anyone who gets in her way.
- 'Reversal of Fortune' (1990)
In "Sunset Boulevard"-like fashion, this real-life legal drama of Claus von Bulow (Jeremy Irons) and his heiress wife Sunny (Glenn Close) -- whom he's accused of trying to kill -- is narrated by Sunny from the hospital bed where she lies in an irreversible coma. (At the time of filming, the real-life Sunny had been in her coma for 10 years; she lingered on for another 18.) Based on the book by Claus's appeal lawyer, Alan Dershowitz (played here by Ron Silver), the film is less interested in whether or not Claus did it than in whether defending him on constitutional principles actually served the cause of justice. In the hands of director Barbet Schroeder and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, the story of the von Bulow's miserable marriage becomes a dark comedy of manners that suggests that the truly rich really are different from you and me. Irons won an Oscar for playing the enigmatic Claus, but Close is just as good. Her Sunny is depressed and bitter when she's awake, but when she's comatose, her wickedly witty narration makes her come to life.
- 'Talk to Her' (2002)
In Pedro Almodovar's provocative drama, journalist Marco (Dario Grandinetti) and nurse Benigno (Javier Cámara) become friends while each man is caring for a comatose woman. Marco is tending to his girlfriend Lydia, a matador who fell into a coma when a bull gored her, while Benigno is ministering to Alicia, a dancer he barely knew but was obsessed with, who was hit by a car. Benigno talks to Alicia, watches movies with her, and treats her as if she were conscious, hoping that she'll respond to his ardent tenderness and awaken, and he urges Marco to do the same with Lydia. It turns out that Benigno has taken his obsession with Alicia too far, but Almodovar is less interested in developing that shocking plotline than he is in exploring the mysteries of life and death, love and friendship, and remarkable women and the men who try to follow them on their journeys.
- 'Unknown' (2011)
In Berlin with his wife for a conference, Liam Neeson gets into a car wreck that leaves him comatose for a few days. He awakens, only to find that his wife (January Jones) claims not to know him and that another man has assumed his identity. Eventually, of course, he pieces together the mystery and finally recalls that he is Liam Neeson, lethal badass and scourge of Eurotrash thugs. The film borrows a lot from earlier thrillers, most notably, Roman Polanski's "Frantic" and Neeson's own "Taken," but the coma twist is novel, and it's always satisfying to watch Nesson take down bad guys.
- 'The Verdict' (1982)
A young woman falls into an irreversible coma as the result of medical malpractice at a Catholic hospital in Boston. Paul Newman (in one of his greatest performances) is the alcoholic, down-on-his-luck, ambulance-chasing lawyer who sees the case as his shot at redemption. Instead of agreeing to a quick settlement, he boldly (and foolishly) decides to take the case to trial, taking on not just the medical establishment but the Church itself, whose Harvard-professor lawyer (James Mason) has unlimited resources and an a ruthless willingness to use every trick in the book (and some that are not) to defeat Newman. Still, for all his self-serving bravado, Newman's heart is in the right place, transformed by a visit to the unconscious young woman in the coma ward. (There's a great exchange in the movie when the impatient judge asks what it will take for Newman and his client to walk away from a trial, and Newman replies, "My client can't walk.") Newman knows justice is impossible in this case, but at least he's learned to care enough to try to do the right thing.
- 'While You Were Sleeping' (1995)
It's hard to get comedy out of a coma, but this sweet, low-key Sandra Bullock movie manages to do so. She's a lovelorn token-booth clerk on the Chicago El with an unrequited crush on commuter Peter Gallagher. One day, she saves him from an oncoming train, but he loses consciousness. At the hospital, the staffers and Gallagher's own family are mistakenly led to believe she's his new fiancée, and she does nothing to correct the error because she falls in love with the whole boisterous, affectionate family. (She becomes especially fond of Gallagher's brother, the initially suspicious Bill Pullman.) Comic complications ensue when Gallagher awakens with no memory of Bullock and is persuaded he must have amnesia. Everything turns out all right in the end, thanks largely to Bullock's ability to charm and dither her way out of any jam, and thanks to the movie's willingness not to treat the coma as anything more serious than a device to force all the characters to reevaluate what -- and who -- is truly important in their lives.