Our lives are filled with endless possibilities – paths taken and not taken – and there are limitless ways our day might play out should we chose, or chose not to do something. But what if, somehow, we got to see how each of the decisions we make, however small they may be, can affect and set up the events to follow? Pretty bold concept but it’s one that up and coming writer/director James Ward Byrkit sets to show us on a very small stage. Granted it’s impossible to show every possibility but Byrkit, omitting the more mundane and trivial ones, makes Coherence a very intimate and at times rather paranoid social experiment.
Coherence is a highly effective small scale sci-fi picture that takes a dinner party and sets its characters against the backdrop of an astronomical anomaly. As a comet passes Earth’s orbit one night eight friends begin to notice that its presence starts a chain reaction of reality bending events. Part cerebral sci-fi and part relationship drama Byrkit’s film has a very matter-of-fact aspect to its story. He lets the narrative build and expand on its own without the confections or trappings of Hollywood storytelling. In fact, this could almost be set on a stage as the film as it is, more or less, a one room story (think Glengarry Glen Ross) but retains loads of intensity and mystery in its small setting.
Byrkit ‘s film bases all the events on science and takes time to explain how the subsequent events and tangible multiple universes are possible. It’s not didactic but it is wild and heady theoretic material. Byrkit manages to keep things accessible (which helps our own narrative coherence) and makes it slightly more so than Shane Carruth’s breakout film Primer. That said, we, just as the characters, are thrown into this somewhat dreamlike and at times nightmarish ride with confusion at every turn. But not everyone is lost and bewildered by the strange blackout caused by the presence of the comet.
Of the eight characters, one person knows, or more accurately has a theory about what’s going on and that right there raises pulses and suspicions among these old friends. It’s an obvious catalyst for exposition, one to help the characters (and audience) come to grips with what might be causing the weird events. It’s an adverse effect of the comet’s proximity but the explanation and the character’s odd knowledge of it comes across too heavy handed. It’s almost made to sound nefarious or like something that would be the result of a government experiment gone wrong. He doesn’t have all the answers and so everyone is made to wade the unknown narrative waters. Moreover, seeds of distrust are spread and everyone is just hoping to make it to the morning – when the comet has passed Earth completely.
Headlining the film is an ensemble of character actors including Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling and Nicholas Brendon. Sometimes with a so-called “unknown” cast like this you run the risk of losing the audience (read: indiscernible faces), other times it helps us get more immersed in the story because we don’t know who to follow. Coherence has no standout star therefore no hero which adds to the confusion and complexity of the mysterious plot.
Seemingly made on a shoe string budget, Coherence needs no effects to make the story work. But at times the low budget element to the production comes across like amateur filmmaking. At times there is just no mind paid to staging scenes and Byrkit’s film takes on a directionless style of shooting – almost as if they were making up shots as they went. By that token, as the characters don’t really know what’s going on, and confusion mounts, this kind of shooting makes sense. That said, as things become more hectic, shots struggle to keep focus and adopt a shaky cam style of shooting. That becomes a little jarring and pretty unnecessary as the story progresses.
This is not a Stanley Kubrick type film where things are implied and have dual or multiple purposes and meanings, no this is a straight up societal sci-fi tale. These kind of films are continually a delight, whether its the above mentioned Primer or Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes, or anything Brit Marling has a hand in these days. Either way we, like the characters, are whisked away on a thrilling, intellectual and, at times, horrifying adventure so fast that we’re struggling for air and wondering just how we got here.
For what he set out to do, and very nearly accomplished, Byrkit deserves applause. Not only is Coherence a solid film, one that builds slowly and continually adds to the heady house of cards, but it shows how a good concept can be executed with very minimal resources. Think back to one of best Twilight Zone episodes of all time: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street. Not that the plots are entirely similar but they share the elements of fear, paranoia, confusion and best of all it allows the audience to take the story and imagine more scenarios based on this template in their mind. Coherence is a smart and creepy mind-bender that gets the job done. Not that it will help explain anything but this is one film that merits an immediate second or third viewing for the pure enjoyment of the trip.