Coherence is part of a genre that will be heretofore referred to as “subtle sci-fi.” Mention sci-fi to anyone and they’ll think of Star Wars or Star Trek first. And they’ll think of those films because that’s what we’ve been bred to believe sci-fi is. These are worlds unlike our own, whether they’re far in the future or a way in the past. They may feature people who look like us, but their characters don’t really live like us. They’re surrounded by robots and aliens and guns that shoot lasers. They’re the things we imagine our technology will be capable of.
What people won’t think of is Coherence, even though it’s firmly entrenched in that genre. They won’t think about it because the world of Coherence is the same one I am writing in and the same one you are reading in. There’s no special technology, nothing that distinguishes their world from ours. Everything feels real not just on a dramatic level but on a visceral level. You believe that these people are in this position, and you wonder if maybe—just maybe—it could happen to you.
Director: James Ward Byrkit
Release Date: June 20th, 2014 (Theatrical)
Quantum mechanics is something a lot people have heard of but few can really grasp. And there’s a reason for that: It makes no sense. The rules of the subatomic world are even more foreign than those in the most ridiculous sci-fi universe. There’s a saying often attributed to the late, great Richard Feynman: “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” And it’s true; I’ve had numerous people try to break down its concepts, and most of the time they’re dead wrong.
But the fact is that quantum mechanics is real, and these truly bizarre things are too. It doesn’t affect us in any obvious way, which is why it’s so hard to conceptualize, but it play a massive role in our society. I mean, if it wasn’t for quantum mechanics, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. Transistors, the foundation of computer processing, are made possible by quantum mechanical breakthroughs.
“But Alec,” you may be wondering. “Aren’t you writing a film review? Shut your face with your science lesson nonsense.” And I would counter, “If you just went out and saw the freaking thing, you’d understand.”
“Well, then convince me to see it, Mr. Critic.”
Well alright then:
Go see it. It’s brilliant.
Good enough for you? No? Fine…
Whatever the scientific concepts are that play out at the heart of Coherence, it’s not about science. It’s about people put into an extremely disturbing situation who have to react to it. There’s a rule of screenwriting that says you can’t make a powerful narrative out of people reacting to a situation. The best stories are ones where characters drive the plot forward. Coherence walks an extremely fine line, but it always stays right on track. Even though they are undoubtedly reacting to the world around them, they still take charge. They make decisions. Sometimes they’re smart, something they’re stupid; but what’s odd is that you never really know which is which.
And that fits in with this idea of the quantum mechanical unknown. What Coherence does is take a concept from quantum mechanics (coherence, duh, though trying to read up on it won’t tell you anything about this movie) and then applies its concepts to the real lives of these characters who are just trying to have a pleasant dinner party. While the macro world doesn’t actually work the way the film imagines it can, it nonetheless seems uncomfortably plausible. As the lines between dramatic fact and science fiction blurred, my hairs began to stand on end. Because even though Coherence isn’t billed as a horror movie, it wouldn’t be an inaccurate description. Right from the beginning, there’s a sense that something is wrong, and, of course, there is. And it’s not just about the weird world of quantum mechanics. The off-kilter events take an already skewed world and flip it entirely on its head.
What you think is happening, what you think could be happening, and what actually is happening are all three radically different things. You’re always kept on your toes, and writer/director James Ward Byrkit’s script deserves all of the praise it’s gotten (which is a lot).
But without powerful performances to back it up, that all would have meant nothing. The best writing can’t save a bad performance. Fortunately, everyone involved does an excellent job. Although it does have a lead character, it’s nonetheless an ensemble piece. There are only eight characters, several of whom are in almost every scene, and they pull off some deceptively hard material with aplomb. Still, special recognition must be given to lead actress Emily Baldoni’s part is both simpler and harder than everyone else’s, as Coherence begins and ends with her and rarely leaves her side. Everyone’s world is shattered, but we’re seeing it break through her eyes.
Coherence shows just how much a narrative can do with a single location. It’s a house and the streets immediately surrounding it. But while you’re watching it, you don’t even realize that the characters never really leave. They may go off for a moment, but they always return. Even so, the setting never feels static, because the characters within it are so dynamic. This is low-budget filmmaking at its finest. The limitations don’t feel like limitations at all. In fact, they allow for the narrative to expand in a way that a higher budget film wouldn’t.
You may notice that I’ve gone on for 900 words without ever talking about what exactly Coherence is. And that’s because doing so would require me to spoil the story’s fundamental twist. Usually I’m alright with a few spoilers, but not here. The story deserves to be experienced as a blank slate (or as close as possible). And when you’ve seen it, if you’re wondering about all of those things I didn’t get to say that I wanted so badly to say, then check back soon. In the coming days, I will be posting a companion piece that will spoil the hell out of the film and let me discuss in depth why the subtlety in this sci-fi film is so incredibly effective.
Because the story deserves that too.