Review Companion: An analysis of Coherence’s characters and plot


This is not a review, not really. We posted our official review of Coherence yesterday, but it’s a review that says a lot about the film while also saying nothing. And it had to be that way, because any serious discussion of the plot will inevitably ruin the film’s central conceit, something that is best left as a surprise. You can still enjoy Coherence after it’s been spoiled, but I wouldn’t want to put something in that position just because they wanted to know if it’s worth watching.

(It is.)

And you should see it before some less considerate critic ruins it for you. Once you’ve done that, come back here and read the rest of this, or read it now if you don’t care about spoilers. But either way, I’m writing under the assumption that you have read (or at least skimmed) the full review. This will be focusing on different things. It is a companion after all, not a replacement.

It’s also the first time we’ve ever done something like this. So if you have any thoughts on this, please let me know.

And with that: SPOILER ALERT.

COHERENCE - Official Theatrical Trailer (HD)-Oscilloscope Laboratories

Director: James Ward Byrkit
Release Date: June 20th, 2014 (Theatrical) 

If you watched Community, you probably remember the episode “Remedial Chaos Theory,” where six different timelines are created based on a dice roll. It was a brilliant episode, and it showed the way a simple change of events can have a massive impact on the future. Some things don’t change much at all (Jeff will always hit his head on the fan), but other interactions may not happen at all depending on who gets the pizza.

(If you haven’t seen the episode, you can do so below. It won’t really teach you anything about parallel universes, but you’ll be glad you did.)

So why am I talking about Community? Because I wanted to point out a fundamental difference between that episode and what transpires in Coherence: Coherence‘s multiple timelines do not begin when Miller’s comet flies by. The universe doesn’t split up the way that the asteroid does (although that’s an interesting image), sending different characters down different paths. And you can know that by the change in mannerisms from version to version.

I loved Emily Baldoni’s performance as Em. As the only character who we see consistently from start to finish, she is the most important character in the film, not just because she’s the protagonist but because she is the reality that the audience clings to. While the world changes around her, we lose our bearings as well. But as we follow Em, we can never be completely lost. And because of that, she has a singularly difficult part to play. Where other actors can have radical shifts in motivation because they’re not actually the same people that they were before, her dynamism must feel natural.

When she attacks another version of herself, one that has the life she wishes she could lead, it kind of comes out of nowhere. She never presented herself as the kind of person who would do such a thing. But in that moment, I believed she would do it. She knew that there was no going back to her old life. She would go into the darkness again and again, but it would never be to her world and her Kevin. She wouldn’t even necessarily want her Kevin, whose relationship to Laurie is sketchy at best. She’d rather have the Kevin she sees in that last window. She’d rather be that Em.

And she does what she has to do to become that Em. Baldoni sells it, and it’s a brilliant bit of acting.

Emily Baldoni

But you have to give a lot of credit to the other actors, all of whom have to play other versions of themselves in one way or another. In most cases, the difference from one character to another is small; possibly even imperceptible. If it wasn’t for the fact that one of the alternate-Hugh’s had a phone with an unbroken screen, they may have never realized that he was a “visitor” in the first place. And that’s because he was simply himself.

But other versions of him weren’t quite so familiar. And that was true for everyone, but it was especially true for Kevin. And even if there was no visible transition because each Kevin was static in a different way, Maury Sterling’s performances are nonetheless impressive. It was clear immediately when he had changed, from the kindhearted one she meets in the darkness and ends up beside when the credits roll, or the one who clearly hadn’t gotten over Laurie and ended up letting her get into his head. His performance acted as the catalyst that justified the intensity of Emily Baldoni’s. Were Sterling a weaker performer, that act of sheer brutality wouldn’t have made so much sense. It hardly justifies what she did (she is still attempting kill another person, even if that person is sorta-kinda her), but it explains it. And sometimes, an explanation is all you can hope for.

Understanding is key. And while that’s a universal truth, it’s especially true in a film that’s as potentially confusing as Coherence. By the time it’s clear what’s going on, you’re already lost, and you don’t even know it. You think you get it: “Oh, weird! There are the red glowsticks and the blue ones. It’s a duality sort of thing, where each has a doppelganger.” But then there are green glowsticks and the random* numbers that don’t match up. And you realize that it’s much bigger than you imagined, that what initially appeared like two universes is three or, more likely, infinite. But by the time you realize that, you’re no longer sure who’s who. You don’t know if anybody is the same person you spent the first chunk of the film with, except for Em.

Maury Sterling

And in a lesser movie, that would be a serious problem. Because as we’ve established, the world didn’t simply split as the asteroid passed earth. Kevin’s varying motivations and the existence of a completely peaceful universe made that much clear. These characters ended up at the “same” dinner party, but there are an infinite number of universes where that didn’t happen. There are an infinite number of universes where none of these people ever met. But we don’t see those, because that’s not the impact that Miller’s comet had. It simply allowed a passageway from one dinner party to the next to the next. But that means you’re now following different people. They seem intimately familiar, but they aren’t the same people you connected with earlier. 

You probably didn’t even consider that at the time (I know I didn’t), but that goes back to just how tightly paced this (mostly improvised) script is. Even though the film gives itself moments to breathe, the audience has no time to really comprehend the implications of everything until it’s all over. And by the time you realize that you weren’t following the same characters, it didn’t matter. They were good enough approximations that they still felt fleshed out, and their motivations were usually still clear (and when they weren’t it seemed like an intentional choice rather than a mistake).

More Emily Baldoni, because apparently she's the only one in this movie

*One of Coherence‘s taglines“Nothing is random”doesn’t quite fit with the narrative. Nothing about about the story ever gives the impression that it’s following some preordained path. What glowsticks the characters chose and the numbers/objects they put in the box were all semi-random at least. And what house they ended up at after walking into the darkness definitely seemed random… Or at least without a clear purpose. And while that may not be the scientific definition of random, it’s a pretty good linguistic one.

But even though there’s no reason for Em to end up at one house versus another, Coherence doesn’t feel random, because the characters still move with purpose. Whether they’re lost in the void or dealing with the relationship drama within the house, they rarely let the story happen to them. They drive forward, even if they can’t actually see the road ahead of them.

And that’s Coherence‘s true brilliance. It isn’t the way that the film is subtle sci-fi or completely terrifying in its plausible unbelievability; it’s the way it takes those things and wraps them in an entirely human drama. These people are put in a horrifying situation, and they have to survive it. It’s impossible to know what the next day was like, when people in each of the infinite worlds realized that their families and friends may not be quite the same as they were before. But the final moments give just enough of a hint to make it all seem real, no matter how ridiculous it seemed.