By Sam Inglis @24fpsUK

When we think of sci-fi in cinema we tend to think of spectacle; expensive tentpole movies that throw us into unfamilliar, often futuristic, worlds. There’s a place for that, but recently the American independent scene has been turning its attentions to small scale science fiction, often to great effect.

Coherence is set at a dinner party where eight friends are getting together for the first time in a while. A comet is passing over during the night, and it seems to be interfering with their phones. It soon emerges that the comet may be having a more profound effect on what’s going on, as the group find themselves thrown into a surreal predicament, believing that there are other versions of themselves and that parallel realities may be colliding thanks to the comet.

Made over five nights, on a budget of just $50,000 and with the dialogue largely improvised by the cast, Coherence has a down to earth feel. The first twenty minutes frustrated me as I was watching the film, but later you see the point of their rambling moment to moment nature. Improvisation can be a double edged sword, but here it gives the acting a loose naturalism that is felt in both the friendships and the tensions between the characters. The opening helps set the film’s talk of parallel universes and multiple versions of people in a world that we recognise and among people that we can relate to and see both in ourselves and our own groups of friends, making it less of a stretch when things begin to get strange.

The only place that the film’s budget and time limitations are sometimes felt is in the camerawork. I understand that handheld camera is a good way to facilitate a quick shoot, but sometimes the camerawork in Coherence can be overly shaky, and for me shakycam can create an awareness of the camerawork that is less immersive than the style aspires to be. It’s not a big problem here, but a smoother style, especially in the first act, might have helped me settle into the film faster.

The cast are largely lesser known, and all turn in good work. Nicholas Brendon, the most familiar face in the cast, is more downbeat than I’ve seen him before, clearly drawing on both his professional and his personal life for some of the details of his character, Mike. With Brendon’s performance and the others what tends to be most impressive about the acting is how little of it feels like acting. While the characters are well defined and there are plot points that serve to give them moments to bounce off each other (especially between the triangle of Em, Kevin and Laurie) the acting feels observed rather than performed, again, all the better to ground an outlandish story.

Though largely confined to a single room, the film’s action expands in intriguing ways throughout, as the friends realise that the people they initially believe are playing a prank on them are in fact alternate versions of themselves, all of whom are living the same moment, though at different stages of understanding it.

With this story, and increasingly as the film goes on, subtle shifts in personalities and action take on great significance, allowing the film to prick at philosophical questions of who we are, and what the question even means. This is especially true in retrospect, as the ending prompted, at least for me, all kinds of questions about whether this was the first time that this evening had happened, whether to this group or to other people. This also ties up with the beginning of the film, in which Em (Emily Foxler) talks about comets and ends up laying out much of what will happen in the next 80 minutes. Given the ending it has to be open to question whether that knowledge has come to her entirely through research or is augmented by previous experience. This and many other questions will need a second watch to begin to answer.

Coherence won’t be for everyone. It’s a film that wants you to engage your brain and to consider the questions it throws up both during the film and after it has finished. It’s a shame that mainstream sci-fi rarely get this philosophical anymore, but it’s a great achievement on the part of James Ward Byrkit to be able to do so while making the ideas easy to access and not allowing them to dominate the film to the exclusion of engaging with the characters and their relationships. It’s difficult for me to review the film in as much depth as I’d like, because it’s one that should be seen with as little prior knowledge as possible, so that you have a few pre-concieved notions as possible about what the answers are to its questions. What is for certain is that Coherence is proof that you don’t need a big budget and a wisecracking racoon to make engaging sci-fi.

Coherence is on general release from Friday 13th February.

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