No-budget films are a special breed in themselves, but no-budget science fiction movies are something else entirely. Primer is perhaps the most prominent example in recent memory, famous in certain movie geek circles for how it examined complex ideas without any distracting frills. Of course, Primer also fell into the trap of being so caught up in its own ideas that it utterly failed to tell a coherent story. Sorry, I know the movie has its fans, but I maintain that anyone who claims to know exactly what happened in Primer is either a genius or a liar.
Similarly, Coherence has a labyrinthine plot that deals with many confusing quasi-scientific topics and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The difference, however, is that the characters of Primer were geniuses playing some bizarre variant of three-dimensional chess without stopping to bring the audience up to speed. In Coherence, however, the characters’ confusion is the entire point, and the plot unfolds in a nicely satisfying way.
The story focuses on a group of eight friends who picked the absolute worst night possible to meet for a party. The evening begins with a comet passing overhead, prompting quantum physics to go bananas. I’m loathe to discuss the comet’s effects in much detail, since the whole movie is about the characters trying to figure out what’s happening and very few answers are explicitly made. Even when the characters think they know what’s going on, they’re really only guessing.
As far as I can tell, it’s like the house has become its own self-contained pocket universe. This naturally means that all lines of communication with the outside world have gone down — some smartphones even crack spontaneously. What’s even weirder is that several different versions of this pocket universe now exist. This means that there are now several different copies of the exact same characters who proceed from the exact same starting point. They naturally go in different directions, thus we’re dealing with parallel tangent universes.
Incidentally, the irony of a convoluted plot with the title of “Coherence” isn’t lost on me. However, a simple Google search will show that “coherence” is a word with many meanings throughout linguistics, physics, mathematics, music theory, etc. In this case, the title primarily refers to quantum decoherence. What does that mean? You look it up. I’m sorry, but I can’t for the life of me understand it. I can only go by the explanation that the film provides, which uses the famous “Schrodinger’s Cat” thought experiment as a reference. The idea is that you start with one reality in which one cat is both alive and dead, then decoherence breaks it down into two realities — one in which the cat is alive, and another in which the same cat is dead.
…I think. Does anyone out there know enough about quantum physics to help clear this up?
Time travel, parallel universes, and other quantum physics matters are examined, but the film also uses its premise to deal with a myriad selection of more relateable themes. Fate, individuality, chance, atonement for past sins, and humanity’s tiny place in the grand scheme of things are all explored. Oh, and it’s a story about a group of people stuck in a confined and isolated space, so we can throw in all the standard themes of paranoia, groupthink, and our growing reliance on technology.
Unfortunately, the characters in this film turn out to be problematic. Eight characters proves to be too much for this film to juggle, because the movie seems to have great difficulty in keeping track of which ones are where, much less properly developing them all. Then again, it doesn’t help that the characters spend so much time bickering with each other for absolutely no reason. Things are going crazy, sure, but it’s hard for me to stay patient with characters who seem horribly concerned for their lives even though there’s no reason to believe that they’re in any danger. The only reason there’s any plot at all is because so few people in this movie have the intelligence or the patience to just stay in the goddamn house until the comet passes.
A lot of these script problems may stem from the fact that the film was made without a script. Writer/director James Ward Byrkit had a plot synopsis and some actual historical anecdotes about comets, and the film is at its best when it focuses on those moments. I really want to stress that the labyrinthine plot works superbly well in how it’s set up and paid off. Unfortunately, most of the film — especially that front half, when the filmmakers are still establishing everything — take place in between those twists. So we’re stuck watching undercooked characters fight with each other for no reason and have fun times in ways that don’t advance the plot.
And to repeat, the script was almost completely made up on the spot. Moments of genuine surprise can do wonders for shocking plot twists, but improvised arguments and dinner conversation don’t exactly make for good cinema. Especially when the characters have so little to make them noteworthy.
I wish I could discuss Coherence further, but there’s so much great stuff to discover. The film is loaded with wonderful surprises and very intelligent ruminations that are discussed in wickedly creative ways. It’s just a shame that we have to get through so much dull crap to get to it. If Byrkit had bothered to write a script, or maybe if he had access to a more talented cast, this could have been a slam dunk. Even so, the film’s multiverse is so much more interesting than the characters inside of it that I can gladly offer a recommendation.
I’m just saying, for a debut filmmaker tackling such heady and complicated material with close to zero resources? Not bad at all.