Coherence Dir. James Ward Byrkit

[Oscilloscope Laboratories; 2014]

Styles: sci-fi
Others: Resolution, Twilight Zone: The Movie, +1

Naturalism is a difficult thing to achieve in film. If, as Godard said, every cut is a lie, then it’s hard for a movie to overcome the very duplicitous nature of filmmaking. Everything is staged, whether by direction or editing, to produce the desired effect of a scene. For a film to feel real it has to lead audiences to suspend disbelief and inhabit the newly created world. This is even more elusive in genre films, where reality often involves invading alien forces, demonic beings, or other such otherworldly fare. James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence is especially noteworthy, then, for being a science fiction film that cultivates a sense of naturalism. It helps that it’s not a bombastic sci-fi action film but instead more of a character-based piece that centers around eight friends. By investing so much into these characters, and nurturing the sense that they are real people who know each other, it makes it so much easier to accept the quantum insanity that slowly unfolds throughout the film.

Eight people gather for a dinner party the same night a comet is passing very closely to Earth. The comet is having weird impact on people of earth, causing cell phones to lose coverage or suddenly shatter in people’s hands. But that is forgotten amidst idle chat and catching up until the power completely goes out in the neighborhood. The power eventually returns to the house in question, but all other houses are pitch black — except for one house a couple blocks down. Who is at this other house? Why do they have pictures of the main eight characters in a locked box on their porch? What intentions do they have for this humble dinner party?

Coherence feels like a successfully adapted episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s hard to discuss the film’s plot because of its slow reveals and slight twists, but it’s very easy to recommend it as a well-made genre movie that draws in viewers with its naturalistic performances that make the narrative turns that much more impactful. What may be either obvious or outlandish twists in a big Shyamalan movie work in Byrkit’s film because audiences believe these characters, relate to them, and understand their reactions. It’s unclear how much prep time the cast had to work with each other, but the impression is that this is a large collaboration between the eight actors and writer/director Byrkit, full of involved backstory that the audience will never know about but that informs every interaction between the cast. There’s riffing and ribbing as friends usually do, along with sore points that are avoided by most or barreled into by “that one friend.” The characters are recognizable and charming, which lets the various narrative tricks that are pulled land.

That realistic immersion is carried through to the cinematography, as a hand held camera captures the eight characters debating plans of action, or processing just how bad the situation is, all in the “found” lighting of the house. There isn’t a lot of over-produced sound design, just the characters speaking (usually speaking over each other). This is a bare-bones film that could have easily been done as a wretched found footage movie, but the director wisely eschewed that approach for careful blocking and interactions whose organic sense of movement belies a lot of rehearsal and trust between the cast.

There are, however, some less than believable aspects to the film that strain its overall credulity — one character very quickly moves into an “Us vs. Them” mentality that seems to exist for plot acceleration purposes only, and subplots about past romances seem more like distractions than natural progressions of these characters’ actions. But due to the increasing paranoia of the characters and the story’s mounting implication of doom and dread, these flat notes are quickly rushed past for better scenes.

Coherence is a film that is hard to discuss without ruining due to its surprisingly complicated story. However, the excellent work of the cast and crew make it a work that should be held up as a testament to how important it is to emphasize characterization over plot-driven mechanics. By making these eight people recognizable, fully fleshed characters, the audience empathizes with them and is immediately drawn in to their otherwise unbelievable story. In this current renaissance of indie sci-fi films, Coherence stands as a lesson to other filmmakers that focusing on characters can only enrich the story they set out to tell.

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