One of the better things that the “leveling” of better technology has given us is more accessibility to it, and sometimes we see that in movies in a really good way because we have gotten some truly quality independent and lower-budget films in the the last decade or two. I want to say that horror is the genre that takes this and runs with it more than any other (well, okay, maybe porn) but sci-fi isn’t too far behind. The best example I’ve probably seen is Primer, a time-travel flick that is so confusing as it is enthralling that it begs to be watched again. And while Coherence, the 2013 film by James Ward Byrkit, doesn’t pass Primer, it can definitely be added to the list of low-budget science fiction films done very well.
The premise is that a group of friends get together for a dinner party on the night a comet is passing by the Earth, a premise that isn’t very new–we saw the “dinner party gone very wrong” in The Invitation and there are a number of classic and not-so-classic sci-fi films (Night of the Comet, Maximum Overdrive) where a celestial body’s presence near Earth messes things up considerably. But it’s a good “in” because it puts us in enough familiar territory to get settled quickly, especially since with the exception of a few scenes shot on the street, the entire film takes place in one house.
While it’s an ensemble with eight primary cast members (including Highlander‘s Elizabeth Gracen), the film mostly focuses on Em (Emily Baldoni), who is at sort of a crossroads because her boyfriend Kevin has asked her to come with him on a business trip to Vietnam. She’s not sure she wants to and the situation is complicated because with the group is Kevin’s ex-girlfriend Laurie, who wants him back. It’s enough of a setup to help explain what motivates Em in the film’s final act, and is presented in a pretty casual way, as we eavesdrop our way through the party before things start to get weird.
What’s the weirdness? Well, there’s a power outage, they notice that another house has its lights on, two of the guys leave to scope things out, and when they get back one of them is hurt. Plus, they’ve found a broken glass and a ping pong paddle, a set of numbers, and pictures of themselves that include one that was taken that night. It soon becomes clear that the passing of the comet has created some sort of intersection of realities and during the course of the night, they struggle to figure out who is who and from which realities as well as whether or not they can all trust one another.
That’s a really oversimplification of a story that is more complex, but I really enjoyed this film. I love a good alternate reality/intersecting realities story and I especially love when things get so crazy complicated that you start to lose track of who is who and you’re wondering if even you have it right. And whereas there are other movies that are so oblique that they seem to be designed to make the audience feel stupid, Coherence isn’t out to get you like that. The director trusts his audience’s intelligence; plus, he doesn’t signal a hero or villain from the jump and instead lets us be another houseguest at this party until the tension begins.
I wound up watching this on the streaming service Kanopy, which I can access through my local library. I highly recommend checking that out as well, as they have a lot of independent and foreign films as well as plenty of documentaries to choose from. Coherence is a tight and memorable hour and a half.
Watch or Skip?