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Coherence (2013)
Director: James Ward Byrkit

review by Andrew Darlington
Spoiler alert!
The good news is that, yes, they still make the intelligent small-scale anti-blockbuster. Coherence is a chamber-piece movie made up of claustrophobic interiors, totally reliant on the interaction of characters to drive the plot tension. It's a 'living eight-person creature' with zero effects, stripped to a single-set production that would work on the theatre stage as convincingly as it works on-screen. The good news is that it grips like a Philip K. Dick brainteaser, a conundrum that plays with definitions of reality and never lets up. "Are you good?" Emily asks Kevin. "Yeah," he answers, uncertainly. Then the screen of her mobile phone cracks and it goes dead.

The film starts off with the simplest premise. There's a close fly-by comet visible in the night sky. And a 'wine, cheese, and ketamine' suburban dinner party, a 'Come Dine With Me' hosted by Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and Lee (Lorne Scafaria). The guest couples are Emily (Emily Baldoni) and Kevin (Maury Sterling), Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and Beth, Amir (Alex Manugian) and Laurie (Lauren Maher). They are four slightly boho couples, attractive creative types in the sense that they're involved in outreach programs in Silicon Valley, or dance production or doing yoga and feng shui. Mike formerly played 'Joe' in a TV sci-fi series called Roswell, until his drink problem messed-up his career (in reality he played 'Xander Harris' in Buffy The Vampire Slayer!). There's also a secret back-story in that Mike once slept with Hugh's wife, Beth.

The comet is the catalyst that unsettles their evening. No one's phone works. The internet is down. The lights go out. There are noises and scrabbling sounds from outside. Even the chicken tastes like tuna. It must be the comet. Their conversation turns to scare stories about how comet disturbance can affect electrical devices. How a comet caused mental disorientation in people in 1923 Finland. Inevitably, someone mentions the Tunguska event in 1908 Siberia. That was a comet, too... wasn't it? There are elements of gadget addiction-withdrawal about their plight. Cut off from interactivity they're suddenly lost and scared, reverting to a kind of spooked isolation. A state emphasised by abrupt edits when the screen goes black.

The film was conceived and set up as an anti-blockbuster by high-profile writer-director James Ward Byrkit, known for his work on Rango (2011), and the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise. As the director's commentary and the 'making-of' feature makes clear, there was a rapid-turnaround shooting schedule, completed in five days from a two-page story outline, with the cast not so much working from tight scripts as from prompt notes. There's no money, so the narrative has to be compelling in itself; relying on the human elements of suspicions and infidelities, with the cast working less as actors, more as collaborators. A cineaste's equation, a game played out by a movie-phile crew sparking ideas off each other.

Things get seriously weird when they go outside. In the dark zone there are no cars and no people. With just one distant house in the neighbourhood still illuminated, maybe they've got a power generator? Using blue glow-sticks, Hugh and Amir go out to investigate. They come back with a metal box that contains photos of each of them, with numbers on the reverse. It seems the other house has eight identical people, except they're using red glow-sticks. But does that mean the correct Hugh and Amir have returned, or are they duplicates? Has their group been infiltrated? There's a book on gravitational theory, and they drag in the thought experiment of Schrodinger's Cat - "so we're in the box? - until the comet passes?" - And the quantum physics conundrum in which 'two states continue to exist' separate and de-coherent from each other (hence the film's title). They're all cine-literate so they mention Sliding Doors (1998) in which two time-streams overlap and co-exist.

In this reality, and that reality, are the others dark twins? Or a higher consciousness, or is it simply that their food has been drugged with ketamine? Are they tripping - as they did with the magic mushrooms in the spaghetti-sauce years ago? Mike hits the wine - "if he's losing it over here, he's losing it over there too." Laurie comes over flirtatious. Their cars are vandalised. As an attempted identifier they assemble their own metal box with their own cut-up photos and random numbers generated by a Yahtzee dice. The numbers don't coincide. So are they all from the same house? Is there a third house out there? Is the dark space a roulette wheel that throws up multiple alternate realities? It's an existential tease, with Philip K. Dick overtones. How can we be certain of anything when all is in flux?

There are no car chases. No exploding helicopters. No visceral blood-splattered shoot-outs. It's not that kind of film. Instead, things rapidly peak when Emily glimpses into different houses and other lives. She attacks her alternate self to choose a better reality - just as the comet breaks up across the night sky. She passes out, waking into daylight. Everything is normal. The weirdness has passed. The corpse is gone. The cars are not vandalised. The book on gravitational theory is there on the car-seat. But she has two rings on her finger instead of one. Then she gets a phone call...

Coherence is an intelligent small-scale anti-blockbuster. That's the good news.


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