It’s a classic horror movie trope: a group of friends/family members/co-workers/etc. gather for dinner/games night/vacation/etc and over the course of the night/weekend/winter/etc, some outside force beyond their ken terrorizes them. As the suspense and tension mounts, decisions are made, lives are upended, and our darkest fears become reality. It’s what underpins everything from House on Haunted Hill and The Shining to episodes of The X-Files and the murder mystery send-up Clue. Hardly original stuff.
But something sets Coherence apart. The 2013 film from writer-director James Ward Byrkit isn’t a standard horror film, nor is it a standard thriller; it doesn’t quite fit the mold of sci-fi or fantasy either. It’s all of them at once, while also being genuinely frightening and startlingly clever and all within a tight hour and a half and with a cast of relative unknowns and with only an improvised script and with a microbudget of $50,000. I just don’t know where to start with this film.
The premise, as I laid out above, is cliche: eight thirty-somethings gather for a dinner party in the home of underworked actor Mike (Nicholas Brendon, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) and his Skype executive wife Lee (Lorene Scafaria). There’s an older married couple, New Age Beth and quasi-scientist Hugh (Elizabeth Gracen and Hugo Armstrong); there’s the asshole, Amir (Alex Manugian) and his new girlfriend Laurie (Lauren Maher); and there’s Emily (Emily Baldoni) and her boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling), who — it turns out — used to date Laurie in the not-so-distant past. Emily is our protagonist; it’s through her eyes, mostly, that we see this drama play out, from the moment she arrives at the dinner party with a cracked phone until she wakes up the next morning.
See, the night of the dinner party is also the night that a rare comet is passing overhead. Emily seems genuinely worried about it, having read about the Tunguska event of 1908 and the last sighting of this particular comet, Miller’s comet , over Finland back in 1923. That time, an entire town was convinced that they were “wrong” somehow, that they weren’t where they were supposed to be. Ha ha, everyone at the table jokes, without guessing what’s about to happen (because apparently none of these Gen X/Yers have ever seen a horror film before…)
It starts off small, with the realisation that none of the guests have access to a cell signal. There’s no Internet in the house at all. That right there is enough to get any Millennial’s heart racing, but when the lights go out, all bets are off. Spooky figures appear at the doors and windows, notes are left on the porch, and the only other house on the street with its lights on has more to it than meets the eye.
What follows is a mind-bending hour of twists and turns involving parallel universes, multiple realities, and a smart blending of actual scientific and mathematical theories and concepts (Schrodinger’s cat, the broadest strokes of quantum physics, and decoherence, the concept from which the film takes its name) with traditional horror film tropes (jump scares, doppelangers, a murder mystery…maybe?) and some truly deep philosophical concepts (What is reality? How do we know what’s real? Who am I? What is my life anyway?) to make a wholly original film.
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this film as much as I did. But in the aftermath of time travel shows like Netflix’s DARK and the theoretical rabbit holes that I’ve been falling down since Twin Peaks ended regarding multiverses and the quantumnature of reality, it’s hard not to sit up and take notice when a film like this crosses my path.
But it’s not for everyone. The film holds a 91% rating on Google, 87% from Rotten Tomatoes, 7.2/10 on IMDb, and only 65% from Metacritic. Variety was largely critical of the film; Vulture called it the best sci-fi movie in years. And that’s largely how this conversation goes.
So I thought I’d go into some of the deeper reasons why I thought the film worked, but also to detail what didn’t work. Major spoilers ahead – you’ve been warned.
What does Coherence get right?
- The casting is spot-on. It helps that these characters were all friends of the director, and thus probably at least passingly familiar with one another. The immediate camaraderie is impressive and without a doubt one of the driving features of the film. These people feel like they’re really friends, really lovers, really in this situation.
- To that end, the “script” is also perfect, such as it was. Apparently, a 12-page treatment was available only to the director and his crew, not the actors; they were given notecards each night (the film took five nights to film) with their character’s motivations written on them and that’s it. With the barest outline, each character was moved through the maze of a story, as it were, improvising lines as they went. This contributed to the claustrophobic feeling of some of these scenes — filmed in the director’s living room, with everyone talking over everyone else, exactly as they would in a real dinner party.
- Ditto the shaky handheld camera work, but more on that below.
- The scientific concepts presented in the film are basic but they work so well because of who these characters are. One reviewer likened this group of friends to under-educated NPR types, the kind of people who used to be hipsters until they moved to the suburbs. So when Hugh describes Schrodinger’s cat to the rest of the table, or Emily details the various comet impact events in the 20th century that have her so worried, it’s delivered with a believable bit of not-quite-getting-it-but-close-enough realism to work.
- Beyond that, the science behind the film is sketchy at best, but (in my opinion) that works to its advantage. It’s never fully explained how the dinner guests cross over into other worlds, only that it happens after they pass through the “dark zone” in between Mike and Lee’s house and the illuminated house down the street (which is also Mike and Lee’s house, but from a different dimension.) Emily posits that individuals are spit out, Roulette-wheel style, into a random home once they cross through, making it impossible to find your way back to “your” reality once you have gone through (Hugh calculates the number of possible worlds they’re dealing with to be in the neighbourhood of 5 million, but of course that could be a very conservative guess. We just don’t know.) That’s what makes it so terrifying — the lack of answers is startling, even with the fact that we have all the information the character’s have by the midway point in the film. Which brings me to…
- Coherence doesn’t hold back its cards for long, and that’s a wonderful thing. I could imagine another, lesser film where the big reveal at the end of the film is that the house at the end of the street is the same house, but in a different world; but that’s been done to death. Instead, we panic and waffle our way through the possibilities, trying to find answers along with the characters, which is pretty fun, if anxiety-inducing.
- The pace at which the mystery unfolds is wonderful. A slow burn if ever there was one. We and the characters are the proverbial frogs, settling into tepid water as its slowly heated up around us, until we don’t even know we’re boiling. It starts with a broken phone and it ends with a disastrous phone call. I can’t describe how perfect that loop truly is.
- The characters spend a good amount of time unraveling the mystery of a box on the doorstep of the other house, which comes back in spectacular fashion near the end of the film. Initially, the group used glowsticks to identify themselves, thinking there was just their house (the blue glowstick house) and the house down the road (the red glowstick house) and that this would be the easiest way to ascertain where they are and who they’re with at all times. But a more elaborate conceit is dreamed up by the houseguests when it becomes clear that there are more than two worlds involved here. Here’s where the box comes into play. Containing photographs, each with a number on the back, and a random item from the house, the idea is that if they find themselves at a house with a different die-assigned number on their photo and different random item in the box, they know they’re at the wrong house and must go back through the “dark space” to try again. But the reveal soon after (that everyone in the house that we all think is the right ho is from a different house altogether opens things wide open. Every time someone leaves the house, it is entirely possible that they have not been returned to the right place. So where are the “original” dinner guests? How will they get back? This realization startles Emily; it startles the other houseguests; and it startles us, too. Everything that’s come before this is called into question, and that’s either a very exciting or very daunting proposition.
- Emily’s decision to find a “better” life echoes the dinner conversation she had with Laurie earlier on in the film, and is a poignant reminder of this central theme of Coherence. It’s not about the science or the comet or the mystery, really. It’s about examining one’s life and finding it wanting, a very common thing for thirty-somethings to experience. If given the chance to change places with yourself on a different life path than the one you’re on now, would you do it? How far would you go to secure it? At first, Mike seems like the one who is really on the edge, and expecting him to go ballistic is what drives a lot of the drama going forward, so it’s a surprise when it’s Emily who actually loses it, but also eerily fitting. That was a nice touch.
What does Coherence get wrong?
- One of the biggest complaints that I’ve read is that the shaky camera work makes this feel cheap or too art-y or not serious enough, as if it’s trying too hard to be something that it’s not. While I personally don’t mind this, it might be a put off for some people — so keep that in mind when introducing your friends to this film.
- The science is off when it’s explained and nonexistent where it’s not. At best it’s the mutterings of a group of under-informed Gen X-ers; at worst it’s the kind of scientific mumbo jumbo that means little and merely serves to make the film sound smarter than it might be. You’ll either love it or hate it. I guess that depends on your level of commitment to the science fiction tropes that we all know and love so well.
- Almost nothing explained in the film; not a problem for people who like the mystery of a show like Twin Peaks or Lost but the average movie-going public might expect a bit more.
- There are also things that don’t make a lot of sense, especially once the timelines have become quite muddled and intertwined by the end. For instance, it is never fully explained how some houseguests in some timelines are okay with the situation (perhaps they were none the wiser? Maybe they had no power outage, no visitors outside their home, and no reason to start panicking?) while others have devolved into total chaos by the end of the night? How did Emily’s situation in this timeline leading up to the dinner party change if they all appeared in the house from the same timeline with the same circumstance? And perhaps it requires another rewatch, but I can’t recall how Emily ended up in the green house, since she wrote down the numbers on the photos with the blue marker and moments later was reading the green numbers instead, indicating that a switch had taken place. Did she leave the house at some point in between? Why don’t I remember this? Have I switched houses?!
 Miller’s comet appears not to be real, as all searches for Finland comets in the 1920s bring me to reviews for this film; however, an article in The Independent from 2002 states that maybe comets do have the key to understanding dark matter and parallel universes, so maybe there is something to this fictional comet tale after all…?