The genre of micro budget science fiction can often lead to fascinating results. Without the crutch of fancy computer graphics and a blockbuster cast and crew, all that is left is unadulterated concept. There is a purity to this approach, a sort of DIY bootstraps aesthetic that is often both surprisingly charming and surprisingly effective given how often the meat of the proceedings is limited to people in a room talking. All of the distractions are boiled away, reduced to the simple efficacy of the conceit. They live and die on their ability to make their audience buy in. Coherence is a new entrant to the genre from first time feature director James Ward Byrkit, a protege of Gore Verbinski. Its core setting is a familiar one, as four couples convene at one of their houses for a dinner party when strange events begin to occur. It may sound like a Twilight Zone episode or last year’s comedy It’s a Disaster or Clue or The Exterminating Angel, but Byrkit has his own angles to explore.
The eight cast members are predominantly unknowns, led by the closest approximation of a lead character in Emily Foxler’s Em. She has arrived with her boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling) to the house of Mike (Nicholas Brendan, likely the most recognizable of the cast thanks to his years on Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Their conversations turn to a discussion about a comet passing overhead and past strange events that have happened in the vicinity of stellar anomalies. Almost on cue, the glass of everyone’s smart phones shatters, and they can no longer find cell service or access the internet. When the lights go out (as they always do), the group discovers that the entire neighborhood has succumbed to the black save one house, and Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and Amir (Alex Manugian) go off to investigate. Once the group splinters, the strange events intensify, causing everyone in the house to question themselves and their friends, as well as their very understanding of reality.
Notably, Byrkit approached the filming of Coherence without a script. Armed with a story outline, character descriptions and eight game actors, the film is almost entirely improvised. Shot with heavy reliance on shaky cam and a cinema verite style, the aesthetic is designed to produce an easy, conversational atmosphere from which events can degrade. Editor Lance Pereira plies his craft with aplomb, choosing to rely on heavy and abrupt cuts to black mid-conversation, adding to this growing sense of unease as the night begins to unravel. It is a novel way to get into the setting, and the opening minutes, with their overlapping dialogue and small talk, feel fresh.
There is, however, a downside to making a film like Coherence without a codified script. This film may not have the dizzying complexity of, say Shane Carruth’s similarly skeletally budgeted Primer, but there is plenty of exposition and intrigue through which the cast must wade. It is here that the film suffers, as the transition from a chatty dinner scene to full on metaphysical heaviness is handled with no elan. Hugo Armstrong generally does a good job, but he is saddled with the worst sort of info dump, reading from a magically placed MacGuffin/book that happens to discuss just the sort of craziness in which they find themselves. What’s more, the rest of the cast reacts to this exposition in a bizarrely out of character and nonsensical way, one that seems entirely motivated in furthering the plot. This is the worst sort of disconnect, shattering the verisimilitude of the opening scenes and making it feel all too clear that these are actors following a story. It is a shame, too, because generally the film picks up after this scene. It provides some nice building tension in its second half, an ingenious little device involving colored glow sticks, and a wonderfully paced third act and finale. Once it gets going, it manages to be something pretty special. The act of getting there, though, is not remotely smooth.
There are quite a few low budget science fiction films poured into the foundation that supports Coherence. Primer, for one, and Mike Cahill and Brit Marling’s Another Earth for another. IT certainly has the drive and ambition to attempt to make these films proud, but the final product when taken as a whole does not, well, cohere. It could be the distracting cinema verite style, it could be the heavy improvisation and at times inconsistent acting, it could be the terribly transparent exposition, the way the first 45 minutes takes a few too many shortcuts to force its intrigue to the fore. It is all of this, really, and more that point to why the film cannot fully capitalize on its cracking premise. Perhaps if the first act had done a better job of pulling the audience in, Byrkit could have more nimbly kept this project together. Alas, that is not the case. The 45 bad minutes are just as indelible as the 45 good ones, and the conceit remains at least partially squandered. It is worthy as a curiosity, a look at what could have been, but nothing more.