“Indie movies.” Maybe the term is overly-summative, but I think Second Breakfast writer Chris Melville captured the major cost-benefit of indie movies in his review of Short Term 12: there is artistic freedom that allows for something different, but that something different isn’t always successful.
Right about now, the two of you who read my review of The Kitchen might be getting deja vu. That was my opener for that article, and the statement remains relevant for Coherence (2013), a low-budget indie flick. The connections between it and The Kitchen are pretty strong, actually: both are almost entirely single-setting, taking place at a party (birthday in The Kitchen, dinner in Coherence), and develop the interpersonal drama through the numerous character interactions. The major difference is that, for the most part, Coherence is much more carefully made in terms of both writing and directing, both done by James Ward Byrkit, who co-wrote Rango (2011).
The premise is that a group of friends get together for a dinner party that happens to coincide with a meteor passing somewhat closely to Earth. When the lights go out, they notice that only one house on the block has power, but when they go to investigate, they find that it is…their house. Kind of. And that house is having its own dinner party. What results is a series of confusions and dimension-bending antics that put strains on the dinner attendees and their relationships to each other.
Before discussing the sci-fi conceit, I want to return to something I mentioned in a review of another alternate-dimension movie, Sliding Doors (which actually gets referenced directly in Coherence): as Roger Ebert said, to make the two-dimension story work, you need them to be interesting enough on their own for the whole thing to succeed. Similarly, I think that in order to make the mind-bending qualities of a low-budget sci-fi drama work, you need to have the basic drama be interesting enough without the tricks. That was the main flaw in Shane Carruth’s Primer, which this movie has drawn a lot of comparisons to: that movie just didn’t have much intrigue going on besides the intricate plot, which is impressive but not enough to make a particularly engrossing narrative outside of its impressive density.
Coherence both does and does not accomplish the idea of a well-constructed drama. The characters start out interesting and distinct, to the point that I could tell them apart and even remember most of their names. They were unique. But their conflicts and storylines don’t amount to much. They get all of this characterization, and plenty of tension is set up, but I didn’t care about what was happening to them over the course of the film. My only interests in them were carried over from their characterizations up to that point. This is a huge issue for me, because it creates a sliding scale of quality over the runtime of the movie; as soon as the sci-fi concept begins to lose its direction, the entire movie starts to crumble.
Coherence, over the first half or so of the film, slowly introduces its science fiction concept and runs with it, but not in the sense of a child running around with scissors. It is like a star soccer/football player expertly moving his body up the field with precision and forethought. Several ideas are introduced early on that make the sci-fi aspects do what they should in a thoughtful film: embellish the themes. For example, we hear a conversation early on about how the protagonist, Em (Emily Baldoni), created a dance showcase that produced so much buzz that the biggest dancer in the world got to jump in and steal her lead part. So, Em decided to decline the position of understudy in her frustration, but then the major dancer dropped out, so the understudy got the main part. It could have been hers. Another person at the party says that the other woman “stole [Em’s] life.” Thus, when the duplicate house and potentially duplicate characters begin to enter the plot, we get expansions on this idea—the idea that maybe our lives aren’t ours, or that every little decision we make fundamentally alters reality.
When the confusion and eeriness of the plot build—and it is really a masterclass in unsettling storytelling and details; I got actual chills in the quietest moments—the ideas and plot seem to move forward in beautiful harmony. I was thinking about the cool concepts while trying to unravel some of the narrative complexities, all the while listening with great interest to these people’s conversations. It felt so real, so human. But then I realized that the individual arcs of the characters in this movie don’t amount to much; the characters weren’t going anywhere that I cared about, outside of furthering my understanding of the science fiction elements. One character, Mike (Nicholas Brendon), decides without much buildup that he wants to just kill the alternate versions of themselves, without having seen them at all. What? Where did that come from? It has no base in anything revealed about that character thus far. At this point, I realized that I only cared about one guy, Hugh (Hugo Armstrong), and that’s because he is the most active in figuring out what the hell is going on.
That’s a fundamental error in the progression of the film, and a massive disappointment in terms of the quality that had been established so far. But it wouldn’t have been as noticeable if the science fiction plot didn’t begin to lose its focus as well. For almost two thirds of the movie, the story has its twists and turns, but it’s all rather manageable; you feel like you could unravel it if you took the time, and as such the narrative is still engaging. However, it decides to get crazier and crazier, as SPOILER we learn that there are possibly infinitely many houses and sets of dinner party attendees. END SPOILER At that point, you stop caring, because you know it will continue to get more and more crazy and convoluted to the point where it is impossible to discern what is actually happening. Both the characters and the plot run around like kids with scissors, and so the entire movie becomes a shell of its former self. Maybe the ideas are still being played with, but there’s nothing to sustain them.
I don’t mean to imply that Coherence becomes a bad movie by any stretch. In fact, I think it’s excellent. But it will always carry the disappointment for me that it started out as one of the best science fiction movies I’d seen in recent years, and then lost all of its potential because—from my perspective—the writer felt the need to get crazy in opposition to everything that was working so far. Coherence is great, but it’s also frustrating, in a different manner than Primer but with a similar result. Perhaps Byrkit will iron out the weaknesses that have been revealed so sharply in this film, and if so, I imagine that we might get something that lives up to Coherence‘s promise; or maybe a meteor will fly over the Earth and allow me to travel to another reality where this movie is great all the way through. I’ll hope for the former.