+1 (2013) came out the same year as Coherence (2013), which was likely to the former movie’s detriment. Both are indie sci-fi flicks that use the idea of doubles at a party (as a result of overlapping universes due to a falling meteor) and ultimately leads to protagonist’s descent into madness and chaos.
Huh…the plots have more in common than I originally thought. But while that basic plot outline is similar, and the movies have some unfortunate qualities in common, the aesthetic drive behind +1 is decidedly different. Whereas Coherence is a fairly slow burn focused on the intimate detail of a middle-upper class white dinner party, +1 is a kinetic, “youthful” take on the same story—replacing the small cast with a sprawling high school/college party. I would hazard to guess that the indie sci-fi community leans more toward the quiet of a movie like Coherence rather than a semi-teen oriented set of characters as in +1. So, +1 is immediately at a disadvantage. Maybe the concepts and questions would seem more novel and the movie’s flaws less potent if there weren’t such a strong contrast?
Eh, no. From the very beginning, +1 sets up its flaws. The acting is stilted and overdone, leaning on high school/college archetypes like the well-documented SWBNBWGLHRHTHSWBWSBL (Sensitive White Boy Needs a Beautiful White Girl to Love Him and Remind Him That He’s a Sensitive White Boy Who Should Be Loved) and loser-sexist-clown friend. The struggles of the SWBNBWGLHRHTHSWBWSBL, in this case named David, have been seen before. He’s in a troubled long-distance relationship; his girlfriend, Jill, is moving past him; he kisses someone because he initially mistakes her for Jill but then is pulled in by her hypnotic aura. When director Dennis Iliadis and screenwriter Bill Gullo realize that they can’t get by forever on the woes of their two Intensely Unlikable Leads, they cut to a weird sci-fi scene (with notably poor SFX, compared to the generally solid production qualities) where a meteor crashes. There’s no context to this at all, and it does not fit thematically or aesthetically.
While negative qualities don’t define the film, they certainly eclipse the positive ones. When I rack my brain, I can recall masterfully executed shots, such as the main character turning from a mirror as his reflection stays put right before a power outage—notably contrasting the incongruity of the meteor scene. But the characters are not unique, and for much of the film their actions reflect what the plot needs rather than what those people would do. Loser friend Teddy bumbles around, but later assumes his duplicate will try to kill him for…cockblocking himself? The only character whose actions are reasonably consistent are David’s, who consistently behaves like a sociopath to manipulate and kill in order to achieve his selfish goals. Maybe this seems interesting, but considering how many movies feature an “anti-hero” or sociopathic character with almost zero nuance, it’s safe to say that this stock character is as bland and forgettable as many of the performances. Further, I get the impression that the movie wanted us to find him sympathetic and then be surprised by his later acts, but…well, if your character is a selfish asshole who kind of sucks from the beginning, there’s not much you can surprise us with.
Yet, I can already hear the responses to my criticisms of shoddy writing and character work: “It’s about the ideas, not the story.” Yet…what ideas exactly are being worked with here? The most obvious is the idea of the past affecting and catching up to us. With each blackout caused by the meteor, the duplicates of the partygoers “reset,” basically repeating original partygoers’ actions just some time before. But the two timelines get closer and closer, ultimately combining into one. The obvious reading here is that while there is a wide range of reactions to characters meeting themselves, the result is always the same: synthesis of the past and present to form one being. The only thing you can change is whether you welcome that or reject it.
And that’s all well and good for an idea to play with, but on its own—with no interesting characters to propel it, and a mess of a script—it leaves the viewer with little to chew on, unless he or she wants to dig deep to find nuggets of value that aren’t well-excavated in the text itself. None of the characters actually confront their pasts or come to terms with themselves; they merely confront their duplicates (who are stand-ins for their past selves) in increasingly ridiculous ways. David, most notably, becomes a manipulating murderer, and that’s the end of that. Is this supposed to count as character growth or insight? Where’s the introspection or the intrigue? The only interesting execution here is the outsider Allison, who meets herself and ultimately is seduced by her duplicate. The warmth of these scenes contrasts the increasingly kinetic (and incomprehensible) actions of the other partygoers, but on its own it cannot sustain the hastiness of everything else. In this sense, +1 has the same issues that I noted in Coherence, namely that it dissolves into insanity as the writer’s ambitions get too big for the narrative.
Further, I’d be more inclined to forgive the movie’s flaws if it weren’t so…gross. David is, of course, disgusting, as he manipulates his girlfriend in order to forgive him. But the outright misogyny of the other characters does not feel like it’s commenting on David as a character, but rather reflecting the lens of the camera. In this movie, female bodies are captured with an objectifying eye; whether it’s Teddy gawking at Melanie, or the repeated dances of two “hot strippers,” or the Japanese woman lying naked as guests eat sushi off of her, +1 delights in capturing naked women—preferably nameless.
I do not think that women can never be filmed naked on film without it being sexist, or that misogyny cannot be depicted without being endorsed, but +1‘s laziness truly shines in this context. The characters make rude comments to the Japanese model, turning the established practice of Nyotaimori into another way for partygoers to perv on a naked girl. When someone bites her, she does a flying karate kick, which emphasizes that Illiadis and Gullo are not exactly mining the situation for nuanced critique. Further, the sex scene between Melanie and Teddy is played with every gross cadence you’ve seen from 90s teen romcoms. Teddy is too much of a loser for her, but for no reason she decides she wants to have sex with him. The scene is played for humor, with the punchline being that Melanie is into rough play and insulting Teddy while in the act. Melanie has this rough, “masculine” side to her and Teddy can’t handle himself. Ain’t it hilarious? With scenes like that, +1 solidifies itself as a slacker Another Earth or Sliding Doors.
+1 is bland, derivative, and in way over its head. However, there’s a lot of promise in the production values, and there are flashes of good cinematography. If Illiadis and Gullo can pull away from the cliches and tropes of the genre and film at large, they might actually create something memorable. Until then, though, we have the alternate universe version of Coherence, sharing many of its double’s flaws but ultimately being about 10 minutes behind.