You probably haven’t seen this hidden sci-fi gem. But you really should’ve…
Hey will you look at that – a ‘Movies That Deserve More Love’ about a movie that most people genuinely haven’t seen! I have to work to convince you! Who needs SEO? Now that I think about it, this series is a terrible idea right now – if it’s well-known my take is either gonna be met with controversy or ‘duh’, and if it’s not well-known, then no one’s gonna see the video. Anyway, here’s a video very few people will see about a movie very few people have seen. The abyss gazes back. Coherence!
Coherence is a fantastic little movie that went mostly under the radar, I think partially because of its timing. To give you a quick overview of the plot, a group of old friends have gathered for a dinner party on the night that a large comet is due to pass over. It causes all the power to go out, and then spooky things happen involving parallel universes and chaos theory. By the time of its audience release in 2014, we’d been blessed with four Paranormal Activity movies and its countless knockoffs, so the spooky haunted-house subgenre was at a pretty low point. Even still, the year before, gems like The Conjuring had kicked up a storm thanks to big name actors and studio backing, and The Evil Dead remake pushed through mainly on brand recognition. It may be a bit unfair of me to compare these films, given The Conjuring and Evil Dead are out-and-out horrors, while Coherence is better described as a sci-fi thriller. But I want to establish the kind of environment the film emerged in.
Were you to see a trailer for the film which, given it’s a trailer, can’t go in-depth on the twists and weighty concepts that make up the film, you might assume that it was just another low-budget Paranormal Activity knockoff. And as for word of mouth, it’s a hard sell outside of certain circles. You can’t go too far into describing it without stepping into spoiler territory, because this film’s appeal relies a lot on its many ingenious twists. I’m going to spoil a couple of things in this video because it’s literally impossible to sell it to you on abstracts alone. These things probably contributed to its less than earth-shattering release at the time, but it doesn’t do anything to change the quality of the film itself.
A big factor in my appreciation for this film comes down to how it was made. That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t stand up on its own – it absolutely does – more that knowing a bit of the behind the scenes enhances your enjoyment. I think it’s fascinating to learn how certain things in movies were made, especially to hear the passion creators have for their work. It’s possible I’ve spent more hours watching the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings than I have the actual films. Rather than dispelling the illusion, peeking behind the curtain can often make you appreciate the craft and ingenuity even more.
To say that writer and director James Ward Byrkit took a stripped-down approach to Coherence is an obscene understatement. The movie is filmed at his own house, mostly handheld, and I believe the actors are all long-time friends of his. There’s no special effects, or even many practical effects to speak of. But here’s the good bit – the actors weren’t given a script. Instead, they went in blind, and each person was given a kind of cue card with a list of things that their character had to do or reveal in that scene, and it was up to actors to organically weave it in. They had no clue what anyone else had on their cards and had to react to it in real time. Byrkit and his co-writer meticulously plotted the film for the better part of a year, nudged the actors into their places, and let them do their thing.
Not a lot of people would have the balls to even attempt it, but it’s not just something to tickle pretentious artsy-fartsy pricks like me – it really worked. The dialogue feels so natural, overlapping in places, rising and lowering in volume, cutting to allow one person to hold the spotlight for a moment. It’s so good it reminds me of the transcripts I used to make and analyse when I studied English Language. It’s a real testament to the ability of the actors that they were able to roll with it so well and maintain character scene to scene.
It’s aided by the free-flowing handheld camera style, which at times makes you feel so much like a fellow guest at the party; sometimes I forget this isn’t a found footage film. There’s some fairly rapid cutting together in the more high-tension scenes, but often the camera takes its time to swing between characters, like you’re bouncing from one sentence to the next and struggling to keep up. It can feel intimate at times, but more often than not it shifts to become voyeuristic or claustrophobic.
There are moments in the dialogue when you think, “woah, no one would ever say that out loud in reality”. I can only assume that’s a sign of a scene that wasn’t building quite as organically to a key statement or reveal that a character had to make, so it feels like it was blurted out. To be fair to them though, most of these actually to the awkward, tipsy tension of the initial dinner party, before all the sci-fi craziness happens, and the actors lean into it with an enthusiasm that means you mostly buy into it.
In entertainment and dramatic tension, these early scenes nearly rival the eventual mindblowers later on. To mention just a few complicating factors – Emily and Kevin are in a strained relationship. Amir has surprised most of them by bringing along Laurie, who used to date Kevin. Laurie and Kevin appear to still have chemistry, causing Emily’s friend Beth to get into fights to defend her friend. Mike is kind of a dick, so he sees this tension between everyone and needles at them for fun, stressing out his wife Lee who just wants everyone to have a good time. Also Beth has brought loads of ketamine to the party. This is just a slice of the story, and it’s so awful and cringey, in the best way. Think, the first episode of Season 2 of Fleabag. It so perfectly portrays the thin veneer of politeness that veils true feelings in adult gatherings.
As for the story itself, boy howdy. Do you ever get disappointed that some films never examine the full potential of their concepts? Like that movie Yesterday, the one where a guy wakes up to find The Beatles never existed. A recurring joke is that he keeps finding that things like Coca-Cola, Oasis and Harry Potter don’t exist, but it’s always just a throwaway joke in the background of the overarching love story. But I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who wanted to see just how different the modern world would be if The Beatles had never existed – be it musically, economically, psychologically, all of it. That just wasn’t where Danny Boyle and whoever else wanted to take that story.
Coherence, though, takes its concept about as far as it can possibly go. Like I mentioned earlier the central plot revolves around alternate universe versions of our party guests, and the ability of anyone to cross over to another universe by crossing a dark patch. They regularly go across the dark patch, so you might be thinking “I bet you one or more of the main characters are from an alternate universe”. That’s just step one in the movie’s process of messing with you, once again lulling you into a sense of arrogant confidence that you know where this is going.
Part of the genius of the movie is in its editing and overall flow, because every reveal is timed perfectly – characters come to a realisation moments after the idea pops into your own head. It’s always one step ahead of you, and just when you think you’ve seen every possible ‘oh crap’ moment it can throw at you, it sneaks in another one and blindsides you. It’s a riveting experience, and during the climax where our main character makes some pretty definitive choices, your eyes will remain glued to the screen until the end.
If I have to pick out one annoyance, it’s these regular second-long cuts to black that happen about a dozen times throughout. At first I thought they were time skips – I mean, they’re not going to show the entire dinner party in full – but sometimes mere seconds have passed between cuts. At one point I thought they were meant to be breathers for you to catch your breath but it’s only an hour and 14 minutes long. I began to think of them as punctuation, like full stops at the end of dramatic moments, but I never came to a definitive conclusion about it, and the obscurity nagged at me, more annoying than anything. If anyone watching the film has seen it and has an idea about it, please do let me know in the comments because it still bugs me to this day.
Anyway, the film never relies on the easy option of loud jumpscares to freak you out, and the few times it’s employed in the early parts of the film feel in retrospect like a trick, lulling you into a false sense of complacency as you prepare to watch another cheap horror or thriller. Instead, the threat in Coherence turns out to be an existential one. The danger is one of the mind, and not a deranged psychotic mind, but the minds of relatively ordinary people being put in a trying scenario, and pushed and pushed until their deepest and darkest selves are exposed.
The overall theme of the film is one of the teetering chaos of our relationships with each other. At any point a poor choice or a slip of the tongue can ruin a friendship. Or it’ll be fine. The complex web of secrets, lies, deliberate omissions and half-truths that build up over years of relationships can be unravelled or broken at any time if the right circumstances line up. Or maybe they won’t, that’s how fragile it is.
This central horror, the fear of losing control of your own life, is best exemplified in how the characters treat their alternate universe selves. Most of them see their alternates as a threat coming to kill them and steal their great lives from them, and they construct elaborate identification methods to jealously guard against them. One character successfully battling alcoholism wonders if an alternate version of himself has started drinking again, and the terrible things he could do in that state. His sole focus throughout becomes anticipating and beating his demons made real – his alternate selves who made worse decisions, while he continues to make mistakes of his own.
This kind of helpless delusion is something I think we all do in the real world as well. We’re unable to accurately and objectively assess our own merits; we’re unable to predict all the ends of our actions and weigh up our decisions based on a net good. Instead, the best we can do is fly by the seat of our pants and attempt to live according to some kind of communal moral code. Only the character who knows full well what their bad choices are, and the price they paid as a result, expresses envy for their alternates, knowing that there must be a better version out there.
If this sounds like some heavy shit, that’s because it is. It’s to the credit of the film that all of this comes across so seamlessly. Byrkit created a, in my opinion, very nearly perfect fusion of philosophy, quantum physics and social relationships, and every part of the filmmaking process benefits the narrative. He hasn’t made a movie since, though I understand he does have a new project coming up. And if all he has on his resume is Coherence, that’s more than enough to convince me to see it.
Please do go check it out and let me know what you thought in the comments, I’ve been dying to talk to someone about this film for years. Don’t forget to subscribe if you want to see more of these, we put out a video every week, and I’ll hopefully see you there.