Written and directed by James Ward Byrkit
James Ward Byrkit’s feature debut Coherence has been drawing rave comparisons to Shane Carruth’s Primer since its first appearances on the festival circuit, due to its in-depth exploration of its sci-fi hook. But for fans of the DC Comics animated films, it will instead recall the late, great Dwayne McDuffie’s final script, Crisis on Two Earths. For all of the four-color superheroics in that film, it shares with Coherence a nihilistic take on quantum physics that can call into question the very nature of human existence. And, like Coherence, it’s as immensely entertaining as it is thoughtful.
Somewhere in California, a dinner party is being held. Eight friends gather together, with some quick-hitting exposition at the beginning of the film laying out that there will be some drama afoot. It looks to be soap-opera-level drama, most likely, or an episode of Gilmore Girls at best. Until a comet passes by in the sky above, with disruptive effects on cell phones and Internet service, followed by … coherence. To say much more than that would spoil the fun of watching these characters try to sort it out for themselves.
The strongest mark in favor of Coherence is that those characters are portrayed by a stellar cast. They’re television veterans and character actors; you’re likely to have seen every one of them in something before, even if you can’t quite remember what it was. They were thrown together in one location over five nights and given vague instructions to improvise; although Byrkit has a screenplay credit for Writer’s Guild purposes, the actors filmed without a screenplay, rehearsals, or blocking. Despite that, they have a chemistry which implies that these characters have known each other for a decade or more, and the performances understand that can be a bad thing as well as a good one. Particularly noteworthy is Nicholas Brendon, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, playing a character who is not far from himself (an alternate-reality version of himself, you might say) in ways that fill the movie with humor and pathos alike.
The comparison to Primer is unfair in some ways, because Coherence contains very little of the scientific jargon that Carruth was so insistent upon for his film. Instead Byrkit plays directly off of the fact that these characters wouldn’t understand the science of what is happening to them. Their understanding of quantum physics seems to come from the episodes of Star Trek where evil Spock wore a goatee, when in fact the problem is bigger than they imagine. As in Primer, the problem is bigger than the human mind can imagine.
The crisis also escalates as it did in Primer, with the speed and calamity of a snowball becoming an avalanche. The film starts to confuse (becomes incoherent, you might say) as reality itself strains under the pressures that these characters are applying. Through it all, Byrkit finds subtle ways to ask a question that Crisis on Two Earths asked overtly: if Schrodinger’s Cat can be both alive and dead inside its box, do life and death have any real meaning? Do any of the realities that are possible inside that box have any meaning?
Yet no matter how difficult it becomes to answer that question – or even understand it – the characters hold to what made them interesting at the start of the film, before there was any calamity to speak of. They turn on each other in ways that disaster-film characters always do, and in ways that not even a disaster-movie veteran could foresee, but in either case the result is the same: every one of them will have to deal with their own choices, including the choices that they might have made, but didn’t. A superb final shot leaves the audience to wonder just how much “dealing with it” will have to be done. Like the rest of Coherence, that shot’s excellence becomes even greater when seen with friends, so that the amount of post-film discussion can go on and on … ad infinitum, you might say.