Coherence (2014)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

“I just got here. You know what, I need to parallel park and I’m not on my earpiece. Are you good?”

Pulling in outside the house of friends Lee (Lorene Scafaria) and Mike (Nicholas Brendon), Em (Emily Foxler) is on her smartphone to boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling) – when suddenly the screen of her phone cracks. Em and Kevin are at something of a crossroad: he is about to move to Cambodia for four months of work, and wants Em to come along for at least some of the time, but she is hesitating – even if similar indecision in the past led her to miss out on being understudy for a key dancing role that she had herself created, only to see the ballerina who replaced her shoot to fame while her own star fell. “So she basically stole your whole thing – Catherine Merris has your whole life,” comments Kevin’s ex Laurie (Lauren Maher), even as she herself hopes to steal her old flame back from Em.

Parallel parking, understudies, stolen lives, critical choices – these are all ideas that will resonate deeply with what follows. For James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence may start ordinarily enough, with eight friends and acquaintances gathering together at a house for food, drink and naturalistic, seemingly inconsequential table conversation – but you need to watch and listen very carefully to detect all the hints and tells of what it to come, and to perceive the way that this little contained world is unravelling, almost unnoticed, before our very eyes. A comet passing closely overhead is messing with the physics below, so that these characters begin to see (or to miss) the ramifying alternatives to every tiny decision taken intruding unwelcomely upon their reality – until Em starts wondering if there might just be a better party she would like to crash, and a more loving version of Kevin whose company she would prefer to keep.

Playing upon the complexities of quantum decoherence and observer effect while keeping its scenario(s) rooted in the interactions of solid, believable characters, Coherence builds cosmic-scale ideas from small-scale dramas, and slowly opens its narrative door to let in all manner of puzzles and paradoxes that will have viewers in knots for days if not forever. Think of it as Primer (2004) with soul, or Triangle (2009) with dinner parties (and ketamine!) – but really, for all its interest in multiple worlds and parallel universes, Byrkit’s film is a genuine singularity, coming with a central concept that is utterly original. Plotted out with a dizzying attention to spot-the-difference detail, this may be science fiction where the science is unusually challenging if not thoroughly mind-mangling – but at its core Coherence remains a film concerned with questions of ethics no less than of physics, as it shows how we are all constructed, compromised and confined in the image of our moral choices.

Not only is this unmissable, but you may well want to see it several times – even if you will in fact already have done this, without quite realising it, the first time through.

Anton Bitel