A sci-fi movie without space lizards, plasma cannons or giant robots, what's the fucking point? In Coherence the point was apparently to make the best sci-fi movie of 2014 with none of those things; no budget, no script, no big-name actors, nothing but an idea. And Xander from Buffy.
I finally caught up with this one over the weekend, having meant to watch it for a while. I heard it described recently as the best science-fiction movie you didn't see last year, and I got no argument with that call.
The setup is pretty simple. Eight friends, all of them comfortably Generation X (yay!), gather for a dinner party on the night a comet is due to make a close flyby. The comet isn't the reason for the dinner. This is just the first opportunity this group of friends has had to get together in a while. The light show in the sky is an added bonus.
The opening scenes where the various guests arrive at the party is an almost dizzying exercise in cinéma vérité. It feels like early Tarantino with multiple lines of overlapping dialogue snaking through and around each other. Unlike Tarantino's characters, however, the concerns around this dinner table are stolidly suburban. Children, jobs, middle-class ennui, shaky marriages, spluttering career paths, quiet desperation, all bundled up and swept under the carpet. The whole thing could play out like one of those films where people just sit around and talk for two hours. I think Jim Jarmusch made a career out of those. To make them work the dialogue has to be spot on, and in Coherence it is. Uncomfortably so at times.
The handheld camerawork, the intimacy, the completely natural feel of the opening scenes made it look like the most slickly produced reality programme ever made. I was kind of in awe of the actors being able to learn and carry off such dense, complex interplays of dialogue. I was even more impressed when I found out they improvised the whole thing. It’s a great performance and a lot of credit has to go to the editor as well for snipping out any dead spots.
That's all wanky film school talk though, innit? You want to know about the story. So at this point I have to blow the spoiler horn and blow it loud. I’ll keep the major plot points to myself, but those who want the pure experience should just go watch the damn thing before reading or commenting.
Coincident with the passing of the comet strange shit starts to happen. At first it’s cellphones inexplicably breaking or simply failing to power up. Then the fixed phone lines go down, and the Internet, and the power grid. Fans of horror movies will recognise what's happening immediately, even if the dinner guests take awhile to get around to it. They are being cut off, physically and narratively.
The dinner party is vaguely located somewhere in the affluent suburbs of the Pacific Northwest. Streets are quiet and tree-lined. The densely packed city, any city, seems far removed. It's plausible then that when the lights go out the world is plunged into a deep darkness, with only one point of light visible, another house a few minutes walk away. A couple of the men offer to go over and see if they can use the phone. Everything is fucked from that point on, but the fuckage happens so very gradually, so slowly, so completely and in such a bizarre fashion that even though hackles are crawling up the back of your neck, half of the dinner party guests are still arguing that everything is okay when it is totally fucking not.
What's going on? Aliens? Monsters? It feels like it, and there are some intensely creepy scenes as accepted reality begins to come apart. Even so, Coherence never cops out by devolving to a survivalist splatterfest.
It is a film which asks the sort of high concept questions not being asked by most speculative fiction on-screen. I rented it from iTunes, but have come to regret that decision because I can tell I'm going to have to go buy a copy so I can watch it again and again, trying to figure out not just what's going on, but the implications of what went on.
You would do yourself a disservice if you let this one slip past you.