'Coherence' a Sci-Fi Engima that Bravely Lacks Coherence

Directed by: James Ward Byrkit; Runtime: 89 minutes
Grade: B

Coherence proves to be an interesting title for writer James Ward Byrkit's Twilight Zone-esque indie project, since an intentional lack of coherence ends up being one of the film's most intriguing attributes. What starts out as a relatively simple dinner party interrupted by cosmic events ends up being a crazy trip down the rabbit hole: the result of pulling together a collection of actors over a brief shooting schedule, giving them vague directions of where to take ad-libbed conversations, and letting the unfiltered chaos ensue during an astrological event. Based on aspiration and eerie atmosphere alone, it's an enthralling puzzle box with a bevy of intricate twists and turns in the enigmatic space between science-fiction and fantasy. Beyond the surface, however, lies a maddening airburst of rigged plot apparatus and unlikely interactions amid a dangerous anomaly from outer space, hinged on theoretical gimmickry that'll look familiar to sci-fi lovers, arthouse cinema enthusiasts ... even fans of the show Community.

On the eve when a comet is set to come abnormally close to the Earth's atmosphere, a group of eight relatively close friends drop by a Santa Monica home for a planned get-together. While their initial convos take enough time to sketch out each of the characters and their histories -- the washed-up actor (Nicholas Brendon) and his Skype-creating wife (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World director Lorene Scafaria); the transcendent health nut (Elizabeth Gracen) and her bearded husband with an astronomy-focused brother; the guy who brought someone else's ex-girlfriend to the party -- Coherence finds its point-of-view largely centered on Em (Emily Baldoni), a down-on-her-luck dancer going through a rough patch with her boyfriend, Kevin (Maury Sterling). Over their meal, their discussion ebbs and flows from stifled catch-up banter to mysterious talk about the comet as a diversion, with Em's "expertise" on the matter spinning stories of the weird stuff that's happened in previous comet flybys. Lo and behold, starting with broken phones and lights going out, the evening begin to reveal its own bizarre turns of events when the group spots one lone lit house at the end of the otherwise pitch-black neighborhood.

Diretor Byrkit, whose creative eccentricity can be found under the hood of Gore Verbinski's Rango and Pirates of the Caribbean, intentionally shunned the confines of big-budget productions as much as he could with Coherence. Instead of following a blow-by-blow script, he gave his actors loose notes throughout the shooting process that pinpointed where their conversations and dramatic developments would eventually end up, allowing them to organically engage each other so as to create the illusion of a casual, developing party gone wrong. While this works for shaping well-defined, often repellent characters that naturally come from their respective actors -- a provocative home-wrecker, an unpredictable drunk, a dejected girlfriend preoccupied with celestial oddities -- the chemistry between them all doesn't convince enough as a gathering of friends, nor as an arrangement of couples. This makes for individuals that work well enough as chess pieces moving along a grand stratagem, but the resulting distrust and lovers' squabbles only work as observable cogs in Byrkit's mystery machine instead of authentic dramatic beats.

Therefore, there's a certain element of mystery at the core of Coherence's maneuverings that's worth preserving for the sake of the characters, but it's safe to say that the comet's impact on Earth goes beyond interrupting power supplies and means of communication, tossing together both physics and metaphysics into a chillingly unfathomable scenario. James Ward Byrkit deserves credit for concocting an elaborate exercise that makes the audience scrutinize details of the dinner party with each bend and break of their perceived reality, forcing the characters to both literally and figuratively wander in complete darkness for answers about what's happening. Unfortunately, the way things do happen are frequently, and frustratingly, manufactured for the sake of complexity: how often they emphasize objects in their surroundings, how hastily they jump into drama-causing situations, how frequently they feel the need to leave the house under these circumstances. The script intentionally creates a lot of variables to track hinged on reckless decision-making, and most of them lack the organic flow of the ad-libbed conversations generated by Byrkit's hands-off scripting desires.

Some unavoidable, light spoilers follow when you get any deeper into a discussion about Coherence, which delves into the messy world of alternate realities, duality, and the repercussions of circumstance through the many-worlds branch of quantum theory. At first, writer/director Byrkit appears as if he's got a simplistic grasp on the divergence of reality through the decisions people make, going either this way or that way; however, the writing gradually reveals that it's merely Em and the people around her with that limited perception at first, turning the film into a chaotic mess of possibilities based on any number of variables introduced throughout their evening. Thing is, a lot of what happens overtly feeds the gimmick instead of playing out like natural conditions of a dinner sent reeling by other-worldly interruptions, where everything's randomized and dramatized just enough to keep the gears moving, traversing time and space at convenient moments and with self-fulfilling restraint so it doesn't prematurely upset the balance. By the end, Byrkit's broadened the scope of the comet's effects so far that the transpiring events can't be taken in earnest, even while subtly reassuring that, yes, worse happens elsewhere. End spoilers.

Coherence has a plan for its endgame, though, an elaborate maze of variables and dramatic tension underneath the comet's spell, navigated by a deep and intuitive performance from Emily Baldoni. In a scenario where the laws of the universe are put on hold, director Byrkit uses this science-fiction base to depict what choices certain people might make and what lines they'd cross to better their circumstances or simply ensure their self-preservation, savoring the eerie insecurity of not being able to predict what we, ourselves, might be capable of under anarchistic conditions. He generates a capable amount of suspense and unknowable atmosphere out of what's essentially a one-room setup shot out of his home, bleeding together several influences -- some admitted and others not -- to form the cosmic turmoil unleashed on Em and her friends amid their haunted observations and puzzle solving. Despite familiar dice-rolls, advantageous paradoxes, and shifting personas over a dinner party, it ultimately arrives a novel mind-boggling resolution that's content to wander in the void of uncertainty for the sake of its own thought experiment, reaching for a mix of eeriness and philosophy in the vein of Rod Serling's work and nearly grasping it.

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