It was supposed to be a simple dinner party, four couples, a few bottles of wine, catching up with old friends, but the awkward conversation of bad career choices and misremembered shared histories are only the start of it. High above, Miller’s comet is passing overhead, a close passage to Earth lighting up the night sky, and the guests realise that not only do they no longer have service on their iPhones but that the screens have physically cracked. When the lights go out in the whole neighbourhood other than one house, they find themselves isolated and increasingly anxious.
Any film where actors play marginally fictionalised versions of themselves already runs close to pretension (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Nicholas Brendon is Mike, the bad tempered bad actor who appeared in a popular genre show, Emily Baldoni is Emily, Lauren Maher is Laurie, Hugo Armstrong is Hugh, and so on), and with a background in shorts, spinoff videogames and online supplementary web material, this first feature film from writer/director James Ward Byrkit would have been better suited to a compact format.
With a seeming determination to not talk about anything important the early scenes have the loose feel of improvisation which quickly becomes tiresome, the prowling observer of the cinéma vérité camera as annoying and contrived as if this were a found footage film.
It is only once the characters venture into the darkness outside their front door to seek that second beacon of light that the film becomes more structured, but here a more significant problem is illuminated, that the film demonstrating the same grasp on reality as the Left Behind films with even the comet being given the appearance of a slow moving meteor burning up rather than an actual comet.
Believing that the passing comet has split off quantum doubles of themselves, the characters scrabble around in panic unable to access the internet to address their ignorance over whether or not the ancient belief that comets are heralds of doom was ever disproven until Beth (Highlander: The Raven’s Elizabeth Gracen doing her best with an insubstantial character) remembers her boyfriend’s brother conveniently left a book on quantum physics at their home which she put in an envelope but even more conveniently forgot to post to him so it is still in their car.
Retrieving the book and finding a handy extract in the form of notes made for an upcoming lecture, the characters are now able to inform each other and the audience about “decoherence and Schrödinger’s cat,” while missing the relevant caveat that these effects are limited to the quantum realm of subatomic particles rather than the macrocosm.
With Beth spouting feng shui and herbal remedies from her opening scene, the film substitutes pseudoscience for religion but remains a flimsy narrative of new age baiting superstitious nonsense. Apparently without one sceptic amongst them able to act as the voice of reason, there is a surfeit of ludicrous supposition which they are overly eager to accept as fact, and while the giant insect B-movies of the 1950s often proceeded from an age of scientific ignorance and can be enjoyed for their retro charm, Coherence has no such excuse.
The bane of any film tied to a single location is the need to maintain momentum and interest for the runtime despite being unable to actually go anywhere without resorting to timewasting; it is a challenge which this film fails. Producer Rod Serling was aware that it was a mistake to stretch the half hour format of The Twilight Zone to an hour for the fourth season, returning the fifth and final season to the previous length. Donnie Darko this is not, with none of the complexity of that tangent universe, but even considering the budget, nor is it Sapphire and Steel.
With a subplot involving photographs and random numbers and objects to be placed inside a box outside the house in order to determine if it is the “correct” iteration (for what purpose other than to cause additional anxiety, as finding any of the wrong houses out of the infinite possibilities will not point to the correct one), a large section of the film is spent discussing what Kathryn Janeway once decided in a snap decision, but that’s why she was made an Admiral. Importantly, without the significant difference between the worlds which drives Alastair Reynolds’ short story Signal to Noise or Nacho Vigalondo’s Parallel Monsters segment in V/H/S Viral, what difference does it make?