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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.27.14] scifi drama

[Editors note: Also be sure to check out our interview with director James Ward Byrkit!]

Coherence opens at a dinner party hosted by Lee (Lorene Scafaria) and her husband Mike (Nicholas Brendon) during an evening in which a comet is predicted to pass by Earth. As guests arrive we observe the various tensions and histories which exist between the characters, two of whom are former lovers now joined by their new partners. Em (Emily Baldoni) discusses the various phenomenon recorded throughout history when astrological events occur, a foreshadowing of the seriously weird night the party have ahead of them. Everybody seems to have lost reception on their cell phones... and then suddenly the power goes out...

James Ward Byrkit's lo-fi, sci-fi feature is generally very successful. The events surrounding the arrival of the comet and the resulting effect creates an immediate and sustained tension, but heightening this is the group dynamic and the complicated relationship threads running between the characters. This is what gives things an interesting edge. As much as I want to explain the actual sci-fi plotline, the film is so much more enjoyable for not knowing what actually happens. This is movie which is best seen without any foreknowledge, so with this review I'll just stick to what makes it work. (So, no spoilers!)

With minimal use of special effects Byrkit manages to pull off a remarkably complicated premise, one which we can use our imaginations to flesh out without any need of CGI or flashy gimmicks. The film takes place almost entirely in the home of Lee and Mike, yet we feel the space outside the house and we sense the events taking place there. Through dialogue and character reactions alone, suspense and tension are projected extremely effectively, and the hand-held camerawork keeps things moving fast and with a great energy. It's almost becoming a cliché to complain about too much 'shaky cam' but in this case it feels fitting and gives us an idea of what the characters are experiencing. Here it's done right and adds a terrific sense of spontaneity to events. The plot is slightly confusing at times, and it's easy to become a little overwhelmed trying to keep up with specifics (especially towards the end), but as Basil Exposition says, it's best to just relax and enjoy yourself, even if things appear to make little sense at times.

The script is also remarkably funny and well-considered. Characters observe the absurdity of events as they unfold, and there are moments when you can't help but laugh at the craziness of it all. It's admirable that the writers felt confident enough to include a fair amount of humour in the situation and it works to generate a good balance between realism and entertainment, although the film reverts effortlessly back to a heavier atmosphere when required, as the group realize that they face a genuine threat. Initially the characters seem slightly irritating (I admit that might just be my interpretation) but their idiosyncrasies and clashing personalities come into play as the story develops. Nicholas Brendon and Elizabeth Gracen in particular add a great deal of comic relief, while Emily Baldoni, essentially playing the lead, and Maury Sterling as her boyfriend, keep the film grounded and do a good job with the unenviable task of playing their characters totally straight. Hugo Armstrong plays a guest who may or may not have the answer to the mysterious happenings, and does a fine job as the 'brains' of the group.

Cerebral sci-fi films like this are best when they have you thinking, "What would I do in this situation?" and part of the fun of Coherence is waiting to see what the characters will try to do to fix things next. It's a wonderfully engaging film in this respect. The central idea really struck me as pretty original (although on reflection it seems familiar if you're au fait with the genre) just as the twists and turns of the plot took me by surprise. Certainly the ending pulls no punches, and Byrkit deserves huge kudos for not fluffing the denouement.

Here's hoping that Coherence makes a decent splash and gets a wide release. If fans of mind-bending sci-fi take it to heart this little film could become a bit of a cult classic in the mould of Primer or Donnie Darko, and it's a further testament to what can be done on a low budget when you have an intelligent idea, a talented cast and enough enthusiasm. Someone tell that to Hollywood.

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