Just released on on DVD in the US, with a limited UK theatrical release on the 13th February then hitting DVD here a few days later on the 16th, director James Ward Byrkit’s ultra low budget film Coherence is a movie every science fiction fan should make a special effort to see (in fact, fans of intelligent drama in general). This is a film about which the less you know the better, so I have made every effort to ensure the following is as ‘spoiler free’ as possible (as tiresome as it is to mention that, this film is a special case)…
A group of friends gather in the Hollywood Hills for a dinner party. The venue is the house of Mike (Nicholas Brendon) a former TV actor. In the night sky can be seen the faint trail of a comet passing near the earth. The appearance of this rare celestial body has caused numerous such gatherings, and indeed, as the guests arrive a rival gathering can be viewed across the street.
Travelling to the party, Emily (Emily Baldoni) experiences strange phenomena when her cellphone suddenly cuts out and its screen spontaneously shatters. Upon arrival, she relates this experience to her boyfriend Kevin (Maury Stirling) and the other guests. Her suggestion that the comet may be responsible – she had heard of strange phenomena occurring during previous comet sightings – is met with gentle incredulity.
As the table is set simmering tensions emerge when Amir (Alex Manugian) arrives with an uninvited guest, his new girlfriend Laurie (Lauren Maher). Laurie was in a previous relationship with Kevin and there is instant crackling tension between her and Emily.
This is the basis of many a melodrama. The dinner table is often a fulcrum for drama, from the racial tension of Look Who’s Coming to Dinner to the generational anxieties of Eat Drink Man Woman. However, that curious opening with the inexplicable auto-destruction of Emly’s smart phone, and the presence of a mysterious celestial object gives the sense that this will not be a standard mumblecore drama.
Before the main course is served the neighbourhood is plunged into darkness, the only light that nearby house with its contending party.
Clearly carried out on a tight budget with minimal resources, this is essentially a film where a group of people stand around and talk. However, director James Ward Byrkit keeps the film cinematic with a dynamic shooting style, and by creating a distinctly Rod Serling-esque mood. Coherence is a science fiction film, but one that eschews special effects and SF’s more outré clichés to explore deep and often migraine-inducing concepts.
To go into detail regarding the ideas that fuel the film’s narrative engine would do it and you a disservice, but it is instantly intriguing, drip feeding just enough of the uncanny to hook you in before slowly twisting its barbs into your psyche.
The immediate impression given by Coherence is of a film benefiting from an intricate plot and a tight script, so it is astonishing to discover that Byrkit and his cast worked from no script at all. The director had a taut outline but gave his actors only a point of entry for each scene. Ingeniously, the film is peppered with items, such as Emily’s cracked cellphone screen and a set of glow sticks, that become signifiers and guides through the increasingly complex plot. Once viewed in full, and with the realisation of the level of improvisation involved, the intricate planning and preparation that will have been required to produce a (please excuse me) coherent film is inspiring.
As with any improvised or semi-improvised piece, there is much fun to be had in guessing which flourishes have come from the players themselves. Joss Whedon fans will get a thrill not only from Nicholas Brendon’s inclusion in the cast, but from his character’s back story, which is a sly in-joke. Mike reveals that he was a cast member of the TV series Roswell (1999 – 2002) a show contemporary to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003) the one that actually made Brandon’s name (he played key Scooby-gang member Xander). Brendon’s character also alludes to the well publicised and unfortunate personal problems that have made the actor’s screen appearances fleeting post Buffy-verse. It is a brave performance.
Emily Baldoni plays the film’s central character and is an engaging and intelligent presence but all of the cast bring chemistry and believability to their characters. It is refreshing to see a horror tinged science fiction film, however low key, with adults as the central characters – even if occasionally it is as though the cast of thirtysomething have become stranded in an episode of Sapphire and Steel.
The science fiction genre is too often associated with pure spectacle, and too often overlooked by low budget filmmakers in favour of ‘kitchen sink’ and ‘mumblecore’ realism. In fact, SF is often a perfect vehicle for smart but under-resourced filmmakers to impress because it can work on the purity of a good idea alone. Recent filmmakers to have recognised this include Darren Aronofsky (Pi), Shane Carruth (Primer and Upstream Color), and Nacho Vigalondo (Los cronocrímenes/Timecrimes), among others.
The word Coherence makes for more than just a snappy one-word title, in fact it is at the heart of what is going on structurally in Byrkit’s film. The director may not have crafted a script, but clearly has expended Herculean effort machine tooling a sandbox narrative superstructure in which his actors can play. Similar films such as Primer and Pi can occasionally feel a little too opaque for their own good, but Coherence is remarkable in that it articulates complex ideas within an ingeniously simple dramatic structure. There are moments of confusion, but ultimately it is very clear about what is happening. It is rarely done with this considerable elegance. Mind bending puzzle Coherence may be, but it is one that where the solution is clear.
There is an interesting contrast and comparison to be made between Coherence and another recent example of dazzling film making technique, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s excellent (albeit far more high profile) Birdman. In many ways, these two films are polar opposites in terms of film making technique. Coherence is a film that is almost entirely improvisational, not just for the actors, but to a great degree also for the filmmakers working around them. Birdman is tightly scripted with each of its long takes meticulously planned in advance.
Iñárritu creates a superb illusion of Birdman being a single continuous take. It isn’t of course and occasionally even flaunts its digital joins, but its careful construction necessarily denies off-the-cuff spontaneity. In order to continue that illusion of a continuous take, the end of every shot must match the beginning of the next exactly. Added to which there is a huge amount of digital work further demanding strict blocking of every scene.
Byrkit’s in contrast embraces the cut. Coherence is a picture constructed in the edit a much as on location (actually the director’s own home). Because of the extensive on-camera improvisation (rather than the usual method of improvising in rehearsal, taking notes, and then doing that again when the camera rolls) strict continuity is an impossibility. The filmmakers’ have gotten around this with ingenious strategies. Cinematographer Nic Sadler and editor Lance Pereira do terrific work covering over the numerous continuity issues thrown up by this extreme level of improvisation.
In Coherence rather than a straight cut, there is often a fade-to-black… beat… fade-up-from-black. This creates a distinct editing rhythm for the film. The beat between shots is like a blink, and the audience fills in the missing information between the shots, smoothing away what would have been a jarring cut. Working hard to follow off-piste actors, the image constantly shifts and pulls focus which makes a woozy sense of an unreliable reality. The rhythm of the film is a mogadonned, broken backed shuffle, like a Happy Monday’s 12”. Birdman also has a rhythm, but in complete contrast it is a tight staccato jazz beat that moves with amphetamine velocity.
In entirely opposing ways both Byrkit and Iñárritu take their major film making obstructions, and weave them into the very fabric of the stories they are trying to tell. The great irony is that it is the tightly controlled Birdman that feels like the improvisational film, and the improvisational Coherence that feels tightly scripted. Both films are technical marvels that demonstrate just what the medium of cinema is capable of.