Fantastic Fest review: "Coherence" picks cleverness over violence


According to writer-director James Ward Byrkit, Miller’s Comet changes things.

Celestial activity during a dinner party is the primer for "Coherence," a low-budget cerebral drama that kicked off Fantastic Fest’s opening day. A comet passes over Earth, the lights go dark and four couples become eerily alone in the neighborhood except for a suspiciously lit-up house down the street. This tame exposition leads way to a procedural, detective-less mystery that disregards dramatic irony and drags the audience alongside the characters as they process an increasingly strange situation.

The film’s plot, despite involving quantum mechanics and Schrodinger’s Cat, circles around interpersonal relations. This unconventional framing device works in the film’s favor, eschewing the ultraviolence found in modern sci-fi (Elysium, Dredd) for drama based around relationships and domesticity. Byrkit uses the petty disputes between couples to reveal each characters’ insecurities and subsequently attacks them through supernatural phenomena. As sci-fi goes, "Coherence" takes a minimalistic approach to the comet’s influences, relying more on subtle mind tricks than CGI to produce this particular headtrip.

The characters themselves, while well-acted, are shallow. It’s true that as a group they are able to uphold the story, but when analyzed individually they begin to fall apart. Aside from the lead, played by Emily Foxler, each one exists as part of a larger trope, whether its the fact that they're overshadowed by their genius brother or simply tempted to cheat. Nicholas Brendon from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is the highlight of the cast, playing a strangely prescient role that has him questioning whether or not his time as a primetime television star is over. Despite one-dimensional characters, the rest of the script is competently written and cohesive, involving just enough pseudoscience among the larger scientific concepts to be believable.

Any sci-fi film made these days has two options: a large budget that lends itself to high quality special effects or clever filmmaking. "Coherence" adheres to the latter philosophy, using camera tricks, editing and a smart use of props to signify greater story indications. Clutching tightly to an aesthetic that invokes Shane Carruth’s "Primer," the film has a soft, tungsten glow that resembles a common incandescent-laden home. Well-lit interiors give way to grainy, low-light exteriors that seem to stretch the limits of the production’s film stock. Given it's realistic, low-action plot, the filmmakers’ struggle to make "Coherence" visually engaging is not completely in vain.

"Coherence" is a thinker. Despite frequent infodumps, the audience is never given the idea that they know everything. Although most films allow some level of outside perspective, for instance through a scene featuring a supporting actor acting alone, the fun in watching "Coherence" stems from learning about this elusive comet’s influence alongside the characters.