After Under the Skin, sci-fi has again gone indie to startling effect with James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence.
The term ‘sci-fi’ can bring to mind images of mega-budget action sequences and CGI futurescapes; in stark contrast, the most exciting sci-fi in years takes place in the present day, and features eight people sitting round a dining room table. Coherence, which is currently garnering much acclaim at festivals and independent showings, is an exceptional (and refreshing) cinematic experience, both as an example of the sci-fi genre and of independent cinema in general. Produced on a shoestring budget in director James Ward Byrkit’s house, Coherence manages to blow its big budget competitors out of the water via a sensational concept supported by a solid cast.
The film descends into an expanding riddle about paranoia and alternate realities, as characters fall apart at the seams
When eight friends meet up for an ordinary dinner party, it seems like any other night, until a power cut mysteriously leaves only theirs and one other house with power. Soon the situation becomes disorienting and bizarre when photos and notes start turning up belonging to the dinner party guests, presumably from the other house. The film then descends into an expanding riddle about paranoia and alternate realities, as one character, Em, emerges as the audience surrogate, watching her friends – and herself – fall apart at the seams, in a situation that they don’t understand.
Much of Coherence’s success stems from its focus on the central premise – the key idea is so good that it doesn’t bother to waste time with anything else. Aside from a small amount of character set-up in the opening, there are no pauses. All other character development occurs as the story moves along, both lending the film excellent pace and helping the viewer keep up with the increasingly complex story. Coherence also manages to steer almost entirely clear of one of science fiction’s least desirable traits: tedious exposition. A useful snippet of information here and there is all the viewer needs. The filmmakers trust the audience’s intelligence.
A major strength of Coherence is found in the performances – each actor creates a character so whole and alive it feels as if they go on living while off screen, not just puppets illustrating a story. While Nicolas Brendon may be the only familiar face in the line-up (having famously played Xander in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the entire cast perform exceptionally well. It will not come as a surprise to those who have seen the film to learn that the dialogue was improvised based only on character descriptions and loose scene outlines. This gives the film an outstanding sense of realism, grounding the strange occurrences in a solid and familiar setting.
Coherence will leave you with the tantalising question of “what would you do?”, not dissimilar to the effect of a great Twilight Zone parable
Director Byrkit, has several times in interviews acknowledged and cited the Twilight Zone as a source of inspiration, and Coherence certainly has a sense of a modern, feature-length episode of the iconic TV show. One of the things Coherence will leave you with is the tantalising question of “what would you do?”, not dissimilar to the effect of a great Twilight Zone parable. No doubt this will help the film’s shareability no end – it certainly makes the viewing experience a memorable, if haunting, one. This is a film which rewards repeat viewings; there’s a wealth of clues and allusions so subtle they would go completely unnoticed to even the most eagle-eyed first time viewer.
Coherence has been crafted with love and intelligence, overcoming the obstacle of its minuscule budget to prove that real cinema doesn’t need whistles and bells to have an impact. While it has most definitely succeeded artistically, being praised by both critics and cinemagoers alike, the only problem Coherence now faces is reaching the audience it deserves – the production has precious little money for marketing and distribution. Though it is currently available for download in the US, to get an international download and DVD release the film needs a show of demand, which you can register on the film’s official website. This one’s definitely worth the effort.
Read more: We left our imagination in The Twilight Zone
All images: Oscilloscope Laboratories