Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/26/14 00:23:19

"Even when a bit incoherent, still more interesting than many sci-fi movies."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2014 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: "Coherence" is one of the talkiest, most actor-centric sci-fi films you're ever likely to see, but this is a case where that's a pretty good thing. Sure, something this odd and improv-heavy can invite disaster when a neat idea isn't able to thrive, but this is a case where things go far more right than wrong.

The initial bit of strangeness doesn't seem like a big deal - Emily (Emily Foxler) is talking to her friend Laurie (Lauren Maher) while driving over for a dinner party when her screen suddenly shatters for no reason, but then it is an iPhone and those things crack when you look at them too intently. She gets to Laurie's house okay, and the women and Laurie's actor husband Mike (Nicholas Brendon) are soon joined by Emily's boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling) and two other couples - Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) & Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), who brings some suspect botanicals, and Amir (Alex Manugian) & Lee (Lorene Scafaria), who also happens to be Kevin's ex-girlfriend. There's a comet passing fairly close to Earth that night, and soon the power and mobile phone service go out. One house down the street still has the lights on, but when a couple of the guys go over to see if they have a landline, things quickly get strange.

And then they get stranger; while much of the dialog may be improvised, director James Ward Byrkit (who created the scenario with co-star Alex Manugian) puts his cast into situations that have the potential to make a viewer's head hurt a little more with each bit of elaboration - that the passage of this comet has somehow warped space and time in the area around this house quickly becomes an insufficient explanation. Fortunately, he doesn't overburden the audience with explanations - a few references to thought experiments that have familiar names but may not be strictly applicable is enough, especially since it wouldn't necessarily do to have the audience understand things well enough that they get exasperated with the characters.

It's kind of amusing that all this weird science-fictional stuff turns out to be a good fit for a dinner party movie, but it works - confused people are going to want to talk and argue. Byrkit, at least initially, doesn't make many concessions to the fantastic in how the movie is presented: The camera stays roughly at eye level, the use of available light combined with a power outage results some very deep shadows, and Byrkit & cinematographer Nic Sadler often set their digital cameras to emulate a fairly coarse-grained film. The improvised dialogue often overlaps, and when the camera moves away from the main conversation going on at any given time, it often seems furtive, like the audience is seeing something meant to be private.

Given the chance to improvise, the actors seem to be having a ball, and nobody more so than Nicholas Brendon. Somehow, he hasn't received the number of wisecracking sidekick roles one might expect since Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended, which is a shame, as he seems to rattle off every memorable line in the movie with a snap. He's not the only one; the whole cast is nimble, fleshing out their characters without a whole lot of exposition even while selling a story that can be tough to keep track of. Though the entire ensemble is good, Emily Foxler (who may be credited by her married name Emily Baldoni by the time the film reaches theaters) shoulders a somewhat larger burden than the rest, and she's up for it, putting forth a smart, methodical air without ever making her character seem cold or overdoing her slight insecurity.

She's also the only one who really gets to play with the implications of the movie's fantastic elements once they're revealed, and that's kind of a shame - once you start getting into the various possibilities opened up by the variation inherent in the movie's premise, the idea of seeing something major come across as different has some appeal. That Byrkit and company mostly only give the various iterations of the characters we see fairly subtle variations also means that giving the movie an ending requires a pretty hard right turn; I was reminded of the similarly-themed Plus One in how the last scenes served up some fairly out-of-nowhere bits of nastiness.

For all that "Coherence" does run out of steam a little while before a somewhat random ending, it's fairly strong up until that point. The good cast plays with some ideas that are worth the headache they may cause if thought about too much, and even the weaker bits are still more intriguing. There's more chewy quantum-oriented sci-fi goodness than many films in the genre that seem much more ambitious on the surface, and as such it would be worth a curious viewer's time even if its flaws were more severe.

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