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movie review

Coherence Is a Great Sci-Fi Story Smuggled Inside a Dinner-Party Movie

By telling you that Coherence is the best science-fiction movie I’ve seen in the last couple of years … I’ve already ruined half the fun of Coherence. But it couldn’t be helped. Sorry. Hate me if you must, but you should still see the movie.

The idea is this: A group of friends arrive for a dinner party on the eve of a mysterious comet’s passing over Earth. It’s an unremarkable but worldly collection of people: There are the ex-flames who are now there with their respective others. There’s the health nut who likes to talk about her carb cleanse. There’s the ballerina whose pride forced her to miss out on her shot at the big time some years ago. There’s the actor who once had a part on a TV show (Roswell, hint-hint), but hasn’t done anything since. There are hints of lives unlived, dreams deferred. You sense that for all their smugness, these people wouldn’t mind having their realities shaken up a bit.

There’s some talk of how the passing of “Miller’s Comet” might affect things on Earth – electricity, phone signals, magnetic waves, and even human actions. (Someone’s cell phone has already cracked, right before they arrived at the party.) There’s even talk of historical incidents involving comets, like the Tunguska Event of 1908, which wiped out miles of Siberian forest. It’s all held at the witty, cultured, pleasant remove you’d expect from these folks. They make light of the comet flying overhead, because what else would you do? “This chicken tastes like tuna. It must be Miller’s Comet!” “I’m living in the moment!” someone exclaims when they discover that all the phones and internet have stopped working. “I’m so glad I’m not high,” someone else sighs when things finally start to get slightly ominous.

Anyway, that’s all I’m saying about the plot.

The characters in Coherence feel natural, distinct, like people we might actually know. Director James Ward Byrkit strikes such a beautiful balance here it feels like a magic act: We get wrapped up in the dinner party itself, but we also know that the comet isn’t just color. We know something’s going to happen. But we don’t quite know what, and Byrkit even dares to have fun with this anticipation. “I can feel it! It’s like a vortex!” one character yells about something seemingly unrelated, as the film smash-cuts to a few minutes later. It’s a throwaway editing joke – the kind only a director who has you completely in the palm of his hand can make.

Coherence’s lo-fi aesthetic will remind some of Shane Carruth’s much-beloved Primer. It’s maybe not as “smart” as Carruth’s film – you don’t need a diagram to figure it out, to the extent that you need to figure it out at all – but it feels more lived in, less antiseptic. Its transformation of mundane interactions into something otherworldly actually reminded me of another brilliant, lesser-known sci-fi film from a couple of years ago, Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial. But Byrkit’s film is very much its own thing. It’s an urbane dinner-party movie that turns into something magnificent, terrible, and strange – and yet it never quite stops being an urbane dinner-party movie, never lets up its tone of ironic refinement. Coherence is a gentle film, but you walk away from it with your brain on fire.

Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories