Lo-fi Sci-fi: Coherence Reviewed

James Ubaghs reviews low-budget science fiction brain-twister Coherence

Cinematic science fiction is usually associated with the visually spectacular; from the eye popping expressionist future city-scapes of Lang’s Metropolis, to the…um… eye popping expressionist future city-scapes of Ridley Scott’s Blade runner, and so on and so on. Of course the issue is that you usually need great big piles of cash to realize credible looking high-tech dystopias.

Yet it’s easy to forget that science fiction should – when executed correctly – be the genre of ideas, and that a canny script and some big concepts can be just as awe inspiring (and far more cost-effective) than special effects bluster. Tarkovsky’s Stalker manages to be just as hard hitting and heavy duty as 2001, and it does so by replacing the visual wonderment of outer space with angsty Russians lying about in piles of rubble engaging in philosophical monologuing.

Big budget sci-fi is for the most part stuck in a mire of too-big-to-fail, action-adventure, special effects reliant bloat. But on the flip side there has been a recent flourishing of high concept no-budget indie sci-fi, with Shane Carruth’s Primer being perhaps the first, and most successful example of the form.

James Ward Byrkit’s recently released debut feature Coherence is another first rate example of the no-budget mind bender. Byrkit has been a long time Gore Verbinski collaborator, but Coherence‘s ingenious austerity is about as far removed from Verbinski’s queasy maximalism as possible.

The film was shot entirely in Byrkit’s house, and with dialogue almost entirely improvised by it’s cast of relative unknowns ( the excellent Nicholas Brendon of Buffy The Vampire Slayer acclaim is by the far the most high profile name here). On paper it sounds like it should be an ambling indie trifle, but instead the finished product is a tight, paranoid, mind-bending thriller, that isn’t afraid to give its big concepts even bigger dramatic pay-offs.

Things start off simple, a group of thirty/forty something affluent friends hold a dinner party, and their casual resentments, and minor relationship dramas, are soon interrupted by bizarre phenomenon caused by a comet passing overhead. Coherence more or less plays like The Big Chill if the universe imploded at the end of its first act.

It’s a tricky film to discuss without getting all spoiler-y, but it’s fair to say that Coherence effortlessly segues from bourgeois socialising, to cosmic paranoia worthy of Philip K. Dick. What’s doubly impressive is that it manages to do so without losing a focus on character.

Primer – the closest point of comparison – holds viewers at an obtuse but still deeply compelling distance. It does so in part by having its chilly characters speaking uniquely in hard to decipher technical jargon. Coherence on the other hand is far more approachable, its characters, despite all the improvisation, feeling like consistent, developed human beings. Nicholas Brendon’s first rate comic timing is especially welcome, and as an added bonus his character gets plenty of – vaguely meta – dramatic development.

It would be a passable lo-fi indie drama even without the sci-fi shenanigans, but there are probably enough of those flooding film festivals as is. Indeed there has been a heartening surge of first rate indie genre pieces recently. Films like this, Blue Ruin, and The Guest, serve as much needed correctives to all the cloyingly indulgent quirk-fests that so frequently pass for independent cinema.

Coherence more than holds up as excellent science fiction. Repeat viewings reveal plenty of deft foreshadowing as well. There are some nutty happenings here, but the groundwork is all methodically set up. Despite all the improvised dialogue, on a plot level Byrkit clearly had everything worked out ahead of time. Coherence is closer to an exceptional episode of The Twilight Zone, than it is to the demented fever dream of a mentally unwell engineering doctorate that is Primer. That still makes Coherence a whip-smart piece of bone lean entertainment. An innocuous house to film in, some actors, and some big ideas, can take you to far more exciting and mind blowing destinations than barrel drums of poorly used CGI money ever could.

Coherence is out on DVD now

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today