I did not sleep the night I watched James Ward Byrkit’s metaphysically terrifying debut “Coherence,” a low-budget sci-fi indie that doubles, and triples, and quadruples, as a truly original existential horror movie. As each piece of this puzzle about eight people collectively going insane shuffles and reshuffles, you never quite know what the hell is going on, and you can almost feel your brain being rewired and, to put it bluntly, royally fucked with.
Things begin innocently enough. On the night of an unprecedented cosmic event, four couples come together for a dinner party. Byrkit’s talky script begins with a bit of playful class critique, as these eight longtime friends are introduced as granola-eating, yoga-doing, upper-middle-class bourgeois brats.
Drawn with at-first broad strokes before their specificities become their (and our) undoing, these vanilla thirty-somethings are utterly ordinary: One, Em (Emily Foxler), is a ballerina whose career never really took flight, another (Nicholas Brendon) is a has-been actor and recovering alcoholic, another is a pedantic lawyer, and so on. The one wild card is Laurie (Lauren Maher), the dark-haired devil in a tight dress who once dated Em’s current boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling).
What looks to be just another uncomfortable evening of passive aggressive dinner theater becomes the stuff of haunted house cliches as a comet passes overhead: cell reception is lost, iPhone screens shatter out of nowhere, ominous bumps-in-the-night are heard outside and all electricity in the neighborhood is knocked out. There’s talk of the Tunguska event of 1908 — when a meteorological explosion flattened a chunk of Russia’s forest — some dubious quantum physics, and, oh, a vial of watered-down ketamine.
These are just red herrings for what’s about to come at you like a brick through a windshield. Two members of the group venture up the street to the only lit house on a very dark block, and that’s when things go malevolently batty.
But to divulge any more of “Coherence” — a bit like Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration” by head-spinning way of the best of “The Twilight Zone” — would take the piss out of the whole thing.
While not as bafflingly theoretical as Shane Carruth’s “Primer” — which this film has been compared to — the metaphysics here are addictively stressful, murky fun. A for-dummies breakdown of Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment — a paradox presupposing that multiple realities can exist in tandem — provides one key to the mystery, but it’s like being handed a map without a legend. Until that map, along with your head, is thrown in the trash.
What really makes “Coherence,” shot with trembling, paranoia-inducing handheld naturalism, such an effective genre brain scrambler is the carefully measured character development. Byrkit allegedly kept his actors very much in the dark about the narrative goings-on, and its reality-bending twists are made all the more chilling as long-thought-to-be-buried secrets come to harrowing light.
It’s taken a long way to get here since it bowed at Austin’s Fantastic Fest in 2013. But “Coherence,” one of the most richly imaginative movies you will ever see, could very well be a game-changer for sci-fi the same way “Primer” was in 2004. But the comparisons stop there.
Oscilloscope brings “Coherence” to NY and LA this Friday, June 20, before a limited rollout and VOD release.