An underappreciated low-budget sci-fi spectacular.
The following is a guest post by Sebastian Sanchez.
In 2010, the movie Inception showed that people had an appetite for smart, mind-bending science fiction films that ask audiences to actively engage with the content presented to them. Christopher Nolan also had over $150 million to play with when he made the movie. Enough money to fund your local middle school for 10 years. The result is a movie with amazing action set pieces, trailblazing visual effects and a score that likely follows you to this day. And also, it had a pretty good story. As most reviews go, the story is mentioned in the same plane, if not after, the special effects.
The same cannot be said for Coherence, a movie where ersatz props and homey set design do the visual heavy lifting. The movie is reported to have had only $50,000 in production costs, but even if this were tripled, it would only represent one tenth of one percent of Nolan’s budget. It is no surprise then that Coherence came and went after its 2013 debut, only seen and talked about by the nerdiest of indie film nerds. But the little praise it got is almost universally favorable. Now that it’s been released for streaming on Amazon Prime, Coherence might finally get the attention and praise it so rightly deserves.
Coherence has a simple set-up, eight friends come together for a dinner party in a well-to-do California suburb. A mid-point that brings its true sci-fi nature, when a strange comet flies over our protagonists and odd things happen around them. And a fantastic climax that leaves you thinking about it for days.
The movie starts with a couple of slow expository scenes that introduce the characters and the history they share, which already has pre-built conflict. The tension quickly ramps up when the comet passes and our protagonists find themselves in a horror-movie-type scenario, isolated from civilization and scared about the possibility of intruders in their home. But with little to no jump-scares, this is no horror movie. It is a thriller that makes the viewer, just as much as the protagonists, question the reality in front of their eyes.
Coherence is a movie that, for such a simple plot, can’t stop raising the stakes time and time again. From awkward chit-chat at an old friend’s place, to old relationships that bring up a painful past, to literal life and death scenarios. And it all flows naturally and smoothly, always keeping the audience engaged as the tension mounts. Last time I watched it, my Fitbit thought I was running, and I had seen it before!
What makes this movie great is that, like the best of science fiction, it isn’t about the fantastic element in it but rather about human nature. It is about the fragility of relationships, how under the radar conflicts come to a head under extenuating circumstances. It explores the volatility of our own self, how well do you know yourself, and what would you do to save the person you think you are? It makes you observe and question our basically innate, but also dangerous, fear of the ‘other.’
The movie is, in style and feel, very much like the crop of mumblecore films of its time. The type of movie that brought Lena Dunham, Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig to the limelight. Aggressively low-budget, awfully realistic, with overlapping dialogue that feels like what you hear (or heard, pre-covid) in any crowded place. It is the type of movie that puts you in the shoes of the protagonists.
With its straightforward three act structure, almost street fast dialogue and lo-fi look, Coherence is only as good as its story. And it is storytelling 101 in its most masterfully executed way, a must-see for anyone in filmmaking.
Inception folds upon itself with the concept of dreams within dreams, only to unfold countless interpretations about its meaning. Coherence does the same, presenting a simple plot device, a comet that makes people act strangely, and allows for innumerable interpretations. Like Inception, a movie that left people scratching their heads after its end and has friends discussing it thoroughly ten years later, Coherence is a movie made to be talked about. But Inception got its wide release on more screens than there are hospitals in rural America. Coherence toured the indie film circuit and got pulled out of theaters right after.
Christopher Nolan proved that he is a fantastic director that can create great mind-bending movies with Memento, Inception, The Prestige, etc. But he generally has the defense budget of small countries to work with. Coherence proves that you don’t need insane amounts of money to make an amazing movie. All you really need is a good idea, some people having a good time, and a well structured story.