VOD Review: Coherence
I watched the Science Fiction thriller Coherence as a casual observer. Did the film collapse under my observation, or did it remain in the position of being super?
I am a science fiction snob. I’ve mentioned it in previous reviews, but I bristle when a film purports to be based on scientific understanding when in fact it using science as a substitute for magic. I’m fine if you have technology in your fantasy story (I really like Star Wars, and that series is literally about space wizards). I’m fine if you start with a scientific premise and then go further out on the branch than what is currently understood. What I can’t stand is a screenplay with an IFLS level of scientific understanding waving buzzwords in my face while the impossible is trotted out as plausible.
Now that I’ve done scaring the majority of readers away with my nerd-rant, let’s discuss Coherence. Is it in fact coherent?
Eight friends enjoy each other’s company at a dinner party. A comet passing extremely close to earth would prefer if they enjoyed each other’s company decidedly less. It would also like to quibble over whether there are eight friends, as opposed to any infinite number of friends.
Citations or GTFO
The setup of Coherence relies on quantum theory. Specifically: superposition, Schrodinger’s thought experiment, and Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds hypothesis. In superposition, a quantum object can exist in many states, and outside observation of the object causes it to “collapse” into an observed state. Schrodinger proposed his famous dead/alive cat idea as an argument against the prevailing Copenhagen interpretation of superposition. Everett furthered that thought experiment by positing that the observer is irrelevant, because the observation will cause a branching of reality, where infinite observers will observe infinite states of the object without ever effecting the other, equally valid states of reality. The principle keeping these realities separate is decoherence. In Coherence, the comet’s path creates a phenomenon where these states of reality can cross over and effect other realities.
If that sounds like a ton to chew on, it is. I watched this film with someone else. We frequently paused to discuss, debate, and ask our good friend wikipedia what was going on. The result is a film that is intellectually stimulating, but it might not satisfy people who just want to tune out and have a start to finish night of entertainment. I personally like these kinds of films in small doses; the last time I had to spend a viewing being keenly observant was Murder on the Orient Express.
The film does a fairly good job of giving you most of the clues you’ll need as well. There’s both visual and verbal cues, and the film operates under standard “whodunnit?” principles. The only dropped ball was an over reliance on Schrodinger and at the expense of what really matters: Everett’s Many Worlds interpretation. You get a line or two about decoherence, but it mentions Schrodinger’s Cat so many times that I was falsely believing that the film was operating under the Copenhagen interpretation. It felt like a bait and switch when things start going really sideways.
And Then There Were a Whole Lot More Than None
Well, that’s the science-fiction aspect. So how about the thriller? Coherence is an above average thriller, reminiscent of And Then There Were None or Gosford Park. The comet creates isolation, which in turn creates distrust, paranoia, and mystery. The film gives us an introductory period in the form of the dinner party. We meet the guests and get just enough small talk to start to piece together each character. This allows a stronger sense of believe-ability when the tension starts flaying these characters down to their core motivations. The acting is solid, especially when the only “major” actor involved was famous for being a supporting character in “Highlander: The Series”.
The cinematography also sets the table well. We remarked that the camera kept going dark every few minutes, leading the dinner party to feel like vignettes. It didn’t make sense at the time, as the events are unfolding linearly. It did however get you in the mindset of consuming Coherence like a collection of discreet events. When the comet starts messing with continuity, being able to compartmentalize the proceedings is a useful skill. That director James Ward Byrkit thought ahead and instilled it in the viewer via visual cues was smart. The rest of the camera work is dark, tight and claustrophobic, very much like The Blair Witch or Cloverfield.
Jumping From Branch to Branch, All Nimbly Pimbly
I prefaced this review with my feelings on science fiction, because I wasn’t sure until the very end how far out on the plausibility branch Coherence was treading. The answer is: a little too far, but the film is nimble enough to land safely each time it does. The comet is a deus ex machina, but once you accept that premise the rest follows fairly well. It also serves the tension by giving this thought experiment a time limit. The science of quantum states is fairly well executed, if a little poorly stated. I can’t really discuss more than that without spoilers, but when things get really loopy, Coherence becomes a top-notch head-scratcher.
If you want to spend a night deeply immersed in thought provoking fare, get your friends together and give Coherence a watch. Just remember, for the love of Dog, don’t touch any strange boxes. That way lies madness.