Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2014


Mr. Schrödinger's Neighborhood

Playful mind-bender 'Coherence' is a twisty piece of quantum physics-inspired entertainment

Oscilloscope Pictures
Director: James Ward Byrkit
Screenplay: James Ward Byrkit
Starring: Emily Baldoni, Nicholas Brendon, Maury Sterling, Lauren Maher, Hugo Armstrong, Lorene Scafaria, Alex Manugian and Elizabeth Gracen
Not rated / 1 hour, 29 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Everybody wants to make the next Primer. Before that everyone wanted to make the next Memento. The loopy head-scratcher that everyone talks about and obsesses over, that demands re-viewings, that gets more and more rewarding the deeper you follow its implications.

It may be unfair of me to bring up those movies while reviewing James Ward Byrkit's Coherence, because it's a terrific movie in its own right, even if it doesn't pull off quite the mind game I think it wants to. But hey - doing what those other movies did is a rare trick. It probably says a lot that the creators of those two films have both gone on to strike head-scratching lightning a second time - Shane Carruth with Upstream Color, Christopher Nolan with Inception - while so many others have floundered (Mike Cahill, anyone?) trying to make the Next Great Cinematic Puzzle Box.

Enough about the failures - Coherence is hardly that, anyway. But it works for a lot of different reasons than its heady, low-budget sci-fi counterparts, and in a lot of different ways. Once the wheels are in motion and the gears start shifting around - and around and around - the film gets to have a lot of fun with its scenario. It's compulsively entertaining in much the same way Edge of Tomorrow is, as we see the characters figuring out what's going on, react to it, learn from it, and start coming up with ways to beat it.

Virtually the entirety of Coherence takes place in one house, at one dinner party among a group of old friends. For various reasons, they all leave the house at various points throughout the evening, but they always wind up right back at the same house ... kind of. See, there's this comet blazing through the sky on this particular night - and as one character is quick to point out, there are a number of historical anecdotes about inexplicable occurrences taking place when a comet passes too close to the Earth's atmosphere, blatantly (but perhaps necessarily) telegraphing the film's own narrative.

Strange occurrences indeed begin happening. First the power and cell phone service goes out. The gang heads outside and sees that the entire neighborhood is without power - well, that is, except for one house down at the other end of the street. Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and Amir (Alex Manugian) head off to investigate and see if they can get any phone or Internet service at the other house, only to discover once they get there that the house in question is identical to the one they just left. And the people inside are - or at least seem to be - the same people. (There's a bit of sly satire of suburbia here - they initially don't realize it's the same house because all the houses kinda look the same.)

And so, Coherence dives head-first into quantum mechanics - and luckily enough, Hugh's brother is a quantum physicist himself, and in apparent anticipation of the comet's passing, happened to leave a book in Hugh's car that will essentially explain their situation. So, OK, the script makes a few leaps just to keep us on solid ground. But if you can get past the contrivance, you'll find that the film has amusingly opened up a bottomless can of worms. There could be an infinite number of versions of that house, and an infinite number of versions of each character. The book recounts the concept of Schrödinger's Cat; this group of friends essentially find themselves in Schrödinger's House, or Schrödinger's Neighborhood, with multiple identical but contradictory states of physical reality coexisting at once.

The film's title refers to "quantum decoherence," which essentially means - in this story's terms - that the various physical realities cannot interact with or perceive one another. The comet, apparently, has thrown that out of whack.

What's nice about Coherence is how playful writer/director James Ward Byrkit is with the concept, embracing the inherent chaos just enough to make the narrative volatile and consistently involving, but not so much that the characters don't understand what they're up against and what the "rules" are. The fun is in seeing the little deviations that get revealed - when the group, for example, realizes that the version of one character that they're currently interacting with isn't the same version they began the evening with - and in how each change, each new discovery, alters character behaviors.

Of all the high-minded, low-budget head-scratchers I've seen in recent years, this one most reminded me of last year's +1, although this is a much better movie. Byrkit's film is clever - if not quite the mind-blowing effort he may be aiming for - and is particularly smart in the way it allows things to deviate, and the stakes to raise, with small, subtle alterations instead of big dramatic gestures. He doesn't cheat away from the simple reality that each house and each character is essentially identical to every counterpart - a character in one reality is likely to make most (if not all) of the same decisions, and have the same thought process, as every one of his doppelgängers.

Byrkit shoots the film with handheld cameras and relies often on tight compositions that appropriately obscure peripheral details, preventing us from gathering too much information from each shot and thus increasing the feeling of paranoia. The persistent close-ups reinforce an ongoing sense of isolation that sets in the less and less each character trusts his or her own surroundings, or his or her own friends.

Coherence doesn't want to keep us too off-balance, so the film feels very organized even as its starts descending into unknown, paradoxical territory. And there are moments where it feels like it's hedging its bets a bit, or setting us up too much. Still, the inventiveness with which it toys with theoretical notions of quantum physics is enough to make it one of the more purely enjoyable movies of the summer.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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