A far cry from keeping in line

Winston Eng, Staff Reporter

The ticket holders were getting more and more restless as they learned that the previous film’s Q-and-A session had run a little longer than expected. The time was 11:35 p.m., and as someone who had been waiting in the front of the line since 10:15 p.m., I was starting to feel the strain as well.

After all, these were the last few hours in the penultimate day of the 38th Cleveland International Film Festival. With many accolades including “best screenplay” from multiple festivals, “Coherence” had set itself up to be a successful twist on the sci-fi thriller genre, and I truly hoped that its execution would be well worth the 80 minutes spent waiting in limbo. Within 20 minutes, volunteers ushered us into the theater, and we found our seats. After a few apologies from an organizer at the podium up front, he introduced us to writer and director James Bykrit who wanted to give a few helpful words before the screening.

“I just would like to preface this showing by telling you that what you are about to see is a puzzle.” He paused. “Some of you might get ahead of it at some points, some of you might temporarily get lost, but do not worry, as the story will pick you up from where you are and guide you to the end. Enjoy.”

The seriousness in the tone of his voice reverberated with the crowd. Eventually, the dull roar drowned out to an occasional whisper as the lights dimmed and the first shot hit the screen. Few would be prepared for the devilish details they would soon see.

Nothing spoils a lovely evening more than an unexpected guest. For Emily, it’s the last minute mention that her boyfriend’s ex, the saucy vixen Laurie, will be making an appearance at the dinner party she is currently en route to. This guarantees a certain degree of awkwardness for the rest of the night.

Amongst the rest of the crowd present are the comedic actor and his hostess wife, the new-age guru and her gritty husband, Emily’s boyfriend who is just a little too quiet for her liking and the guy obviously getting lucky with Laurie. In stark contrast, the setup for the meal is simple, yet refined: wooden mixing bowls filled with fancied-up mixed greens, a plentiful assortment of wines, a potluck variety and expensive chinaware all complement each other quite beautifully. For good measure, a home remedy of herbal blend mixed with watered-down ketamine is present in the kitchen just in case things get a little too intense.

Despite the conversation starting casual and clawless, it soon becomes apparent through the banter of current careers and future aspirations that even light-hearted jokes cannot alleviate the tension that seems to be building.

A small reprieve from this friction stems from a look of disdain on Hugh’s face when he unexpectedly faces a sudden loss of cellular service. Though he later brushes off the incident as happenstance, Hugh explains to his friends that his brother, a theoretical physicist, had asked Hugh to contact him if “anything strange” were to happen that very night. Emily then chips in with information regarding Miller’s Comet, an astronomical anomaly which is set to pass over the house some time that evening, and asserts that its presence should have something to do with the unresponsive cell towers. Just as the group facetiously questions the legitimacy of Emily’s statement, the power abruptly goes out.

The events that subsequently develop set forth a chain reaction of tests which questions the importance of interpersonal communication and conditions necessary for the development of trust amongst peers. Doubt, anxiety and paranoia run rampant throughout this sci-fi thriller as the characters begin to question not only the events unraveling before their eyes but also the validity of the company each person keeps.

Whimsical, thought-provoking and effectively cerebral, “Coherence” strikes a tale of caution and inquiry into what are perceived to be understated truths often taken for granted. Furthermore, it is the seamless integration of immersion that “Coherence” slips into the audience that really makes it shine.

Witnessing the group, with only limited lighting from their glow sticks, desperately attempt to navigate their way outside through what can only be described as inordinate darkness was quite unnerving to say the least. Revelations are made every step of the way which plant seeds of doubt and mistrust amongst the group, and it is thoroughly exhilarating to be kept guessing the whole way through.

It is a story that challenges its audience to have fun and try a hand at “playing detective” alongside the group to solve its bewildering puzzle where common sense sometimes does not apply. I found myself catching hints of what was to come, but often times I was not able to put myself a step ahead of the characters. This mind game provided a simple trick that coerced me into feeling as engaged, as threatened and as vulnerable as the personas on screen. Overall, the film is unrelenting in its momentum, and when the credits start rolling, you will want to consider a second viewing.

Those familiar with Shane Carruth’s “Primer” should find “Coherence” to be within the same vein of the thought-provoking, low-budget sci-fi film and should draw similarities to Nacho Vigalondo’s “Los Cronocrímenes” (“Timecrimes”) and Christopher Smith’s “Triangle” with slight hints of “Mumblecore” presented in the lightly scripted, heavily improvised dialogue.