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With: Emily Foxler, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Elizabeth Gracen, Alex Manugian, Lauren Maher, Hugo Armstrong, Lorene Scafaria
Written by: James Ward Byrkit, based on a story by James Ward Byrkit, Alex Manugian
Directed by: James Ward Byrkit
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 89
Date: 06/27/2014

Coherence (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

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By Jeffrey M. Anderson

There are generally two kinds of sci-fi movies: parables about war, and movies centered around science-based ideas. Many of the big-budget ones are war movies. The idea-based ones, such as Primer or Moon, are often low-budget, set in simple, limited locations, and using concepts rather than computer effects. James Ward Byrkit's Coherence is set almost entirely in a dining room. It has just about everything I like in a sci-fi movie, and it's a tense, involving, brain-bending success.

Eight friends, round about the age of 40, gather for a dinner party. They are comfortable with one another and talk with familiar teasing and common history. Sci-fi fans will instantly recognize Nicholas Brendon from the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" TV series. (Interestingly, he plays a TV actor, the star of "Roswell.") Lorene Scafaria, the director of the wonderful, underrated sci-fi comedy, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, also has a role.

One of the topics of conversation is a comet that is flying near the earth that has already begun to have strange effects, such as mysteriously cracking cell phones. At some point the power goes out, and it begins. One guest wishes to phone his brother, and they can see through the darkness that another house up the road still has power, so two guests leave to make their way there. They return later with a box. Inside the box is a ping-pong paddle, and photographs of each of them, each with a number written on the back. One of the photos is brand-new, showing the subject in a newly-purchased sweater, though he has no memory of the photo being taken.

After a while, it becomes apparent, through descriptions and stories, that the other house up the road is exactly like this house, with eight people inside that look pretty much the same as these eight people. There are no direct close encounters with creepy doubles, and no battles, and no visual effects are used other than lighting; director James Ward Byrkit keeps us confined entirely to the one house, and sometimes the surrounding yard.

I guess I should stop there. The movie is brilliant at the simple telling of this story, laying on more and more information, which, rather than solving the puzzle, makes it deeper and more mind-blowing. Little character behaviors, such as one man's penchant for alcohol, or one woman's procuring of a hallucinatory drug, become important stressors on the plot as a whole. This is just plain great writing; the script is by the director, based on a story co-written by Alex Manugian.

Conversely, the visual style isn't exactly dazzling, and it's rather raw, but the filmmakers do clever things with light, or lack of light, and of course these actors -- mostly veterans of TV -- hold everything together at all times. They have strong, honest chemistry.

These days there are a great many sci-fi fans out there, but I do feel as if not many of them are very adventurous about moving away from war-based sci-fi and into idea-based sci-fi. If anyone out there has seen just about enough of giant robots or giant bugs or evil aliens attacking the earth, and are starting to crave something just a bit more this summer, then Coherence is here for you.

Oscilloscope gave Coherence a 2015 DVD release. No Blu-ray, but for a low-budget movie like this, it's not a big loss. The main extra is an audio commentary with writer/director James Ward Byrkit, writer/actor Alex Manugian, and actor Emily Foxler, which is informative, but fairly low-key. There's a making-of featurette, which is mainly talking heads and clips, and some test footage that Byrkit shot a year before production. There are also trailers for this and other Oscilloscope releases. Again, if you're a sci-fi fan and you missed this, check it out now.

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