When people use the word "horror", it can mean a number of things. Generally, it's used as a genre label, to be the cover-all term for fiction that is deemed scary. Sometimes, people use it to denote something truly horrifying, scarier on a level that goes deeper than jumping out of your seat because something surprised you. Coherence falls into the second category for me, which might be an odd statement considering nowhere is this film described as a horror film. Yet it's only one of a few films in recent memory to really, genuinely make me feel scared both during the movie, and for hours afterwards. Paranoia, anxiety, fear, and uncertainty all coursed through my veins during my viewing, and even as the credits rolled, the feelings still lingered. Rather than fear of any sort of entity or bad guy, it's a deeper, existential dread that the movie sets up, asking the kinds of questions that only good sci-fi can.
The basic set-up, without giving too much away, is that there is a dinner party where several friends are gathering, and on the night of the party, a comet is supposed to pass overhead. This comet passing causes what is essentially a tear in reality, causing quantum level possibilities to occur and become tangible. This is a high-level description, but essentially what we're dealing with is regular folks suddenly dealing with their own surroundings suddenly becoming something that they can't understand. The cast here is one of the biggest strengths, purportedly most of the actors are just people that the director knew, and he essentially called them all to this home for 5 days to film. They were given only general outlines of what was supposed to happen, and improvised most dialogue. This leads to all the interactions feeling very realistic, the way that conversations unfold feel very natural because they are natural. This is essential to the movie working as well as it does, because part of the thrill and the fear is seeing these otherworldly events happening to people that look and talk just like we do. It's easy to picture it being us in this situation, just a group of friends gathering together to hang out, then suddenly forced to deal with extraordinary events that go far beyond what any of them were prepared for. It's the relatability of the characters that enables the horror to set in, because the normal level of disconnect that we feel between us and movie characters isn't there, so it's much easier to picture ourselves as being one of them.
This series of events that spiral out of the characters control, their world falling apart and restructuring around them, this is the fun that science fiction brings to the table. Some of my favorite movies like Stalker and Primer explore outlandish premises which have their beginnings in realistic worlds, and use these premises to explore the human condition in ways that are not possible underneath realistic circumstances. Coherence doesn't draw anything truly mind-blowing out of it's central conceit, but it is an interesting exploration of the way that people would react to mind-bending things like doppelgangers and alternate realities. Science fiction pushes boundaries in ways that people aren't ready for, and by tapping into outlandish and unrealistic situations, we're able to separate ourselves enough from what's happening to truly consider what it's saying. What I mean by that is, it distances itself from anything resembling the real world, so any biases or anxieties we have are also removed due to the fact that what we're watching is dissimilar to anything that we really know. This allows us to truly look at it, truly watch what's occurring and make judgments that aren't based in knowledge we've previously formed opinions on. Especially in Coherence, it's difficult to judge the main characters, since they're being faced with decisions that no one has ever had to make, learning the rules of their new reality as they go.
This is also just a part of what makes it entertaining and thrilling, the characters being forced to make these decisions as a part of their continued survival keeps your heart pumping. The constant revelations, twists and turns keep you on the edge of your seat, as understanding and control are repeatedly wrestled out of your grasp. Every time you think you've come to terms with the situation, a new wrinkle appears and what you thought you understood to be the rules of the game turn out to be completely false. Coherence is a thrill ride, rooted deep within the sci-fi genre. It's been difficult to write much without being too spoilery, since the fun of the movie is figuring things out as you go, but even without throwing spoilers around it's easy to heap praise on this little low-budget flick. The director hasn't made anything since, but hopefully he's got something up his sleeve, since Coherence was an exciting debut that I doubt anyone saw coming.