There are many great, mind-bending science fiction films that, for whatever reason, are worth watching over and over, if only to suss out what actually happened. Coherence, the most ironically titled movie to come along in a while, is not one of them.
Fans of science fiction, and science fiction films especially, could probably name dozens. The first that come to my mind are Memento and, more recently, Looper. Primer, which tells the story of smart but basically average guys who mistakenly invent a time machine, is arguably the Citizen Kane of mind-benders. It makes Back to the Future look like an episode of “Golden Girls.” I’ve seen Primer three times and studied timelines and explanations of the film, but I still don’t really get it.
These kinds of movies are of special interest to philosophically inclined geeks because they are not just fun in the way any action or sci-fi film might be fun. (Primer, famously, was shot on a shoestring with no special effects and no settings more interesting than a storage locker.) They also attempt to deal, in as rigorous a fashion as possible, with the vast metaphysical implications and problems that arise in a world where time travel and parallel worlds are possible. They are difficult because the topic itself is difficult.
And yet, you watch them a few times and you begin to sense that they are in fact logically coherent, and even seem plausible in some sense. They work hard to establish and reveal the laws of their alternative world, and then they stick to them.
But not Coherence. Coherence is mostly incoherent, not just in the sense that it is hard to understand. It is also hard to understand because its parts do not cohere, making the film difficult for the wrong reasons.
Any serious consideration of parallel worlds is bound to perplex—try wrapping your head around modal realism or the general-audience books by theoretical physicists Brian Greene and Michio Kaku and you’ll see what I mean. And yet, one can forgive a filmmaker for seeing it as a fertile subject, and not just because of its formal or narrative possibilities: Greene and Kaku, et al., represent a community of physicists who admit that it’s only the math—not empirical observation—that points toward the reality of eleven dimensions and an ensemble of universes, but stress that statements such as “only the math” could lead to underestimations of literally cosmic proportions.
So the idea is out there, as it has been for a while, which I suppose comforted this film’s creators enough to spend only about the time it takes to watch the movie on working out all its details. The worst thing about Coherence, however, is that, though some of the ideas are undoubtably compelling, it is not rewatchable at all. Not in the slightest. The characters are two-dimensional, even by the relatively low standards of a science fiction film, and the dialogue is lazy and grating.
Assuming you’ve seen it or have no interest in seeing it, I should offer a quick refresher/summary: A group of loathsome quasi-yuppies gather for a dinner party on a night when a comet happens to be passing through the night sky. It turns out that all the worst pre-modern superstitions about comets are true, because comets really can cause all kinds of strange and terrible things to happen. In this case, it rains down a kind of poetic justice tailor-made for an increasingly narcissistic age: The single timeline, where there is exactly one of everything, bursts open to create a possibly infinite number of similar but somehow different things. They find themselves trapped in a world where there are countless identical houses with identical dinner guests. For them, the world really is all about them. From the outset it is established that this moment, the appearance of the comet, is the exact moment when one reality became many, which is important to remember, as we will see. (I am willing to give Coherence one benefit of a single doubt: This type of alternate-world scenario—though it is the least interesting from a cinematic point of view—could be seen as partly satirical since it is the most mundane. I’d like to think that if there were an alternate version of me out there in the multiverse, he is not exactly the same guy, sitting at a computer writing a movie review; if not a Nobel Prize laureate perhaps a writer with better hair or fewer Star Wars figures.)
My first real pang of regret upon seeing this movie came about a quarter of the way through, just as they are realizing how deep the shit they are in really is. Someone mentions Schrödinger’s Cat. I’m not sure why, except that it too is soooo weird. He gives a stripped down, though not inaccurate retelling of the thought experiment, and then another character gives us the moral: “We can be both dead and alive at the same time!” See? Just like the cat. Except this is not quite the point of the Gedankenexperiment, at least not as I’ve come to understand it. It’s not just that a thing can be two completely different things at the same time. This would be difficult enough to justify. Rather, Schrödinger designed the hypothetical scenario to show that it is the act of observation itself that produces the results. This idea is, when you think about it, far more profound because of its implications for experience, even if cats and people don’t generally behave like subatomic particles.
I don’t mean to say that a sci-fi movie should be held to the same standards as philosophers and scientists. However, this missing-of-the-point reflects the central flaw of the movie: It’s a very lazy take on a topic stuffed with narrative possibilities. To wit: It is revealed that one of the dinner guests has probably slept with the wife of one of the other dinner guests. (Before the night of the dinner.) The cuckold confronts the cuckolder, willing to give him a chance to explain himself because, not only are they best buds and he just doesn’t want to believe it, but because all of existence has gone haywire and no one knows what is real and what isn’t anymore. Then, all of a sudden, the cuckolder reveals his understanding of basic metaphysics: He had sex with the wife before the Event, which means, as he puts it, he didn’t just sleep with her in one of the possible worlds but in every possible world, since all possible worlds are derived from the one they are currently in. Then he gets punched in the face.
This single interaction reveals how the issues of free will and causality (issues that are very relevant to practical areas of philosophy such as ethics and epistemology) are related to the topic of parallel worlds, which, as far as we know, is more of a philosophical playground that allows us to explore how topics like ethics and epistemology ought to work. I enjoyed how the characters immediately begin to employ simple, everyday objects such as glow sticks, photographs and Sharpies to try and keep track of who is who: The first thing the comet did was fry everyone’s cell phones, which I suppose would be a likely result of one reality shattering into a possibly infinite number of realities.
The real problem with Coherence, however, is this: The dinner guests assume that their alternate selves are somehow very different from their “actual” selves. But why? If they know the exact moment when the single timeline branched off into many, wouldn’t that be the moment when new decisions and thus new outcomes and new selves would be produced? This is never seriously addressed. Instead, everyone assumes that their alternate selves are somehow better or worse versions of their “actual” selves. They do this despite the fact that they have interacted with some of their alternate selves, who are similar in every way, with the same clothes and the same photographs. Sure, they can’t be absolutely certain that their other selves are really the same, but we have to assume that, since Mike really did sleep with Beth before the Event, most of the causal chain that led them to this night is the same. Same causal chains, same people (I would argue).
The movie ends with Emily, who is a pretty blonde and therefore the closest the film comes to having a central protagonist, leaving the house, walking down the street and peering in through the windows of the other houses on the block. She finds every house to be the same, with every house populated by the same group of people, i.e., her and her friends. In some realities they are screaming at each other, while in others they are lazing on the couch sipping cabernet and chatting about—who knows, whatever it is white people chat about when they sit on couches and drink cabernet. In other words, as I said, the other realities aren’t too different from the original one. It’s possibly the most boring and uninspired way to depict alternate realities—but in some sick, unintentionally satirical way, the most realistic one. Emily, being a barely developed character in a barely developed film, cares about one thing only: Her boyfriend, Kevin, who is kind of a jerk. We know this because he kissed Laurie, an ex-girlfriend who now dates one of the other guys at the party and who must also be kind of a jerk because he invited her, knowing Kevin would be there. Also, Kevin’s memory of a day with Emily at the fair doesn’t seem to mean quite as much to him as it does to her. So she finds another house/reality, one where Emily-two is snuggling with Kevin-two, deduces from this that Kevin-two is somehow not a jerk, kills Emily-two and takes her place.
Thus, one of my theses about parallel realities is proven: Just as there might be a parallel world with unicorns or where I go to the gym more but there could not be a parallel world where 1 plus 1 equals 4, there could never be a parallel world where there are movies in which pretty white women care about anything except having great boyfriends.
But the real question is this: If it has been established that there was a single timeline that branched into many and we know when that happened, why is Emily assuming that the Kevin-two she finds is any less of a jerk than Kevin-one? Because he likes PDA and has a higher opinion of fairs? Are we really to believe that something happened since the Event to change his mind about Emily?
The best one could say in the movie’s defense is that people are people and they believe what they want to believe, even when really weird things happen. I can accept that. But I also find that kind of takeaway, in a science-fiction film, to be trivial, as well as insipid when the stakes are no greater than those of a second-rate reality show.
Whether the film is truly incoherent or the characters are just completely forgettable might, in the end, be up to the viewer. I can forgive either one of those missteps. Not both. If Coherence were philosophically challenging and rigorous but kind of boring (like Primer) or fun but not especially profound (like Looper) I’m sure I’d have something very different to say about it. But it is neither, which makes it terrible in every possible world.