Friday, May 27, 2016

Dinner in the Twilight Zone

I recently watched a fascinating and clever, and borderline unwatchable movie. I've been thinking about it more than I expected since watching it... and I can't truly recommend it. That's because a brilliant idea was squandered in a terrible execution.

The movie is Coherence. Four couples take part in a suburban dinner party, on the night that a comet happens to be passing close to the Earth. Everything is proceeding normally until a power outage, which spurs two people in the group to seek help from a single house two blocks up the road that mysteriously still has its power. But the two return with reality-shattering news. The mysterious house is the same house. In it, an identical set of eight people seem to be having an almost identical dinner party in an alternative universe. The group comes to suspect that only one house will survive when the comet passes and this strange phenomenon ends, and they enter a game of brinksmanship against their other selves. But there's even more to their situation than they realize.

Coherence is the brainchild of James Ward Byrkit, the writer behind Rango and a few other films. He wanted to direct for the first time, and wanted to work outside the big Hollywood engine that would make a first time director compromise his vision. So he spent a year hammering out a story that could be filmed in his own house, using a handful of actors he personally knew. He landed on his science fiction, parallel universe premise as a way of making a single house seem like a much larger tableau.

The story itself is instantly fascinating. And it's layered with several clever plot points that would play extraordinarily well on repeat viewings, after you've become aware of information the characters themselves don't yet have as the story unfolds. The lack of a big budget doesn't hurt the story itself in any way; it's the sort of thing you'd wish you'd been clever enough to concoct and film in your own house.

The problem is just about everything else. Let's start with the script, or rather, the fact that there wasn't one. Byrkit wanted a naturalistic feel to his movie, with characters talking over one another and reacting with genuine surprise as the film unfolded. So at the start of each night of filming, he'd give his actors note cards, detailing the information he wanted each character to reveal next. The rest was up to the actors to improvise.

The result doesn't feel natural to me at all. As people talk over one another, it doesn't feel like an actual dinner party, it feels like actors jockeying for more screen time. When plot revelations arrive, they don't come naturally, they drop in with a metaphorical crash because an actor was instructed to shoehorn them in somewhere. This ad hoc approach worked for The Blair Witch Project (though some would argue it didn't) because that story featured only three characters, and in a very simple situation -- lost in the woods. I found it didn't work at all here for more than twice as many characters (and that's just the one house) in a complex plot that involves quantum theory and parallel universes. I mean, imagine a Star Trek episode left to the actors to improvise.

The lack of an actual script also hurts the movie because of its tight shooting schedule. It was filmed in just five nights, meaning each night needed to produce 15-20 minutes of the finished movie. So a lot of the movie feels like it's "the first take, we got it, we gotta keep moving." It's not that the performances are bad, it's that the actor's particular improv for getting in his or her "scripted" information is a bit awkward. Given more time, you'd imagine the actors could have arrived at things more smoothly.

You'll probably recognize many in the cast from "somewhere," though they're all quite far from the A-list. Nicholas Brendon played Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Elizabeth Gracen was Amanda on Highlander: The Series, and Maury Sterling has appeared in multiple seasons of Homeland. Others in the cast are writers and directors in their own right. But the whiplash turns they often make in this movie feel not like the natural choices of a character, but like the tyranny of the notecards and the need to get certain information on the screen in any form possible.

Coherence has developed a cult following, to a degree that James Ward Byrkit has received some offers to remake his movie with bigger stars and a bigger budget. He's rebuffed them all, which to me is a shame. I want to see the version of this movie (from a parallel universe, let's say!) that actually has scripted dialogue as carefully thought out as the plot itself. The obvious shot here would be to call the movie incoherent. If only it were that, I could forget about. Instead, I keep thinking about the wonderful idea rendered almost unwatchable in the implementation. I give Coherence a D+.

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