Time travel is a sci-fi concept that is often precluded by complicated machines and labs full of devices that are able to warp the time-space continuum. These shiny instruments often connote a higher budget and a spectacle surrounding the complex science of it all; it is not about the people but about time itself. So how could the idea of time travel be incorporated into a mumblegore film? James Ward Byrkit shows us how it’s done with his 2014 directorial debut, Coherence.
Coherence is centered on a group of friends who have come together for a dinner party. Alcohol flows, tensions build, banter is had, you know, the usual activities at a dinner party of old friends. But hovering over the gathering — literally and figuratively — is the passing of a comet. Scientists apparently warn that the comet could affect technology, but what these friends realize is that it also bends reality; they discover multiple versions of themselves and the dinner party but with slight differences. So which reality is the best? Does it matter?
“If there are infinite realities and versions of ourselves, would we want to meet ourselves?”
To Emily (Emily Baldoni, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) it does. From the film’s beginning, Emily is the central character as we follow her personal struggles on top of the comet issues. She is trying to decide if she wants to follow her boyfriend to Vietnam for a four-month-long business trip. She is dealing with the collapse of her dancing career. Her boyfriend’s ex comes to the dinner party and wants to get back together. She is experiencing a confluence of bad events, so when an opportunity at a new life arises, it seems like the perfect out. Why make a decision about her life when she can leave it behind for a seemingly better one?
However, while Emily is often the focus, other characters shudder at the thought of another version of themselves. Mike (Nicholas Brendon, Buffy The Vampire Slayer), for example, angrily posits that the other version of Mike could be drinking, which is dangerous for everyone. This begs the question: what happens when we actually meet ourselves? If there are infinite realities and versions of ourselves, would we want to meet ourselves? It is like holding up an interdimensional mirror to ourselves, but perhaps we don’t all want to look at it. But Coherence provides the hypothetical scenario of what it would mean to have to look in that mirror and confront different parts of yourself. In Coherence, Emily chooses to recognize the bad parts of herself and wants to somehow erase them in the name of a new life. But that still comes with some consequences.
Who wouldn’t want to take the opportunity to hop into a slightly better life and erase your past decisions? A perfect opportunity is presented in Coherence, but it doesn’t always end with the perfect life. Emily is shown as practical and thoughtful throughout the film, constantly knowledgeable about the events at hand. However, that confidence masks a basket of insecurities she’s ready to get rid of at a moment’s notice. Emily does not wish to look to herself for how to change her life, but instead projects her own insecurities into a new reality. She is so avoidant of committing to her partner that she literally jumps realities to avoid giving him an answer. Coherence has something deeper to say about human selfishness and how our desperate avoidance of any true introspection.
Time travel films often deal with a macro vision of the world, with heroes and characters going back in time to save the world or accomplish some greater mission. Again, it is about the spectacle and ability to travel through time and what that means in the grand scheme of the universe. Think Looper, Predestination, even Back to the Future. However, in Coherence, the focus is solely on eight friends and how they are impacted by the situation. In true mumblegore fashion, it is about relationships and the humanity behind the horror. To put it simply, this is a movie about a dinner party. It could easily just be about the different relationships and tensions between friends. And to an extent it is, but with a comet added to provide a science fiction twist to a slice-of-life drama.
Byrkit’s verite shooting style also lends itself to the mumblegore aesthetic. The camera feels like it is shooting a fly-on-the-wall documentary. It becomes its own character as it moves around the characters, swiftly panning from person to person during debates and arguments. There is no attempt to hide the artifice of the camera; instead, it is utilized to make Coherence feel all the more real, as if these eight friends actually went through this surreal experience.
Coherence marks a shift, alongside films such as Timecrimes, where time travel is not just about spectacle, but about the “regular” people it can effect. Smaller time travel films have looked inward at how the idea of shifting realities provide opportunities for growth or at least understanding of what it means to be human. They grapple with what one person does when confronted with the extraordinary and how they cope with such inevitability. Importantly, these films show that sometimes people really don’t know the right thing to do! People are not always heroes, but instead confused beings that are just trying to make sense of the very-suddenly changed world.
“[Coherence] is a film that exemplifies the mumblegore philosophy to a T: it takes strong human emotions and interactions and places them within extraordinary circumstances.”
Coherence is not a film about the fate of the world, but about the fate of a single person, Emily, and the decisions she chooses to make in light of a massive cosmic event. It is a film that exemplifies the mumblegore philosophy to a T: it takes strong human emotions and interactions and places them within extraordinary circumstances. In a subgenre of science fiction known for its massive stakes and scientific spectacle, Coherence shines in its focus on humanity and what it means to use time travel to escape your circumstances.