Coherence, on the other hand, took the (real) idea of parallel universes from quantum physics and used it as a fantasy element. It explores the idea of multiple universes in a way that’s very interesting as a story, but that doesn’t make sense as hard science.
The irony here is that Coherence is a much smarter film. Interstellar is in the uncanny valley of science. In visual arts, the term uncanny valley refers to a character that’s just human enough to look kind of realistic, yet just “wrong” enough to be creepy and scary. You can make a character look realistic or cartoony, but if it’s almost realistic, it’s really uncomfortable to look at. Interstellar is trying so incredibly hard to be legit science that its missteps are cringeworthy and difficult to watch. Coherence, by contrast, takes one leap of fantasy-inspired-by-science then follows its own rules well and has its characters think about their situation in a smarter fashion than the awful dialogue in Interstellar.
There’s a reason that the characters in Coherence talk to each other in a believable way: because they are actually talking to each other. They aren’t reciting lines of a script to each other because there is no exact script. Each actor was told what their character would know at that point and given a page of notes from the director such as “you really want to go outside” or “you want to tell a story about X thing.” The actors did not know what events would happen around them during each scene. Instead, they are genuinely experiencing those events and they are genuinely talking to each other about what it means and what they should do about it.
That’s an interesting experiment when it comes to acting and filmmaking, and it didn’t have the result I expected. Having the whole thing improvised like that might make it feel “more real” (and I think it does), but this would be at the cost of clever scripting and plotting. If the author can precisely control every line of dialogue, they can work in more nuances, more double meaning, more foreshadowing, and have a tighter plot in the end. Or at least I thought that would be the case, but somehow Coherence has all of that too. It’s a movie that reveals more the second time you watch it, and I think it would reveal more even the fifth time. It’s a tightly packed puzzle of a movie, yet also a freeform improv.
Interstellar has an actual script, and in that script are lines that no one involved in science would ever actually say. The dialogue from the fictional world’s leading scientist (played by Michael Caine) are kind of insulting to our intelligence, almost like the writers of The Big Bang Theory snuck in. When asked how he was making advancements in his research, he said that once a certain gravitational phenomenon happened on Earth, it made him realize that such a thing was possible. So then he was able to develop new equations and better understanding and so on. But that he hadn’t yet “solved gravity.” Once he does, he says, then he’ll be able to do the fantastical things with it that the characters need. When asked how close he is to “solving gravity,” he says very close, and promises that he’ll solve it by the time one character returns from a trip.
This whole thing is so face-palm-inducing. Imagine if a new chemical compound was discovered, and you want me to synthesize more of it. I tell you that I’m working on “solving chemistry” to do that. Then before I “solve chemistry,” I’m able to give you some kind of progress bar like “chemistry 85% solved!” and a projection that it will be solved in one month. The problem is that I’m not able to know how close I am to discovering something I haven’t yet discovered. I’m not able to tell you when I will discover it. These are the wrong kinds of questions to even ask. Furthermore, the binary notion of gravity (or chemistry) solved / not solved is simplistic and childish.
Kip Thorne may have lent credibility to visual depiction of black holes and so on, but on a much more basic level, he really should have been consulted about how smart people attempt to solve a problem, how they would talk about solving a problem, and what solving a problem even really means.
SPOILERS OF INTERSTELLAR
The rest of this post contains spoilers for Interstellar, followed by another section of spoilers for Coherence. If you haven’t seen either movie, I’d recommend reading the spoilers for Interstellar, because seriously whatever, but not for Coherence. You can watch Coherence on Amazon Instant Video, here.
Yes I know that Michael Caine’s entire plan to “solve gravity” was intentionally a hoax. That doesn’t excuse anything I said above though. He went to absurdly great lengths to make everything about his actions and research as believable as possible. In fact, too great of lengths. Apparently, the entire building NASA is housed in he designed to be a giant centrifuge capable of being launched into space to function as a space station. Even though he knew that this was all a hoax and that the building would never be used that way, he seems to have actually made it really capable of that, and it ends up working correctly after his death. Yet he talks to other scientists with a childish, elementary school concept of what it means to do research.
That said, I think his whole hoax is interesting, story-wise. All his life’s work is a lie, and intentionally so because he knew that humans needed to be lied to in order to get them to do the work needed to save the human race from extinction. In the specific scenario his world is in, I think he’s probably right. It was probably morally correct of him to do so, and at the very least, it’s arguably defensible as such, and that’s interesting to think about.
And while I’m saying some good things, it’s cute that John Lithgow told Michael Caine that Murph makes the teachers at school look like fools, and if she joins NASA then they’ll make Michael Caine look like a fool. At the moment he said that, Murph was just a child, but she grows up to do exactly that. And for more foreshadowing, John Lithgow also told Matthew McConaughey (his stepson) that Matthew had an incredible skill and then the world changed and he never got to use that, and he’s truly sorry it worked out that way. Yet Matthew McConaughey did get to use his piloting skills and engineering knowledge, and he saved the entire world because of it.
Badly Written, Badly Edited
Let’s talk more about how badly written and edited Interstellar is.
That whole thing about how Michael Caine’s work is all a lie was revealed to us when he was on his deathbed in the hospital. The music told us that this was important moment and so we should listen carefully. I did listen carefully. I strained. Michael Caine mumbled some incomprehensible words for this big reveal. I wasn’t sure if he said what I thought he did. Murph (incidentally, that’s a stupid name) reacted as if she heard it though, and that it was a big deal. I pieced together what was going on, but couldn’t they have shot a second take of this? Or given me some subtitles? I just don’t understand why such an important moment is delivered with mumbly slurred speech.