The Smartest Sci-Fi Films Are Low-Budget Ones

New releases Coherence and The Signal combine human drama with high concepts on an indie budget.

Elizabeth Gracen, Lorene Scafaria, and Nicholas Brendon in Coherence. Oscilloscope Laboratories

Giant interstellar shoot-outs and outlandish alien races are great and all, but science fiction is a genre that can benefit from limitations as much as it can big-budget space operatics. It’s built on ideas, which means that with enough ingenuity, a smaller movie can do its own world-building by exploring a concept and how it affects people. Large-scope sci-fi may be big for the summer box office, but there’s also a long tradition of scrappier films exploring time or space travel, dark futures, and new technology, all by way of how it affects a small group of characters, an approach that can be just as mind-bending without the visual effects. When you can’t depend on simply showing how crazy a sci-fi phenomenon looks, for instance, you’re forced to concentrate more on what the experience of dealing with it is like, and those tropes can serve as a metaphor for experiences that are closer to home for the audience.

That’s the case for Coherence, an inventive indie written and directed by James Ward Byrkit that opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday and expands to more cities in the weeks after. Coherence is the story of a dinner party in which eight friends with long and sometimes fraught histories gather to play catch-up while a comet passes overhead. When the power goes out, they notice there’s a house two blocks away that remains lit, and a few of the guests venture out to see if they can use the phone. When they come back, one of them’s bleeding and upset by what he saw, and the other is carrying a mysterious box he stole that turns out to be inexplicably filled with photos of everyone at the party.

Emily Baldoni and Maury Sterling in Coherence. Oscilloscope Laboratories

Coherence doesn’t play coy with what’s happening to its characters, who soon discover that the comet seems to have left them in a temporarily fractured universe in which the house down the street is a sort of reflection made real, filled with other versions of themselves who are just as bewildered and alarmed by what’s unfolding. The science behind the phenomenon is waved away with a few lines from a book about physics, because the real stakes in the story are about how little these people trust their alternate, equally paranoid selves — and they certainly don’t trust one another.

This group of upper middle class suburbanites appear to be leading lives of glowing Californian success — Seeking a Friend for the End of the World director Lorene Scafaria plays Lee, one of the hosts, who’s an executive at Skype, while her husband Mike (Buffy’s Nicholas Brendon) is an actor who claims his biggest role, amusingly, was as the lead in Roswell (he’s already living in an alternate universe). But a few drinks into the evening and insecurities, addictions, and infidelities begin coming out, all magnified by the stress of the strange phenomenon the party guests struggle to comprehend, particularly when they start to wonder if some of the members present aren’t originals.

Emily Baldoni in Coherence. Oscilloscope Laboratories

Coherence’s characters aren’t especially nice, but they do feel painfully normal, with a plausibility to their actions that extends to the half-smart way they react to their situation. What’s essentially a claustrophobic single-room story uses its sci-fi twist to build a sense of quiet dread — there’s someone out there who’s just like you, and just as invested in his or her own self-preservation. Rather than escalate its scenario toward hysteria, Coherence uses it to focus on one particular character’s sense of regret: Em (Emily Baldoni), a former dancer whose life has been paralyzed by indecision. Em already sees herself as caught in a sort of alternate reality, having passed up an opportunity years earlier that led to someone else becoming famous. And it’s through Em that the film achieves its best intersection of human drama and high concept, a sequence that’s as poignant as it is disturbing, and a testament to the emotional impact a heady setup can have.

The flashier fellow indie The Signal, which opened in theaters last week, also combines a drama about relationships with a sci-fi mystery, though the more it delves into the latter, the less interesting it actually becomes. Directed by William Eubank, The Signal starts in the company of a trio of brainy tech types — friends Nic (Oculus’ Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp), who are driving Nic’s girlfriend, the “CalTech turncoat” Haley (Olivia Cooke), to school. As they road-trip through some gorgeously photographed middle American landscapes, Nic and Jonah feud with a hacker who goes by the handle “Nomad.” Nic is dealing with a degenerative disease that has him using crutches, and he’s pulling away from Haley, the prospect of a long-distance relationship and his progressive illness causing him to try to sabotage their bond.

Brenton Thwaites and Olivia Cooke in The Signal. Focus Features

The Signal is stunningly shot, even before the three friends try to track down Nomad in person and Nic wakes up alone in a strange facility overseen by a hazmat-suited Laurence Fishburne. Nic, Jonah, and Haley drive along under vast, summer rainstorm-ready skies, while in flashbacks, a more mobile Nic jogs through a leafy forest in a lush sequence that seems increasingly like a dream as it’s returned to throughout the film.

Nic and Haley are struggling with relationship issues that feel genuine and sad, as Nic attempts to protect himself from future heartbreak by preemptively breaking up with the girl he loves, and his obsession with Nomad reads as another attempt at emotional retreat, a way to lose himself in a bout of macho online warring. Thwaites and Cooke are an awfully photogenic pair of computer nerds, but they have a wistful chemistry that allows the introduction of their dynamic to be impressively nuanced.

Laurence Fishburne in The Signal. Ursula Coyote/Focus Features

But as unflappably enigmatic as Fishburne is as Damon, the head of an apparently secret government facility in which Nic finds himself held, his arrival marks the point at which The Signal begins to dilute itself into a cloudy swirl of meaningless sci-fi imagery. Where Coherence figures out how to bring its character dramas together with its comet-enabled distortions of reality, The Signal ditches the development it’s done for its main trio once it breaks from normalcy. The windowless lab in which Nic awakens and the David Lynch-like desert area he eventually finds his way to aren’t symbols for anything that came before — they just are.

As The Signal travels to odder and odder places, it builds to visuals that look good for something on its relatively low budget, but less impressive compared with everything audiences can regularly see in theaters. What stands out about it isn’t the series of twists and reveals it has prepared, but the three-dimensional people it conjured up so efficiently and then generally mistreats. And it’s a shame, as the film squanders the allure of its finely wrought beginnings on a garble of alien themes that seem to be thrown together on the basis of what might look the coolest, and the result is more music video than movie.

While Coherence is proof of the way strong writing and interesting characters can carry a sci-fi feature without any special effects, The Signal is an example of how effects can’t be counted on to carry a film when writing and characterization are lost. Sci-fi may be a genre about ideas that can accommodate movies big and small, but actually exploring those ideas is the important part.

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