Coherence is a mind-bending piece of science fiction that forces audiences to come face to face with the frailty of their own moral compass.
This analysis contains spoilers for ‘Coherence’
“This whole night we’ve been worrying there’s some dark version of us out there somewhere… what if we’re the dark version?”
The concept of morality is something that’s been discussed and debated since the beginning of time, with countless different schools of thought presenting completely separate ideas of what it means to do the right thing in any given situation. It’s an inherently unanswerable question, but what’s perhaps more interesting about morality and ethics is the question of whether there even is a ‘right’ way to behave, or if the entire school of thought deals solely in hypotheticals. This fascinating debate lies at the centre of Coherence, a thought-provoking piece of science fiction from auteur filmmaker James Ward Byrkit that forces audiences to come to terms with the much scarier proposal that morality isn’t even real – but rather something that’s entirely dependent on the situation around us.
In Coherence, a group of friends come together for an entertaining dinner party that quickly turns sour when they’re interrupted by another group of friends that look identical to themselves. As the plot unravels, it becomes clear that some kind of quantum disturbance has severed the timeline into multiple realities that are all converging together at the same moment – with each reality confined to different versions of the same house. Throughout the movie, different groups of characters leave the house for different reasons and it’s soon revealed that those who returned aren’t from the same reality as the ones that left. In a moment of frustration, the film’s protagonist Emily (Emily Baldoni) enters the outside world, finds a version of reality where the group was never split up, and finally assumes her doppelganger’s identity by seemingly killing her.
It’s in this final scene that Coherence’s commentary on morality and ethics finally becomes clear, answering a question that the film’s characters have been asking themselves since the very beginning: how far will humanity go to protect itself? As soon as the characters learn that their neighbours are interdimensional versions of themselves, they begin to question whether or not they can be trusted. These people like to think of themselves as ‘good’, but their immediate mistrust of their quantum counterparts proves that deep down, they know their own morality is an incredibly fragile concept that could be destroyed at any moment. And by having Emily commit murder in the final scene, Coherence proves that they were right all along: these people are inherently selfish, and morality instantly drowns under the waves of their own self-preservation.
“If we’re collapsing right now, I’m going to collapse on them. I’m not going to wait for them to collapse on us.”
Within the study of ethics, different theories are often separated into two separate branches of thought. Deontological ethics argues that certain actions are always right or wrong, regardless of the specific details of the situation. These theories often adhere to the idea of a natural law that dictates which actions are moral and which are immoral – this kind of thinking is often found in religious doctrines, which might state that things like killing or adultery are always wrong. Alternatively, those who believe that morality is dependent on the situation often subscribe to teleological ethics – these theories frequently suggest that a decision must be made according to a set of rules and guidelines in order to determine the most ethical outcome. However, where Coherence becomes really interesting is in the story’s refusal to adhere to either of these concepts.
Instead, the film seemingly presents audiences with a form of ethical nihilism – another stance that argues morality isn’t even real. This theory argues that assigning moral value to certain actions is actually pointless and reductionist, as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are just terms that have been assigned to the belief system of certain cultures and societies. Coherence seems to agree with this, as Emily’s decision to murder her quantum doppelganger proves just how flimsy and subjective these concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ become when faced with such a complex situation. The laws of the universe have changed in Coherence – this is a version of reality where time and space have converged, almost consuming each other in the process. Can we really apply the same moral code to this scenario that we do to real life? And if not, how can we label morality as ‘real’ if we’re willing to disregard it so quickly?
It’s easy to present these ideas on paper, but Coherence thrives because it makes the audience reach these conclusions by themselves. There’s no explicit mention of morality or ethical nihilism in the script, but when faced with Emily’s brutal decision in the film’s final scene, it’s impossible for audiences to apply any natural moral code to the situation. Can we really blame Emily for killing another version of herself? They’re literally the same person, which means her doppelganger would’ve done exactly the same thing to her under the same conditions – does that make her behaviour self-defence? There’s obviously no clear answer to these questions, but that’s exactly Coherence’s point. Our concept of morality can’t exist in a world where the rules of the universe are completely different, but if we accept that statement, we’re agreeing that morality isn’t fixed – and how can a dependent morality ever be ‘real’?
Coherence is now available to watch on digital and on demand.