Released in 2013, the microbudget thriller Coherence has rightly acquired a cult status amongst connoisseurs of mind-bending cinema. Essentially a film set in a single location (at least extra-cinematically), this feature-length directorial debut by James Ward Byrkit follows eight friends who meet up for a reunion dinner during the passing of a mysterious comet.

With its minute details, clues, and puzzles scattered throughout, Coherence joins other twisted cinematic endeavors like The Thing (1982), Donnie Darko (2001), Triangle (2009), and Inception (2010) in becoming a part of twisted canonical films which continue to inspire debates, discussions, and theories to this day. Unlike the typical Hollywood fare that relies on hammering each twist and turn with detailed explanations via flashbacks or dialogue, Coherence demands the viewer’s attention to remember the plot to comprehend its puzzled narrative fully. Despite this, Coherence is not an elusive film, and once attentively seen (a rewatch is definitely rewarding), it is relatively decodable and perceptive.

In this article, we will examine Coherence and answer some of the brain-teasing theories teased in the film. To prevent this article from becoming a thesis on Coherence, we would only be sticking to the film’s narrative and not the intriguing theories and setups teased by several Reddit forums—nevertheless, a MAJOR SPOILER ALERT for the entire movie.

Coherence (2013) Plot Summary and Movie Synopsis

Coherence follows a group of friends who are planning to reunite for a dinner party hosted by Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and his wife, Lee (Lorene Scafaria). As the film opens, we follow Emily ‘Em’ (Emily Foxler) as she makes her way to the party. Em is on the phone talking to her boyfriend, Kevin (Maury Sterling). In the middle of the conversation, Emily’s phone screen suddenly shatters.

When Em arrives at Mike and Lee’s house, she finds their friend Beth (Elizabeth Gracen) already present there. Em speculates that the aberrant occurrence which caused her phone to shatter could have been because of the passing of Miller’s comet. This comet passes over the Earth for several years and causes mysterious changes on the planet. After this conversation, Beth pulls out a small bottle containing ketamine, a drug used for sedating horses and known for causing hallucinations—suggesting the friends take it and have a euphoric evening. Mike, Lee, and Em politely brush off Beth’s suggestion. Suddenly, Beth spots a cute flower vase in Lee’s kitchen and asks her where she got it—Lee replies she got it from the thrift store—a seemingly trivial but essential detail in the narrative.

Soon, all the guests arrive at the house. Kevin comes with Hugh (Hugo Armstrong), Beth’s husband. Another friend Amir (Alex Manugian), comes with his girlfriend, Laurie (Lauren Maher)—who also happens to be Kevin’s ex. Before the dinner, Kevin asks Em if she is willing to come with him to Vietnam for a month, where he is going on a work-related trip. Em wants to join Kevin but hesitates to make such a big decision.

During the dinner, the friends realize that they have no network and attribute it to the passing of Miller’s comet. Em talks about how the comet has been linked to strange events in the past. She recounts one such creepy incident that occurred in 1923 in Finland. After the comet had passed, a woman called the police and told them the man in her house was not her husband. The police were confounded about her claims—since the man in the house looked exactly like her husband. That is when the woman made a chilling revelation: she told the police that the man couldn’t have been her husband since she had already killed him yesterday. Despite this confession from her, the police are unable to arrest her since the ‘husband’ is standing right in front of them.

After this story, Mike asks Laurie if she still continues with her yoga practice. Laurie is confused and answers that she never taught yoga and instead works for some outreach programs in Silicon Valley (another important clue that would be later helpful). Laurie, in turn, inquires about Em and her dancing career. Em reveals that she had choreographed a brilliant show which was later given to Svetlana Aserrano, one of the greatest dancers in the world.

The company gave Em the understudy, but she was proud to take it and took too long to decide. Due to Em’s indecisiveness, the understudy was given to Katherine Meriss, who did the actual performance and became a massive star in the dancing world. Laurie teases that Katherine has stolen Em’s life and is currently enjoying the life Em could have had. Due to Laurie’s acrid comments, the situation gets a bit tense.

Amir asks Kevin to tell the first wild story that pops into his head. Kevin ends up recounting a wild experience that he had while he was dating Laurie—which seemingly offends Em. These short incidents regarding relationships are pretty relevant, as we shall later see.

Suddenly, Hugh’s phone shatters too. This worries Hugh as he needs to contact his brother Brian, a science nerd. Before the group can talk further, the lights go off. Mike gets three packets of glowsticks from the basement—each unopened box containing blue, red, and green glowsticks. The group opens the blue glowstick box and heads outside to see the comet passing in the sky. They also realize that the entire neighborhood seems to have lost power except for one house, seemingly two blocks away.

Hugh and Amir decide to go to the house two blocks away to see if they can use their phone to contact Hugh’s brother. While waiting for Hugh and Amir’s return, the group is jolted by a sudden bang on the door. When they check, there is no one outside. Meanwhile, Mike manages to run the generator and restore the power inside the house.

Emily Baldoni in Coherence (2013)
Emily Baldoni in Coherence (2013)

After a while, Hugh and Amir return—with Hugh having a visible bruise on his head and Amir carrying a box. Hugh revealed when he went around the other house—he saw a dinner table laid out for six people, implying that he saw ‘them’ at the other house. The group is baffled after Hugh’s revelation. Mike opens the box Amir had brought, and it reveals a ping-pong paddle and an envelope containing the photographs of every person in the room—numerically marked.

Hugh decides to go back to the house and begins to write a message on a piece of paper to let the other house know that he does not mean any harm. Before Hugh can complete writing this message, Laurie spots another man at the door. As Kevin opens the door, the man is nowhere to be seen, but he has posted the same message that Hugh was writing on the door—implying that another Hugh sent this message. Em also realizes that the numbers behind the photographs are written in her handwriting. In the kitchen, Lee and Beth put a ‘cloth’ band-aid over Hugh’s bruised forehead.

Scared of what’s transpiring, Kevin suggests the group go to the other house and investigate. Mike, Em, Kevin, and Laurie head to the other house carrying their blue glowstick in the dark—Hugh, Amir, Beth, and Lee decide to stay.

When the four of them come to the house, Mike realizes that the house, which seemed two blocks away, is actually HIS HOUSE. As they head back, Mike, Laurie, Kevin, and Em suddenly see their doppelgängers on the other side of the road—carrying red glowsticks. Both the groups are frightened as they see each other and rush back to their respective houses—from where they came. Hugh, Amir, and Beth are horrified when they learn what their other friends just saw. The group is unable to make sense of any of the proceedings. Meanwhile, Lee is sleeping in her bedroom, exhausted by the surreal events of the day.

Suddenly Beth remembers that Hugh’s science-nerd brother had given them a book, which she had kept in Hugh’s car. Hugh goes to get the book and finds his brother’s notes that talk about “Decoherence and Schrödinger’s cat,”— a scientific experiment that goes on to explain the weird occurrences taking place around them.

What Is Decoherence and Schrödinger’s cat—And How Does It Tie With The Film?

‘Schrödinger’s cat’—Hugh explains that it is a thought experiment that revolves around a cat kept in a box with poison inside it. Slowly, the poison is bound to kill the cat. While regular physics would state that the cat can either live or die, quantum physics says that it is not one or the other. There can be two realities existing simultaneously—where the cat can both live and die. Only when the box is opened do both these probabilities collapse into a single event.

Hugh then talks about ‘quantum decoherence,’ which states that two events (cat living or dying) continue to exist separately, branching their independent reality. Quantum decoherence ensures that these two events continue to exist separately and have no interaction with one another.

The group deduces that the comet has led to this ‘quantum decoherence’—causing two realities to exist. Until the comet passes—these realities will continue to live before they collapse. Even though these realities were not supposed to merge, they did when the group went two blocks away to look for the house.

What Does The Group Decide Next?

The group is seemingly frightened after this realization. Suspicious Mike suggests that they go over to the house and kill the other members lest they decide to harm them first. The group decides to pacify Mike and calm him down.

Suddenly, Mike remembers that while he was at the other house—he did see Hugh, Amir, and Lee but did not see Beth. This implies that, in contrast, to this reality where Lee was sleeping, in the other house, it was Beth who was taking a nap. Since it was Beth who led them to the book, it implies that the other place does not have recourse to the book giving the house an edge over the other. Mike suggests they steal the book from the ‘other’ Hugh’s car, but others are skeptical.

While the others are away, Mike suggests a plan to Kevin. Mike says that he plans to blackmail the ‘other him’ so as to prevent the second group from getting access to the group and knowing about quantum decoherence. Apparently, Mike had an affair with Beth twelve years ago, which Hugh is unaware of. Mike would go to great lengths to hide this secret and would not want it revealed. However, Kevin dissuades him from pursuing this course of action.

How Does Em Realize That Something Is Off?

As Kevin, Beth, Lee, and Em are in the kitchen, Beth enquires Lee where she brought the flower vase from. Lee replies she got it from the thrift store—as she had answered earlier. Em is startled to learn that Beth is repeating the same question she had asked earlier in the evening. If Beth already knew from where Lee brought the flower vase, why would she enquire again? This leads Beth to wonder if she is in the ‘original’ house she began in.
Another startling revelation follows.

Hugh and Amir enter into a room privately—it is revealed that they have a ‘red’ glowstick—that is, they come from a house that opened the red glowstick box, and they have, by some occurrence, entered into the house with a ‘blue’ glowstick. This implies that they are not the original Hugh and Amir, who had left the house at the beginning of the film—and are from another reality. Before their cover is blown up, Hugh and Amir carefully exit the house, taking the box containing photographs with them. Hugh and Amir further decide to take the book back to their original house so as to give their reality an upper hand in these proceedings.

On the other hand, Mike has already left to keep his blackmail note in the other house.

What Happens To Kevin and Em’s Relationship?

As Kevin is standing in the hallway, he is approached by Laurie. In the disguise of enquiring about his well-being, Laurie tacitly flirts with Kevin. Laurie also talks about doing yoga—which is eccentric considering she had earlier rejected the fact that she ever did yoga. Laurie also equivocally suggests that Kevin break up with Em, who cannot make up her mind about going to Vietnam. Beth quietly eavesdrops on their conversation. Suddenly, Laurie ends up kissing Kevin, but after a while, he shrugs her off and walks away.

 

Beth tries to tell Em about Kevin and Laurie’s encounter without fully revealing the details. Em confronts Kevin about this, but he dismisses her suggestions, arguing that they have more important things to worry about.

After a while, the group hears the sound of a car being broken into, and they go to investigate. While others check on Hugh’s car, Em goes alone to see if her car has been damaged and finds an old ring that Kevin had brought for her at a fair. Kevin appears, and Em shows him the ring—seeing which Kevin is elated. But when Em asks him about Hugh’s car, Kevin does not seem to understand what Em is saying—Em suddenly realizes that this Kevin is not from her reality. Scared, she runs back into the house, where she sees Kevin sitting. When she shows this ‘Kevin’ the ring, he is barely interested and just gives a careless reply.

What Happens After Hugh and Amir’s Return?

As the group wonders what to do next—the seemingly ‘original’ Hugh and Amir return with blue glowsticks, confirming that they are the original ones that left the house. Hugh also has a regular band-aid on his head, not the cloth one. That is when the group realizes that there are not just two, but many such realities where the friends made several decisions—ranging from band-aids to glowsticks—each reality yielding a different outcome.

Laurie suggests that they mark their particular house in case anyone who goes outside feels lost can return to the original house. Lee gets a box from her basement (similar to the one Hugh and Amir had brought in the beginning)—and the friends mark their photographs using a dice roll. They further make a plan to keep an object (like the ping pong paddle that they had found) in the box—and settle for a plate.

How Does Em Realize That They Are In The Wrong House?

After each friend has rolled a die, Em checks the numbers from the earlier box she wrote in a notebook. She realizes that the numbers do not add up—the numbers written on the notebook and the ones that each member remembers their number to do not match at all. She also sees that Hugh’s phone is unshattered in this house—which is weird because, in the original house, Hugh’s phone screen did shatter. Thus, even though Amir and Hugh carry blue glowsticks, they are not from Em’s original house—as evident by Hugh’s unshattered phone.

Em quietly tells this theory to Mike. She says there is a dark area outside the house; whenever one walks through it, one enters a different reality. Each person who has been outside has come into a different reality. This means that Em is not in the same house as she began, and neither is anyone. To simplify this further:

1. The house everyone is currently in is Lee and Beth’s house—because these two are the only people who never left the house. But even these two are not the ‘original’ Lee and Beth (introduced at the beginning of the film) as Em has traveled to the dark space and is currently in the house of another Lee.

2. Laurie, Kevin, and Em are the only ones who came from the ping-pong paddle house.

3. Mike had wandered off at night to deliver a blackmailing note—so it was not the same Mike that had left.

4. Hugh and Amir had wandered off first—and there is no clue of the original Hugh and Amir.

Due to everyone stepping outside (apart from Lee and Beth)—they are all in a different reality.

Em suggests they must leave this house to return to their original realities, but Mike says it is too late for this.

What Does Mike’s Note Reveal?

Before Em can reveal this to everyone, another Mike drops the blackmailing note outside the house. The note contains information about Mike’s affair with Beth. Hugh finds the note, confronts Mike, and realizes everybody knew about the affair apart from him. An outraged Hugh attacks Mike but is stopped by the others.

Coherence

Following this incident, a bruised Mike has an introspective moment and ponders over the fact that he is the ‘darkest version’ of himself. Suddenly, another Mike barges inside the door and begins to beat the bruised Mike. Em screams, following which the attacking Mike quickly rushes outside.

Why Does Em Decide To Leave The House?

The entire group comes to the rescue of Mike, who has seemingly fainted. As Laurie revives Mike, a blood drop from Beth’s nose falls upon her. Laurie freaks out over the sight of blood and begins to scream hysterically. Kevin starts to comfort Laurie, holding her in his arms. Seeing this, Em begins to wonder about Kevin’s affection for Laurie. Disgusted, Em leaves the house, hoping to return to her original reality.

During this time, Em goes through several houses in different realities. As she peeks through the window of these alternate-reality houses, Em realizes that the situation has worsened in each one of them. In one house, two Mikes have been tied up by the group; in another, Kevin is in love with Laurie. After a while, Em arrives at a house that seems unperturbed by any of the incidents that plagued other realities—implying that this house is still way behind in timeline compared to other houses. All the friends in this house seem oblivious to any of the occurrences.

It is also revealed that in this reality, Em ended up being a dancer and performed for the main show. Further, her relationship with Kevin is also sailing smoothly. Jealous of her life in this reality, the ‘original’ Em makes a sinister decision to live in this reality—which harbors the perfect life she always wanted to lead. In this particular reality, Em’s life has had no regrets, unlike the indecisive original life she led.

Coherence (2013) Movie Ending Explained

The ‘original’ Em decides to usurp the life from the ‘perfect’ Em. She breaks the window of Hugh’s car, which prompts everyone inside to get out, including the ‘perfect’ Em—repeating the same scenario as it had happened in the previous house.

When the ‘perfect’ Em goes to check inside her car and get the ring Mike got for her—the ‘original’ Em subdues her with Beth’s ketamine and hides her body inside the car trunk. Later the ‘original’ Em steps inside the house and takes the place of the ‘perfect’ Em. However, suddenly the ‘perfect’ Em manages to get out of the trunk, but again the ‘original’ Em takes her inside the bathroom and knocks her unconscious. During this scuffle, she drops her original ring on the floor and retrieves the ring from ‘perfect’ Em’s finger. With the ‘perfect’ Em seemingly dead, the ‘original’ Em hides her body in the shower—intending to take care of it later.

When the ‘original’ Em joins the other perfect friends, she suddenly falls down and faints. The following day the ‘original’ Em wakes up—scared of the fact that the friends might have caught her bluff by discovering the ‘perfect’ Em’s body. However, none of the friends behave strangely and welcome the ‘original’ Em.

The original ‘Em’ steps outside into the sunlight. Suddenly, she is approached by Kevin, who gives her a ring she had dropped on the floor—the ‘original’ Em realizes she has two rings now. To add to her worries—Kevin receives a call from the ‘perfect’ Em, who had seemingly escaped from the bathroom. While the call’s contents are not heard, it is implied that the ‘perfect’ Em warns Kevin about the ‘original’ Em. A horrified Kevin looks at the ‘original’ Em—who looks disturbed yet guilty of what she has done before the screen cuts to black.

The ending implies that this ‘perfect’ reality now has two Ems—and the ‘original’ Em cannot return to her reality since the comet has already passed. She will always be stuck in this reality. This bleak conclusion ends the film on a dark note.

What is the Movie Coherence About? and Themes Analysed

The title of the film Coherence is an ironic play on both the word’s literal meaning as well as the quantum decoherence phenomenon. As stated above, quantum decoherence is a scientific phenomenon that ensures that multiple realities do not meet even though they might exist simultaneously. Hence director James Ward Byrkit named the film Coherence—implying the opposite of quantum decoherence, i.e., a phenomenon in which these multiple realities overlap with each other. Thus, even though the word ‘coherence’ implies something clear and rational, the film uses it to suggest total chaos resulting from overlapping multiple realities.

Thematically, Coherence pre-empts several of the concerns that would become a staple in the coming decade of the multiverse. As showcased in the recent Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022), Coherence teases how even the slightest change in our decisions can radically alter our lives—creating a whole new reality. But unlike EEAAO, where the protagonist embraced her current reality to live to the fullest, Coherence settles for a more unnerving exploration of the multiverse concept. In Coherence, Em realizes that life in another dimension is far better than her current life, where she has everything—a great dance career and a fulfilling romantic life.

The ‘original’ Em makes the dark (yet somewhat understandable) decision to live in this envious reality, even if it means killing another version of her. Unfortunately, her plan backfires when the ‘perfect’ Em is revealed to be alive—implying that the ‘original’ Em is forever trapped in a world that is not truly hers. While the film does not explore this further and settles for an unconventional ending, the existential implications of being forever stuck in a reality that is not yours are terrifying to imagine.

Also, Read: 12 Monkeys (1995) Movie Ending, Explained & Themes Analyzed

Coherence (2013) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
Cast: Emily BaldoniMaury SterlingNicholas Brendon

Where to watch Coherence

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