The Multiverse Can Be Smaller

Tonight, like many other nights, you are confronted with a life-altering decision. As the question begins to form in your mind, you feel your consciousness begin to splinter, your universe begin to shatter, and in each fragment, a different answer. "What should I watch?" 

In one universe, you're front and center in a movie theater, surrounded by a captivated audience, watching 250 Spider-people in some of the most stunning animation ever projected onto the big screen. In another, you're in a similar seat, but you're watching your second, fifth and sixth favorite Batmen in a Flash movie, and the only thing on your mind is how the hell Ezra Miller's PR team was able to pull this off. In another, you're at home watching Ant-Man and whoever else wander about the quantum realm, because this was definitely more of a "wait for it to stream" type of movie. I’m going to abandon this corny bit now, but I think you get my point.

Alternate realities. Extended Universes. Parallel dimensions. Timelines. Elseworlds. Variants. We are witnessing a bit of a movement in popular cinema, if you can call it that, where every other big release is either exploring a multiverse or is part of one. And what’s worse is that media production, from script to screen, is entangled in a sticky web of commercial revenue streams. Welcome to the IP multiverse, where you can follow the same four characters in film, television, video games, comic books, theme park attractions, advertisements, toys, t-shirts, sequels, reboots, and spinoffs till you're looking for them on your eventual mortgage application. When you think about filmmaking as just another silk thread spun from the asshole of a multi-billion-dollar media company, it’s kind of genius to use the multiverse as a plot device — multiple iterations of characters finally being brought to the screen to satisfy the fans who have been demanding their newer, fringe or underappreciated versions, while simultaneously servicing the purists, gatekeepers and nostalgia junkies with the greatest hits. Maximize media crossover and merchandising opportunities, push product, and make every fan feel as though they have a spot in the writer's room. As Hollywood sequel doctor Star Magic Jackson Jr. would say: “It's done. I love it. It's in the movie. Next.”

Even with something as undeniable as Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse, it’s really hard not to be cynical about this, and in every other universe I’m probably still going on about the state of modern cinema, maybe even making a hot, juicy roast from one of these recent releases. But not this universe. There’s just too much promise in the premise. Perhaps we need to be reminded of what it’s like to explore the multiverse free from the shackles of this IP-driven corporate hellscape. From where I’m standing, there’s no film better than Coherence (2013) to illustrate how effective, both psychologically and emotionally, a multiverse movie can be, and the story of its production serves as a fascinating alternative to big studio franchise filmmaking. 

Coherence follows a group of friends gathering for a dinner party on the night of a rare astronomical event. As the fictional Miller’s comet passes overhead, a string of exceedingly strange occurrences incite panic and paranoia as the group struggles to understand and respond to their situation. It’s a delicious lo-fi sci-fi premise deeply indebted to the Twilight Zone. However, in a typical Twilight Zone episode, a character usually takes an exposition dump no more than a few minutes before Rod Serling steps in for the big finish. In Coherence, director James Ward Byrkit shows his hand much earlier. After briefly discussing Schrodinger’s cat, one of the characters reads a quantum physics professor’s lecture notes: 

“There is another theory: that two states continue to exist . . . separate and decoherent from each other, each creating a new branch of reality . . . based on the two outcomes. Quantum decoherence ensures that the different outcomes . . . have no interaction with each other.”

This reveal happens almost halfway into the film, and does nothing but steepen the group’s descent. Most of the coming twists and turns are rooted in character: fears, insecurities, secrets and betrayals these friends have been keeping from one another. 

This tension was encoded in the film's DNA from inception. Byrkit had been working in Hollywood as a storyboard artist, most notably on the early Pirates of the Caribbean films. He has spoken in many interviews about being quite exhausted by studio movie production and wanting to make his own micro-budget feature: “It also stemmed from a desire to get back to a purity of filmmaking, after years of working on these huge movies that I enjoyed, but that were very pre-planned, where a lot of the decisions were made before I even got on set.” He certainly succeeded in taking the opposite approach. Coherence was shot chronologically over the course of five nights in Byrkit’s own home with some actor friends, a couple of Canon 5D’s and an estimated $50,000 budget. There was no shooting script. No storyboards. But there was preparation. Brykit and his writing partner Alex Manugian, who also plays Amir in the film, spent about a year researching, breaking the story and plotting out character beats. Crucially, they didn't tell any of the actors. Each day, prior to the shoot, every player was given a notecard or sent an email with some information about their characters. The cameras would roll as the actors would improv dialogue, follow tangents, and react to the scares and surprises Byrkit had set up for them. 

The performances are strikingly naturalistic, and with eight unscripted actors, the sound design is dominated by overlapping, panicked voices. The film’s cinematography is tight and intrusive, mostly relying on shaky closeups, so you’re never allowed to feel too comfortable in the physical or social environment. Simple, global lighting so there’s no wasted time changing lighting setups. The editing is urgent too. By the time you are able to start fully comprehending the far-reaching implications of the last big reveal, another argument breaks out or another secret rises. There’s so much happening on both sides of the camera that compounds the existential dread the characters (and their audience) experience when we part the black curtain and peek into the realities that exist on the other side of every decision we’ve ever made. 

No film in recent memory has made me more excited about these grandiose sci-fi concepts — and about modern filmmaking — than Coherence. I know, it’s unreasonable to expect these giant studios to make something this strange and experimental. There’s too much money on the line, and we’re not doing a whole lot to encourage them to change direction. I loved Across the Spider-verse. I saw The Flash and had a decent time. I didn’t see Quantamania, so there’s something. As long as we keep buying into iterations of lycra, they'll sell it to us. Maybe the best that we can hope for is that every once in a while a film like Coherence is able to make it’s way into our eyeballs, make us think and feel, and provide some much needed respite from the IP meta-multiverse. And it’s nice when the big studio shit is good too. 

Alternative Multiverse Programming
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Clue (1985)
Run Lola Run (1998)
Sliding Doors (1998)
Donnie Darko (2001)
Primer (2004)
The Butterfly Effect (2004)
Coraline (2009)
Mr. Nobody (2009)
About Time (2013)

Written by Roberto Ramirez

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