Sunday, September 08, 2019

Decoherece of Expectations. Into the Inevitable Beyond

We all aim to be the best possible version of ourselves, however we choose to define the specific benchmarks by which we measure our achievements and our character. Who we are is the sum total of the choices we make, and in the absence of an alternate reality that we could use as a control group, we have no idea whether those choices are the best possible considering the circumstances or, barring all alternatives, the least worst choice.

And no, this is not about that expired yogurt I ate from the back of the fridge this week for lunch. At least, not entirely. (Seriously, the expiry date is like the Pirate Code: it's more like guidelines. Right? RIGHT?)

Coherence is one of the best films of the last decade that you've probably never heard of and one of the greatest cinematic theses on this very topic. (The identity thing, not the yogurt thing.) In an era where blockbusters dominate the cultural conversation in terms of film, truly inventive, experimental, or otherwise deranged movies tend to get lost in the shuffle. Coherence (directed by James Ward Byrkit) is one of those films that falls into the latter category, a movie made for the love of the game rather than as another puzzle piece in cracking the formula for cranking out billion dollar films. Don't get me wrong; I love a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. I also love smaller movies that expect a little bit more out of their audiences, and require more engagement but also delve deeper into the human condition. Sometimes you crave the orgy; some nights you just want to cuddle.

The particular aspect of the human condition that Coherence delves deeper into underlies basically everything we do: free will. If identity relies (at least in part) on choice, and the concept of choice relies on the presupposition that there are choices we free to make, then whether or not we are indeed free to make those choices is of great consequence. There seem to be few cultural threads as common across such a large cross-section of cultures and belief systems as self-determinism, even if the goal of some of those cultures and belief systems is specifically to stifle those very impulses and phenomenon.

The way the film delves into these questions is the way that many of us do: through a good, old-fashioned family drama. The central story of Coherence centres around a group of friends getting together for a little soirée (to use the parlance of our times), with all of the incumbent joy and stress that come along with such a gathering. What seems like an innocuous dinner party among old friends, however, is soon turned on its head when a passing comet apparently causes "coherence" among multiple alternate realities, and these eight friends face a foe more terrifying than lunch at Taco Bell: Themselves.

All of the sudden, these eight friends have access to a metaphysical control group; they can potentially see what the actual other outcomes of their decisions would have been instead of simply theorizing about what they could have been. This would be kind of a mindfuck for a couple of reasons, and it explains why the main group of characters in Coherence don't seem to behave rationally upon discovering that A) multiple universes do, in fact, exist and B) alternate versions of themselves also exist.

Is That A Bad Decision In Your Pocket, Or Are You Just Glad to See Me?

We swear to god, if you tell us one more time about how you
went vegan, we are going to take you out back and beat you
with the garden hose.
One of the coping mechanisms we have to help us live with the decisions we make is that once those decisions are made, we have to make the best of the consequences--good or bad--because the only alternative is to wallow in regret and self-loathing for the rest of our lives (like that one time you decided to try and make home-made sushi). Once the die is cast, you can either accept the outcome or dwell on it indefinitely, living in a constant state of psychological and emotional constipation. Under our current lived experience with knowledge only of our reality, there's a lot of motivation to choose the whole acceptance thing, and it works out better for everyone in the long run.

If, on the other hand, we were able to see the multiple versions of how a particular circumstance would have turned out differently based on having made a different choice, that would be another matter entirely. We would be forced to confront, with absolute certainty, exactly the effect our choices made, and exactly to what extent we were responsible for our own fate, with no way to rationalize or deflect or blame anyone or anything else. We would also be faced with the possibility--or in the case of infinite universes the absolute certainty--that we could have made a much better choice resulting in a much better life.

Emily (Emily Baldoni), the central protagonist in Coherence, is a talented ballerina who, it is revealed, made a fateful decision that resulted in another dancer becoming a household name and Emily winding up with a respectable, though unremarkable, career. As she recounts her story to the other dinner guests, she fully admits her mistake and her own role in deciding her own fate, but it's still not definitive. In the case of a single universe, there is still the comfort of ambiguity that we can still use to assuage the anxieties of contemplating What Might Have Been. There's a certain sort of solace to be found in the darkness of uncertainty.

Other parallel universes extinguish that ambiguity entirely. If we are able to see, with absolute certainty, the results from making different choices given the same circumstances, our choices become much more quantifiable. Emily could always take some solace by reasoning that maybe there were factors out of her control in terms of her career. Once she finds out that if she had made a different decision, she would have lived her dream as a world-renowned dancer, then she is forced to confront the fact that she well and truly fucked up, and that she has no one else to blame but herself.

I Know You Are, But Who Am I?

The driving narrative force of Coherence is the "coherence" of multiple parallel realities converging (from a previous separate state of "decoherence"), allowing people from each of those universes (or, at least, Emily and her posse) to travel between them. This means that each of the eight dinner guests can potentially meet themselves, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

I found it so puzzling that once they actually discover that the other people wandering the streets are actually other versions of themselves from different universes, they didn't calm down and try and organize a little parley with themselves / each other. I always figured it would be pretty awesome to be able to meet yourself. Think of the conversations you could have. I always figured that if there's one person in the multiverse you'd be able to get along with it would be yourself (and Kurt Russel).

After watching Coherence, I'm not so sure any more.

Mike (Nicholas Brendon), one half of the couple hosting the dinner party, seems to be somehow even more disturbed about the strange occurrences once the gang discovers that the occurrences are even stranger than they thought because multiple versions of themselves are involved. Not only that, he seems worried about how the people from the other universes might behave, especially the other Mikes.

Whereas I initially saw an opportunity, Mike saw a threat. As a recovering alcoholic who is in the process of falling off of the wagon because of the stress brought on by the comet breaking down barriers between worlds, he looked at the other Mikes as reflections of himself. But mirrors reflect everything, both good and bad. Because he truly knows what he is capable of deep down inside, he's worried that Mikes from other universes might not have gotten their lives under control, and might be a danger to himself or others if they hadn't been able to escape the influence of alcohol as he had.

At one point, Mike poses the (for them, until then) hypothetical question to his friends, "Do you think you could beat yourself in a fight?" It's an interesting "what if": assuming both you and your doppelganger were in exactly the same physical condition, your odds of winning would be 50/50. In the back of our minds, though, I think we'd always believe that we'd somehow have the upper hand in that fight and be able to best ourselves. Deep down, I think most of us believe that we are both figuratively and literally in control of ourselves. That somehow, even if there were other versions of ourselves from other universes, that we would still be the "real" us. That we are in control. I think the other more pertinent corollary to Mike's inquiry would be, "Why would you want to fight yourself?"

OK, you got us. The secret ingredient in the
 pasta sauce is ketamine.
Seen through the lens of Mike's particular circumstances, the multiple universes situation becomes a powerful metaphor for one's personal cohesion. There's a tension in our internal experience between that belief that we've tamed, or at least caged, our "worst selves" and the anxiety that our worst impulses are never really gone and can seep through to the surface at any time, a depot of toxic emotions buried far too shallow and without the proper oversight of our Cognitive Environmental Protection Agency.

Mike looked in the mirror, and saw all of his mistakes reflected back at him, including having an affair with Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), another friend in the group, unbeknownst to her husband, Hugh (Hugo Armstrong), another part of the friend chain. Some might say that's a pretty negative worldview (universeview?), but self-reflection can be a difficult pill to swallow, especially when we're being force-fed. How many of us would be able to keep our cool if the worst possible version of ourselves could conceivably walk through our front door at any moment, parading around all our darkest fears and impulses in front of our family and friends?

I think most of us would assume that we'd get along with our alternate selves. But then again, most of us probably hadn't stopped to consider interacting face to face with somebody from whom absolutely nothing is hidden. No secrets. No bluffing. Nowhere to hide. It's actually kind of a scary proposition. Coming face to face with yourself would force you to confront every decision you've ever made, all your strengths, but also all of your weaknesses. How well do we keep the darkest parts of ourselves hidden from the world? Would we really want to know? Maybe after hanging out with an alternate version of ourselves, we'd discover that we were actually complete assholes. Law of averages, I guess...

Coming face to face with multiple versions of oneself would also be distinctly stressful particularly because it would shatter that sense of uniqueness that is central to one's identity. Human beings are pack animals, but also thrive on a sense of individuality. What would it mean if I wasn't the only me? The dilemma then becomes how--or even whether--you could distinguish yourself from all of your other selves. And that, in turn, brings up a key question with regards to one's identity:

Is a you who made different choices still you?

I mean, according to your DNA, two versions of yourself who made different choices with different results is the same person. You started off with the same basic building blocks. This brings us back to the ongoing nature-versus-nurture cultural debate in regards to identity. That is, are we the mere sum of our biological traits baked into our DNA through years of natural selection (and hopefully less inbreeding than the next guy), or are we the result of programming, both social and environmental, shaped more by our experiences?

Current wisdom holds that it is some combination of genetic and environmental factors that make us who we are, but Coherence definitely makes it clear what side of the fence it comes down on. It doesn't completely discount the power of genetics, but when it comes to a tiebreaker, the movie seems to support the argument that it is ultimately our choices that define who we are. Our identity has less to do with genetic or environmental determinism and more to do with how we take all of those inputs and forge our own path with the decisions we make.

In short, we are who we decide to be.

Coherence complicates this further, though, by calling into question a key ingredient to meaningful choice, which is agency, or at least a sense of agency. With multiple, or even infinite, universes, concepts of agency tend to get a little messy.

The High Price of Free Will

Taking the many-worlds interpretation view of a multiverse (that is, that there are infinite universe), the concept of agency gets even more complicated than it already is, and it's not especially comforting.

In the context of infinite realities, free will is rendered irrelevant because if there are multiple universes where every decision you could have made you actually did make, then the decisions you make are of literally no consequence: no matter what you do, everything will always turn out perfectly and terribly. Then we would, in fact, be predetermined to make every choice imaginable and subject to every fate imaginable. On the infinite continuum of You, a single version of you is simple a single data point in a massive bell curve.

If there are infinite universes where you'll make every possible decision in a given situation, then you're never making a choice to begin with. If you make every choice, that's the same as making no choice. You're just another variable in a cosmic equation that's playing itself out to its own logical conclusions based on different values being plugged in. The unwitting participant in a cosmic experiment. Not a whole lot of room for agency here. It's more than just free will being an illusion; it's like the illusion of free will being an illusion is an illusion. It gets pretty Inception-y, but basically since every outcome is going to happen anyway, then the concept of free will just becomes a moot point.

The ending of Coherence, twisted as it is, actually demonstrates that despite these further complications, we do exercise some sense of agency. In the end, when the Emily the audience had been following throughout the film leaves her house and wanders out into the night, walking from universe to universe, every version of her group of friends is behaving quite differently. Most of them, like her original (and not-so-original) group of friends appear to be in varying degrees of chaos upon discovering exactly how not alone they were in the entirety of existence.

But Emily sees the differences in each one, and she doesn't stop until she sees a version of her friends that seem to be getting along swimmingly. Then she promptly sneaks into the house and assaults the alternate version of herself in a bid to take her place in a better life (in a fairly clever follow-up to Mike's earlier pugilistic hypothetical).

Yes, I'm the protagonist. Why do you ask?
Both of those Emilys ended up in similar circumstances despite making wildly different choices. Despite all of their differences, they both ended up in the same house on the same night with the same friends. This seems to imply a certain level of determinism: we are all beholden to a very particular set of biological and environmental influences that, for all we might try to rail against them, have an immense effect in directing the course of our life.

The happy Emily appeared to have a strong, loving relationship with her boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling) and the movie implies that she made the right choice in terms of her career. That Emily has everything that Emily Prime seems to lack. And the end of the movie, when Emily Prime meets up with that reality's Kevin, any hope of appropriating that happiness is shattered when he receives a call from Emily's phone, implying that things are about to get very complicated with at least two or three Emilys running around in that reality when all is said and done after the comet has passed, and at least one of them has assaulted at least one of the others (the police report alone is going to be a bitch).

The two key things to note with this ending are that Emily does not achieve happiness and that it is an alternate version of herself who ultimately precludes any hope of happiness. In one sense, she is literally preventing herself from being happy. In another (very literal) sense, Emily has become her own worst enemy.

It also serves to highlight that yes, Emily does indeed have free will, though not in the classical sense. As the late, great Christopher Hitchens used to joke with a sly smile, "Yes I have free will; I have no choice but to have it." There is something paradoxical about the human condition when it comes to agency. Who we are is likely the result of a great deal of biological and environmental factors, but even though our lives are determined to a large degree, they are not predetermined.

The existence of alternate realities in Coherence shows that there is no one choice that we are destined to make. Though external influences pre-screen the possibilities before our consciousness ever gets up to bat, the ultimate decision isn't set in stone. I find myself returning time and again to a mathematical metaphor; our lives are like equations, pre-programmed by forces in the universe beyond our control, but with a few variables missing at key points in the data string. Even though our possibilities in life are not endless, it doesn't mean that they're meaningless. All of our programming can push us towards a set of decisions, but those last variables left to our conscious selves to fill in the blanks can make a world of difference.

It's a very thin margin, but it's there, the edge we balance precariously on every day. And even though every decision we make isn't necessarily Earth-shattering, they are still incredibly important, if to no one else but ourselves. That's the thing that Emily never really got. She could try to outrun her life, even her own universe, but she couldn't outrun herself. Perhaps the most important part of human agency isn't the external effect we may have on the universe at large (which all evidence points to being quite minimal) but the internal ramifications of our choices.

Can we live with the choices we make? That's a fundamental aspect to any sense of free will or agency we have. Not worrying about whether we can change the world, but reflecting on how we can change ourselves. We can accept the consequences of our decisions and move forward, or waste energy making ourselves miserable over an outcome we can't change. We have no choice but to have free will, but we do have a choice when it comes to processing the outcomes of our decisions. 

Acceptance or denial.

Love or hate.

X2: X-Men United or X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

The choice, as always, is yours.

The Verdict

Coherence is one of the most innovative science fiction movies to have come out in this last--or really any--decade, and hopefully one day will take its place among in the cinematic pantheon. For now, though, it will have to remain a cult classic enjoyed by those of us in the know. Thought-provoking, suspenseful, entertaining: these are all adjectives. Adjectives that can, and should, be applied to Coherence. Do yourself a favour, run down to your nearest video store and rent the hell out of this thing. My rating for Coherence is 10/10 = An Infinite Number of Heads, All Of Whom Slept With Beth


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