There's an unspoken agreement in genre films that, whenever a situation reaches peak existential terror, the protagonists can be forgiven for behaving in a way that seems unconscionable. No one ever speaks to that shift in mentality, which troubles in two ways: One, because these movies often don't have the time or intellectual resources to observe issues of morality. And two, troubling, because there is an element of wish fulfillment in even the bleakest entertainments, the idea that we can solve some of our problems simply by grabbing a weapon and firing.

The sci-fi “Coherence," uneasily explores that valley of rash behavior that movie characters frequently occupy, grounding it in an upsetting truth that suggests these types of pictures are powered by self-loathing. James Ward Byrkit's directorial debut is a mind-bender in the vein of “Cube," beginning with the seemingly-innocuous set-up of a group of professionals meeting for a dinner party where resentment is at a low boil. Passive-aggressive compliments are backhandedly tossed around the table as these individuals talk about their careers, or lack thereof. Nicholas Brendon of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” is the most established of these actors, and when his character announces he was the star of a mildly popular nineties show, the group doesn't recognize it. It is “Roswell.”

Each conversation fails to acknowledge who these people are, with these friends each pointing out where they 'could' be. One failed to chase her dream. Another bungled a love affair. There are drugs in the air, and they all speak ominously of late-arriving troublemaker Laurie (Lauren Maher). Before these conflicts can bubble over, and shortly (and conveniently) after some pseudo-scientific chit-chat about meteorites, the electricity goes out. Byrkit's handheld, herky-jerky approach during the dinner scenes brings discomfort to the audience, creating the feeling that you're another guest at another obnoxious late-Generation-X dinner party. But once the lights go out, the effect startles. Now the commotion disrupts both your sensibility and your line of vision. When everyone scrambles, you are compelled to sit up.

This is one of those upscale neighborhoods in the hills, so when someone says the neighbor has electricity, it's a trek to find out. Only some characters embark upon the journey, while others remain, allowing their petty resentments to stew. But into the abyss, something returns. To say much more would be spoiling it, but there is much talk and action regarding theoretical science, doppelgangers, meteorite sightings and murder. Schrodinger's Cat is brought out and given another walk around the cul-de-sac.

The central mystery is compelling, and Byrkit manages to dole out clues, information and twists with an economy and ingenuity no longer seen in bigger budgeted films. Yes, Spider-Man can swing, but “Coherence” generates more electricity simply with a glance at a red glow stick. More importantly, “Coherence” works not because of what is unseen, but because of what isn't done: the threat of violence hovers all over these characters, as if career conversation has left them impotent, and this temporal confusion has given them the proper motivation to clutch a baseball bat.

Unfortunately “Coherence” keeps returning to these interpersonal conflicts in a way that distracts from the story. It feels like this is a short film idea stretched to feature length, and the padding doesn't work. An acceptable problem, despite the fact that the cliffhanger ending is unearned, and a good extra five to ten minutes would have stuck the landing. “Coherence” mainly feels speculative, like a proof-of-concept reel meant to stand-in for a finished project. As the mystery unravels, you learn that “Coherence” is based in one fantastical sci-fi principle. You just wish pursuing this principle involved forsaking another sub-”Big Chill” reunion. [C+]