Sci-Fi Thriller ‘Synchronic’ Delivers an Emotionally Satisfying Trip – Review
Countless films grapple with the concept of time. Just recently, we saw the worldwide release of action thriller, Tenet, from acclaimed director, Christopher Nolan, who is continually nerding out over the intricacies of time throughout all his films. This obsession with time in films can be traced back to the 1930s, filmmakers are always eager to dabble with these classic sci-fi elements.
Synchronic is the latest entry in this sub-genre, from indie sci-fi darlings, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, known for the highly praised, low-budget, thriller The Endless. This film premiered at last year’s TIFF to mostly positive buzz which has created certain expectations from cinephiles. Thankfully, Synchronic is a significant step-up in their filmography, not just with the budget and talent they acquired, but with a story that offers plenty of heart to go along with the mind-bending thrills.
Set in the sleepless city of New Orleans, Steve (Anthony Mackie) is an EMT who spends his nights encountering the worst of what drug abuse, addiction, and bad influence has to offer. He along with his best friend, Dennis, (Jamie Dornan) attempt to save the lives of overdosing addicts throughout the city. Recently, the new designer drug in town “Synchronic” is taking the streets by storm as the hottest commodity in the synthetic drug community. Users who experience “Synchronic” appear to undergo psychedelic dreams that usually end with their unexplainable deaths.
Steve confronts these disheartening scenarios, escaping only through endless drinking, one night stands, and the company his faithful canine friend, Hawking. Steve’s numb, repetitive, life is upended when he discovers that he has an inoperable brain tumor located in his pineal gland. The doctor is quick to point out both the uncertainty of his lifespan, and, also, the unique fact that his pineal gland is uncalcified, like that of a much younger person. This brief factoid becomes central to the plot when Steve discovers that his rare condition allows him to more easily tap into his “third eye.” This ability goes hand in hand with the new drug as it allows Steve to travel back in time to the exact location that he currently resides in. Depending where you’re standing, you’ll travel further back in history. A few feet away can mean hundreds of years when using “Synchronic.” When Dennis’s daughter goes missing, presumably due to this drug, Steve, makes it his dying wish to rescue her from the past.
Although, I was hesitant to get on board with the time travel explanation the film presented, (I’ve seen a lot of time travel stories and this one seemed especially incredulous), I went along with it and tried to focus on the themes of the film instead. To my surprise, the sci-fi elements of this story delivered. Each time travel scene came with the visual dissolving of the current surroundings, which offered an original representation of “traveling back in time.” The suspense of Steve’s experiments were escalated every time, each trip becoming more and more perilous. I found myself compelled with his new life’s mission, and forgetting my initial problems with the science of the film.
This is mainly due to the writing of the film. The screenplay picks up the pace significantly in the second act, not only with the sci-fi moments, but the heartfelt ones as well. Steve’s philosophical rationalization of what it means to live a good life, and what his purpose is, created a far more endearing protagonist. Each time he traveled back, he gained new perspective and learned to come to terms with his terminal illness. His discovery of new purpose was surprisingly not vapid or trite but instead emotionally resonant. Anthony Mackie’s performance is stellar, going from stoic, stiff, and apathetic; to remarkably charming by the end of the film. Having that A-class talent paid dividends for Benson and Moorhead. The film lives and breathes through the lead and Mackie brought his full array of skills.
Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson deliver an incredible follow up to The Endless, elevating their filmmaking prowess with even more ambitious storytelling and visually original concepts. From the camera movement to the editing, directors Benson and Moorhead, wanted to not only impress with their time travel plot but have fun with the genre. The directing duo created a singular depiction of time travel that stands out in an ocean of entries.