Running time: 104 minutes
Written by: Justin Benson
Directed by: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Featuring: Jamie Dornan, Anthony Mackie, Katie Aselton and Ally Ioannides
Steve: “Back to the Future is full of shit.”
With many movies choosing to be released online especially on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney+ and a host of others there are going to be many gems that will be overlooked, one of these, possibly, is the latest from duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, in “Synchronic” (2019), a fantasy inspired time travel story that puts people at the heart of the story with the sci-fi/fantasy aspects very much in the rear window. In my view this makes “Synchronic” one of the better genre movies around, especially from the last few years, as it takes tropes that we all know. especially in terms of time travel, twisting them slightly so as to make it not only surprising but illustrates how it is possible to make something original out of a sub genre that may seem played out. In fact if you have followed the writer/directors earlier movies “Synchronic” will be pleasing in that it not only does not stray too far away from the originality and quality of those movies but it ups the ante in terms of scope, budget, behind the scenes personnel and of course employing four very experienced actors in front of the camera in Jamie Dornan, Anthony Mackie, Katie Aselton and Ally Ioannides who all not only play their parts well but are obviously into the idea of this movie as a whole.
“Synchronic” is based around Steve a ladies man and Dennis who is married with two children. In their work as paramedics on the late shift they begin to encounter a series of people dead or in a strange state. After some exploration they discover it relates to a new designer drug, Synchronic. Steve discovers he only has six weeks to live and decides to buy up all the Synchronic in town to protect others – only to discover he has a time travel pill that may help to find his partner’s missing daughter. Steve chronicles how the pill works with different forms of ingestion affecting different scales of time travel until he finally returns to the tension of trying to discover what happened to Brianna.
There are many strengths to this movie, but it all begins with writer/directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead who over the past few years have produced some very original movies that could be said to be influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, as has the entire horror genre for many decades. However where these filmmakers differ is that they have taken the spirit of the author and infused it into their two earlier works, those being “Resolution” (2012), but especially “The Endless”(2017) which features a creature that could be an element of the Kthulu legacy itself. Both of these movies were not only inventive but were also visually striking especially as they were made on very low budgets. Of course with low budgets involved one of the first elements that suffer is the general narrative and plot, which can mean a general loss of cohesiveness but the filmmakers made this work for them and incorporated this into the movies themselves making them feel original and not self-serving. Now with a larger budget as well as very well known actors there has to be cohesiveness in the narrative and plot which to the filmmakers credit there is, it has a fully formed beginning, middle and end without losing originality or a visual tone. It would be easy to bend a story or characters around actors who have had huge successes and are far more experienced, but to their credit Benson and Moorhead have created an excellent genre movie that feels familiar and new, something difficult to do in a crowded marketplace, it helps explain how it got into last years TIFF.
In their previous films the directors have used relatively simple set-ups, locations and relatively simple special effects but with this new endeavour there are far more locations that are used in busy environs, more complex set-ups with special effects that are used subtly, even the time travel effects are low key which for me is welcome. It means that the time travel aspects seem to be part of the natural world, unlocked chemically not in a physical sense like other genre movies. The narrative of the movie is just as important as the plot which is de rigour for a time travel movie but the directors have used their skill to pointedly illustrate how race relations may have not moved forward much at all. Oddly or to make a point the drugs that are required are found in a type of vape store which in some ways is as white as one can get, we actually see a majority of white people using this drug indicating that any break throughs are not only class based but race based as well.
In dealing with low budget genre movies it can be difficult to cast well known quality actors but with “Synchronic” the directors have cast some well known dramatic as well as genre actors in the leads, Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie. In both cases these leads not only offer their acting talent but also some immediate box office clout as well as recognition in the popular media. Whilst their is some playing to stereotypes with the white character having a family and the African American being a party guy with little family around him there are nice variations with Mackie having the job to not only experiment with the time travel aspect but also the intelligence to work out how all the sci-fi elements work. The other aspect of the movie that we see through Mackie’s eyes are the racial elements that which we witness through different time periods and are unfortunately all too familiar, it actually makes fro some depressing viewing when compared to the US of today. Of course this is also a film about sacrifice, life itself and what it means to be able to offer one by using another in an ultimate way for people that have become a family, it asks what would you do and Mackie’s character answers that question almost without hesitation. Both leads inhabit their roles as do Katie Aselton and Ally Ioannides in minor supporting roles who you can tell believe in the material.
Like the directors previous works there are rules in their Universe although unlike those other efforts “Synchronic” has rules that are set out on screen in experiments carried out by the Anthony Mackie character in some great inventive ways, almost like one could imagine doing themselves. I will not spoil the general conceit to the rules in this time travelling Universe but they seem unique in not only how the time travel is activated but when someone can travel as well as for how long, which taken at face value makes sense. Of course a time travel movie would not be complete without some events in the past effecting the present, which we have but in an emotional way, in fact there is emotion heavily leveraged in all the times there is time travel used. I have seen many genre movies that involve aspects of time travel and this one I enjoyed highly, especially considering the lack of special effects, budget and the way jeopardy is used.
To say the time travel genre has been done to death is an understatement indeed, but “Synchronic” adds a twist on this with excellent results, it is most pleasing to watch a movie like this with surprises throughout as well as a well thought out plot that marries itself well to the narrative. What I also enjoy seeing is new writer/directors showing real improvement with each subsequent movie, I cannot wait for their next effort which I imagine will contain some real genre flourishes as well as originality in a medium that at most times sadly lacks.