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Synchronic

Hmm… Patriot Pictures. Here’s a company I’ve never heard of. I wonder what they’re about. Looks like this is a shingle for Michael Mendelsohn, primarily known as a “financial consultant” for a wide variety of films in the ’90s and early ’00s. Let’s see what’s on the “About” page on their website…

Patriot Pictures aims at entertainment that inspires social awareness spotlighting good vs evil in society throughout history and engaging audiences to participate in positive social change. 

*looks at that mission statement*

*looks at Synchronic*

Uh… yeah. I can maybe see that if I squint and tilt my head sideways a bit. But nobody’s ever going to mistake Synchronic for a Participant Media picture, that’s for damn sure.

Synchronic comes to us from the writing/directing team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. If those names don’t sound familiar, then you’ve never seen a bugfuck little time loop movie called The Endless. (To be fair, that was a shoestring-budget indie flick released in the wake of Avengers: Infinity War — I think I might be one of two dozen people who actually saw that one in a theater.) Though I also notice that Benson and Moorhead have been put in charge of adapting Moon Knight for Marvel and Disney+, a prospect that I find fascinating and terrifying in equal measure.

The premise concerns a mysterious recreational drug that’s hit the streets of New Orleans, causing terrible hallucinogenic trips that usually end in unspeakably horrific injuries or deaths. At least, that’s the short explanation. The long explanation involves a lot of mind-melting time/space fuckery.

Anthony Mackie stars (because he’s everywhere right now) as Steve, a hard-drinking paramedic with a different woman in his bed every night, and a massive tumor in his brain. As a direct result, he pulls liberally from the ambulance complement of painkillers while his work partner/longtime best friend looks the other way.

That would be Dennis (Jamie Dornan), a family man with two daughters aged eighteen years apart. Which means that he’s got a needy infant daughter and an 18-year-old (Brianna, played by Ally Ioannides) who’s still in the angsty and turbulent throes of trying to figure herself out. Oh, and there’s also Dennis’ wife (Tara, played by Katie Aselton), who clearly loves her husband and her daughter, though her patience with both is wearing thin.

So we’ve got a burned-out family man and his alcoholic womanizing best friend. Throw in a laughably incompetent ambulance driver and you’ve got the world’s worst EMS team.

At the end of the first act, Brianna goes missing, and it’s implied that her disappearance may have something to do with the “Synchronic” drug that’s been making the rounds. In fact, given what we eventually learn about what Synchronic is and how it works, it’s possible that Brianna might have been whisked away to another time or place entirely. Thus Steve takes it onto himself to experiment with the drug (he’s dying anyway, after all) to try and figure out what happened and how to get the girl back home.

Trouble is, Steve is a black man. And while living as a black man has never been particularly easy, it was something else entirely until about fifty years ago. Louisiana was basically untamed swampland until about four or five hundred years ago. And in all the time before then, the world was a hostile place to a degree that modern civilization isn’t typically used to. And Steve is exploring all these hostile regions of time and space with a highly unreliable drug that he knows nothing about and has no degree of control over.

I think Steve himself puts it best: “The past fucking sucks, man!”

So what we’ve got here is a story about a modern black man travelling through time to discover a new appreciation for the present day. While he’s also a dying man learning how to live in the present and appreciate every day he still has to live. While he’s ALSO a chronically single womanizer gaining a new appreciation for the loving (albeit uneven) family life that his partner has.

There are so many thematic angles here and all of them dovetail beautifully, by way of an innovative designer drug hook and passionate performances from all involved. Masterfully done.

Naturally, it also helps that the time travel effects are creepy as fuck. There’s nothing flashy or ostentatious about it, and the film establishes right up front that this is a dangerous business. Yes, the visuals help to reinforce the theme that the past is overrated and nostalgia is bullshit. But the visuals are also creepy in a way that helps to sell the film as a work of sci-fi/horror/suspense, and a mindfuck in keeping with the Benson/Moorhead brand.

That being said, this movie was nowhere near as trippy or opaque as The Endless. Whether that’s a bug or a feature, I’ll let you decide. I might also add that no time travel film would be complete without at least one inexplicable paradox that threatens to break the film. And this particular paradox is what the entire climax hinges on, so it’s a doozy.

But by far the biggest problem with this movie is its pacing. The film moves so slowly that Brianna doesn’t disappear until half an hour into this 100-minute movie, and the experimentations with Synchronic don’t really start until halfway in! Additionally, the drug works in such a way that the effects only last for about seven minutes. So the entire movie is basically a whole lot of padding in between seven-minute spurts of excitement.

Okay, maybe calling it “padding” is unfair, as there’s a fair bit of thematic development and world-building in between trips. Even so, the film moves at a pace that could charitably be called “deliberate”. I can’t shake the feeling that this movie could’ve lost half an hour and be no worse for it.

Synchronic is certainly not a bad movie. The film earns a lot of points for its innovative premise, and for dovetailing so many relevant themes together in such a poignant way. Even so, I can’t help but feel just a little bit disappointed that the film wasn’t as aggressively off-the-wall or unapologetically batshit as The Endless. That would probably have been more exciting to watch, and I could at least respect that level of ambition. This, on the other hand, feels like an hour-long film that was padded out to feature length, and that’s not nearly as satisfying.

Still, there is a place in the world for those filmgoers who want something intelligent and original, without dipping into the harder stuff like The Endless. If that’s what you’re looking for, I think this will hit the spot just fine.

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