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In modern Hollywood, science-fiction is often directly linked with blockbuster filmmaking, as it’s the dominant genre in that arena and it can take a significant budget to bring wild concepts and visions to life. The reality, however, is that it doesn’t always require a crazy amount of money to tell an effective sci-fi story. As long as there is a firm grasp on the limitations of a production, there is still tremendous latitude to weave a narrative that is embedded in questioning the limitations of science and is told through the point of well-constructed characters with compelling arcs and personalities. One need not look further than Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's Synchronic as an first-rate example.
The film is practically minimalist in scope, shot primarily in a limited number of locations around New Orleans, but is made impressive and impactful thanks to its big ideas and their captivating implementation. The high concept plot poses a fascinating question – what if a designer drug could alter your perception of time? – and around that idea crafts a thrilling mystery with touches of horror, and a wonderfully applied non-linear structure.
The protagonists of the piece are Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan), a pair of paramedics who encounter a series of bizarre cases when responding to calls – the one thing shared in common by all the incidents being torn packaging for a designer drug called Synchronic. The friends/colleagues are mystified by incidents such as a woman being bitten by a snake in a high rise hotel, and a man stabbed through the chest with a sword, but things get serious when Dennis’ daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), disappears after getting a pill from her friend.
Secretly dealing with a terminal medical diagnosis and having no family of his own, Steve decides to independently commit himself to finding Brianna at all costs, and that begins with learning more about Synchronic. While buying out the remaining stock of the local store selling the drug, he meets the chemist who originally created it (Ramiz Monsef) – who is on his own mission to destroy every pill that was manufactured. It turns out that the secret to Synchronic is that it allows older users to experience all time simultaneously, and for younger users it lets them literally be brought back to a point in the past.
Synchronic digs deep into a cool version of time travel without sacrificing entertainment.
As many, many movies have taught us in the past, messing with time travel can be a dangerous proposition, and Steve is no dummy – recognizing that experimentation is needed in order to both understand the “rules” of Synchronic and accomplish his mission. Because of this, much of the film finds the character recording himself using his finite supply of the drug so that he can log observations about its effects before going for the big rescue, and while that may sound dry on paper, the execution is thrilling and even fun.
Because of a tumor on his pineal gland, Steve experiences the effects of the pill as a young person (like Brianna) would, and each of his trips back through time both reveals more about the how the drug works and adds to the themes of the larger story being told. Particularly because he is a Black man, Steve doesn’t consistently have the greatest luck interacting with people he meets in different eras, and additionally he experiences radically different and surprising climates – feeding into the adventure side of the science-fiction story. All of it adds to Synchronic’s central message about the dangers of romanticizing the past and the importance of living in the present, and the way it’s elegantly strung through the science-fiction plot is fantastic.
Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan make a great pair and deliver strong performances.
The movie never struggles to engage the audience with its kind of scientific method approach to time travel, but it also has the brilliant charisma of Anthony Mackie as a kind of insurance, and the actor does excellent work with the material. Steve is a complex character – the story of a man’s free and breezy lifestyle being derailed by a cancer diagnosis is a whole movie by itself before the time travel part of the story even comes into it – and Mackie does a tremendous job playing all of the many shades – successfully engaging the audience in his emotional journey and also getting a number of laughs (there’s a particular slam against a time travel classic he delivers that is guaranteed to get at least a chuckle).
With Dennis kept out of the loop when it comes to Steve’s time travel experimentation, one might get the impression that Jamie Dornan doesn’t have a lot to work with in Synchronic, but that’s not the case. The role is certainly the smaller of the two, but equally vital and emotional, as the story finds the disappearance of Dennis’ daughter take a massive toll on the already fragile relationship with his wife (Katie Aselton) – which further expands the weight and stakes of the plot. Steve willing to sacrifice everything for his best friend also puts a fair amount of pressure on their bond in the story, but Mackie and Dornan prove to make a wonderful duo.
What Synchronic lacks in scale directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead make up in substance.
Synchronic is really just a smartly made movie all around, with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead not only demonstrating their ability to cast well and spin a cool sci-fi story, but also create something that feels big inside a small package (in the spirit of discussing time travel, let’s call it “Tardis filmmaking”). It’s a feature that trades in big ideas, and while having a limited budget can sometimes lead projects to see their reach exceed their grasp, as they don’t have the resources to fully explore the most interesting elements of their central concepts, that’s not the case here. Instead there’s elegance in the adaptations to limitations, with simple but effective stylistic flourishes – such as tricksy non-linear edits and dissolving environments as time travel kicks in – adding key production value.
Without a massive theatrical launch planned, or a big streaming debut, Synchronic is going to end up being a movie that audiences need to find and discover – but it also has the chance to become a cult title that gains attention thanks to positive word of mouth. If this review helps start that chain, all the better, as this is a movie that sci-fi fans are going to really dig.