Time travel is a drug and the results can be deadly. Anthony Mackie (Avengers: Infinity War) and Jamie Dornan (50 Shades of Grey) star in the new sci-fi film Synchronic as two best friends, and New Orleans paramedics, who begin to notice kids dying in horrible, improbable ways. Stabbed through the chest with a sword, burnt to a crisp, or broken in half. The only link they find between the deaths is the same little wrapper at the scene for something called “Synchronic.”
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Spring, The Endless), Synchronic is an ambitious piece of storytelling. The film does its best to simultaneously create a unique sci-fi conceit, get to the bottom of these deaths, and make the deaths personal for the characters, while also exploring their flaws. Each one of these strands works on its own, and some work together, but not everything comes together well enough for the film to be as good as it wants.
Before Synchronic explains what, exactly, this mystery drug is and why it’s killing people, the film spends a good amount of time diving into Steve and Dennis’s characters and their relationship. Steve (Mackie) is a single alcoholic who realizes he’s got a major health issue. Dennis (Dornan) is in a fledgling marriage and has two kids 18 years apart, which makes things even more difficult. These aren’t particularly unique or interesting problems, but Mackie and Dornan do the best with what they have. It helps too that they have each other to play off of. Their friendship is close, but there’s tension because neither is 100% honest with each other and they know it.
Benson and Moorhead build that tension and tone not just through story but through technique as well. Synchronic is set in New Orleans, but it’s the side of the city you rarely see. It’s shot through almost a gothic lens. Everything about it is murky. The film has an ethereal feel; the camera floats around in long takes through smoky, dark streets and buildings. Even the daytime scenes are paced and shot as if they’re in slow motion to emphasize the mood. A washed-out, sad feeling that only drives home the uneasy mental well-being of the characters.
Those characterizations would be nothing, though, if there wasn’t a story to them and the story is exceedingly cool. It takes a while to get there but eventually, Steve discovers Synchronic is a drug that allows you to time travel. You don’t have a choice where you go, it’s only for a few minutes, but you do go back in time. There, you’ll often encounter something bad, hence the string of deaths. Those reveals lead to some shockingly weird, wonderful scenes of creepy, gross shit happening simultaneously in multiple timeframes. It’s all kicked up a notch when Dennis’ older daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides of Into the Badlands) goes missing on Synchronic and Steven takes it upon himself, for reasons I don’t want to spoil, to find out what happened.
Steve’s quest to save Brianna leads to the best parts of the movie: montages of Steve experimenting with Synchronic to figure out its rules. There’s just something rewarding about getting burning questions answered in a way that’s fun while also moving the story forward. Plus, it’s the one section of the film where Benson and Moorhead press down on the gas a bit. It’s snappy, it’s exciting, and it sets the table for the film’s final act. However, that quest also leads to the film’s biggest disconnect.
Steve decides he’s going to rescue Brianna alone and it’s not until he’s ready that he tells Dennis, her father, about it. The fact that his best friend would take on the task of rescuing Brianna, without involving or telling him, and that the father wasn’t doing anything himself, simply doesn’t mesh with their characters or the strained but tight bond they have. With one tiny choice, it’s almost as if all the time Synchronic spent developing these characters and their relationship goes out the window. There’s a narrative reason for the decision but, for me, it undercut much of the earned emotion up to that point.
It’s a disappointing turn because, for the most part, Synchronic has you hooked; the mystery is interesting, the characters are complex, and the connections propulsive in a way that we’re anxious to see where it all goes. But once Steve sets off on his own, the film almost splinters in two. There’s the time travel stuff here, and the character stuff there. Are they connected? Sure. But the paths to enriching each other take a detour, only to pick up at the very end of the film, leaving us with a climax that somehow both satisfies but also underwhelms.
Nevertheless, Synchronic has plenty of good things about it. Mackie gives a very strong performance. The music and photography are beautiful and evocative. It handles time travel in a new and interesting way and those time travel scenes give the film a new life. It’s just that, in the end, the dense story feels like it’s missing an episode. As if a few strands of connective tissue got lost that would have made it really shine. That was bound to happen though. Synchronic is trying to balance so many different things, so many different genres, the fact that it doesn’t stick the landing is almost expected.
What’s important about the film is, while you may not be blown away, it’ll leave you thinking and wanting to see more from these filmmakers. They try really hard, and partially succeed, at providing us with a uniquely human sci-fi story.
Synchronic opens in theaters and drive-ins Friday. It’ll be available on-demand in January.
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