Synchronic is the mind-bending continuation of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s exploration of time and what makes us human. It’s clearly the director duo’s step into the big leagues – bigger stars, bigger concept and bigger pay off.
Paramedics Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) come across a string of strange accidents - all the victims have ingested a designer drug called Synchronic and their injuries - and in some cases causes of death - are puzzling to say the least. When Dennis’ daughter goes missing after taking Synchronic and Steve discovers the drug’s time-bending possibilities, things get weird. Really weird.
Synchronic first premiered in film festivals around the world in 2019, but Benson and Moorhead later returned to the editing room to cut a new version which went on to premiere at the FrightFest section of Glasgow Film Festival. The new version is vastly better, more balanced and assured and the ending hits harder this time around. While by no means perfect, it is the necessary and exciting step for Benson and Moorhead, who have proven to be efficient and delicate directors.
Just like in Spring and The Endless, as well as the pair’s lesser seen debut Resolution, Benson and Moorhead are once again looking deep into what makes our time on Earth valuable. Steve grapples with his own existentialist problems while Dennis tries to find his missing daughter Kayla and while the narrative feels a little imbalanced, Benson and Moorhead eventually land on some pretty compelling stuff by the film’s emotional, last frame.
The best sequences are the ones where Steve tests out Synchronic’s effects. These moments are highly enjoyable and Ariel Vida’s wonderful production design really bring the different eras Steve ends up in alive. Moorhead, also acts as the cinematographer here, ensures Synchronic is filled with the kind of freaky, swirling, haunting imagery fans of Benson and Moorhead are used to. The film, as well as their previous work, focuses much more on the emotional rather than the violent, and while there is plenty of death and destruction, that’s not really of interest to Benson and Moorhead. They’re centred more on the human aspect of sci-fi and it’s exactly the approach a film like this needs.
Benson's script is also slyly funny. Not in the laugh-out-loud kind of way, but it’s guaranteed to get a few hearty chuckles. Where the writing doesn’t fare quite as well is its inclusion of racial elements. Mackie’s Steve notes that the area he lives in has "a shitty response time" from the authorities after discovering a stranger in his house in the middle of the night, and an early scene has a police officer pull a gun on Steve as he is working on a patient but not wearing his uniform, raising the officer’s suspicions. These elements constantly feel like an afterthought, even if they are correct in their observations.
Part of Synchronic’s charm is finally seeing Anthony Mackie front and centre. An actor with plenty of talent, potential and charm, he has been playing second flute for years now, but here he's able to branch out. Aside from 2014’s gorgeous and affecting Spring, Benson and Moorhead have always concentrated on a male duo and their relationship. Here the focus is mostly on Steve, a man-child in his 40s, still partying hard, showing up to work hungover and never settling down. Steve can be an unlikeable character, but Mackie plays into his more tragic qualities. Ultimately, Synchronic is a story about a man trying to find purpose and meaning in his life which he has largely wasted and once the film explores this more thoroughly, it becomes more powerful.
Mackie also shares great chemistry with Dornan, who is equally as good but his story doesn’t resonate quite as strongly as Mackie’s does. Dennis comes across as arrogant and selfish, but much is saved by the easy banter between the two actors. Ultimately his character simply doesn’t have as much to do, but Dornan is believable as the struggling father in a crisis of his own.
But truthfully, this is Benson and Moorhead’s show. The film is at its most confident when it moves to the familiar territory of mind-bending visuals and high concepts, but it is also a deeply melancholic affair. This is a guaranteed treat for fans of the director's previous work, but powerful enough to reel in a new audience as well. Synchronic is exciting, stirring, and ultimately, a truly touching sci-fi film.
Synchronic is available in US cinemas and drive-ins from October 23.