The Essence of Time – Synchronic (2020)

Synchronic was one of my most highly anticipated films of 2020. I even jumped the gun and bought it rather than waiting for the rental window. I really wanted to love this movie but, for a number of reasons, it never quite got there for me.

The story follows a pair of unengaging paramedics who are called to a series of increasingly bizarre deaths linked to a new reality-bending synthetic drug. When they take a call that hits a little too close to home, they are sucked into a mystery that challenges the conventional understanding of time itself. 

There’s plenty of reason why these two are coveted up-and-coming filmmakers. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have made a number of smart and well-executed high-concept, low-budget Sci-Fi films that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed over the last few years. If rumors are correct, the pair is also lined up to direct the upcoming Marvel miniseries, Moon Knight. So, if you don’t know them already, you will soon. That said, this most recent film of theirs leveraged unsympathetic characters in a bid to pull off a concept no amount of exposition could rescue. 

Jamie Dornan (left) and Anthony Mackie (right) not overly concerned with the corpse at their feet

I was excited to see what one of these stories would look like with some A-list names in the lead roles but there was something missing. Neither Anthony Mackie’s Steve nor Jamie Dornan’s Dennis were unappealing protagonists. Even though Benson’s script has sympathetic mechanisms put in place for each of them, their dialogue only solidifies that they’re still just selfish jerks for the most part. Both guys are charismatic enough to string you along, getting you to wait for a moment that never materializes. If they weren’t going to be likable, they could at least be entertaining but Mackie and Dornan didn’t even scratch the surface of what you’d expect best friends to look like. There’s almost no familiarity even. It seems like Benson wrote it with him and Moorhead in mind, since they played the leads in their previous movie, but something about it didn’t translate. 

It’s the opposite of how and why the duo’s other films worked so well. They took unknown commodities and got you to buy into them as people then expanded on whatever strange concept catalyzed the story once you were invested in the characters. That’s absent here. There was a Bringing Out the Dead vibe and I liked the idea of setting the film in New Orleans and using the city’s history as a character in the story, but even that didn’t feel fleshed out. The visual presentation was solid and there are some very cool VFX shots mixed in with Moorhead’s cinematography, but there’s a sepia filter or something like that which gives it a grainy haziness. If it was intentional, and not my TV, it would be a smart companion to a story that’s a little murky.

The concept they put forth is interesting, but trying to explain how a synthetic form of the powerful hallucinogen DMT somehow allows for actual time travel or temporal displacement is just a mountain the script couldn’t climb. They actually had to have a flashback scene where Steve explains, to one of their dying patients no less, how he and Dennis went to med-school together blah blah blah and somehow that makes him an “armchair physicist”…wtf? The character needed credibility when the time travel stuff started requiring some kind of explanation, but this was an incredibly thin way to get there. They’d have been better off forcing the character to learn about time travel in real-time and then the audience would go through it all with him. Perhaps some intriguing exploration of psychedelics and their positive clinical uses, or even how hallucinogens affect perceived reality. There were a number of ways to ground this idea in something tangible and they never did which left this film a bit out of its depth.

The creator of the designer drug even stops by to try and explain things but he just kinda describes time and doesn’t even seem to have a grasp on what it is his drug does. Thanks for stopping by. Steve decides to use his dog as a test subject and, of course, it doesn’t go well. He leaves his dog in the past and doesn’t really seem to shook up by it, even trying to say he doesn’t have enough of the drug to go back for him although the audience can clearly see he does. There’s no inclination to really try and generally no remorse. Yeah, fuck Steve! I officially checked out on caring what happened to him at that point. Making him unlikable must have been by design but it didn’t do the movie any favors. 

Overall, it’s a high-concept idea but the execution wasn’t where it needed to be. Maybe if the drug caused hallucinations to become real, or even caused a temporal shift that allowed the user to see the past or almost anything else, it would have been more believable. I like these guys as filmmakers and I’m going to continue to support their work and promote original ideas. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. 

Recommendation: If you like interesting concepts and/or are a fan of Benson and Moorhead’s previous work, you should find something you like here. You can probably go ahead and wait the two weeks for its rental window.

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