Synchronic is Christopher Nolan knock-off fronted by a pair of decent actors – Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan – and directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who gave us the intelligent indie psycho-thriller The Endless.
Mackie and Dornan play a pair of paramedics who start noticing that weird cases are coming their way. One badly injured man appears to be suffering from a drug overdose but also has a massive sword wound from front to back through his chest. The sword appears to be the sort of thing a conquistador might carry. Another man is lying at the bottom of a lift shaft, dismembered but with a big smile on his face.
Behind these cases, a pre-credits sequence has told us, is a drug called Synchronic – “fake ayahuasca” says one character – which has the effect of making you so high that you travel in time to a different era. Or maybe you actually do travel there.
Mackie plays Steve, a bed-hopping singleton who’s just been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, Dornan is his buddy, Dennis, the married man with a marriage on the skids and a daughter about to leave home. Do we need to know more about these guys than that they’re paramedics? Not really, though it helps when Dennis’s daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides) goes missing – latest Synchronic victim – and Steve decides it’s his last task before he dies to track her down and bring her back from wherever she’s gone.
Do Steve and Dennis even need to be two characters? Not really, in fact they feel like one decent character divided up into bite-size chunks, but then bite-size chunks is the big (ie little) idea here.
Or do I mean pre-digested gobbets? Synchronic leans extremely heavily on Christopher Nolan – that Nolan-esque slow reveal of the portentous single-word title in the opening credits has established that. And later we get the very Nolan-esque scene when Steve meets the chemist who designed Synchronic, and the chemist tells him the mindbending truth about several time realities all co-existing and how the drug allows the taker to jump between them and we all nod as if we understand and have no idea what’s just been said, just like we did in Tenet when all that “backwards time” stuff was explained.
Can you do Nolan on a budget that’s not in the squillions? Nolan can: see Memento. But if you’re regurgitating old Nolan ideas you’d better bring something new to the party. Writer Justin Benson does that with early scenes between the paramedics and the cops at the site of the latest medical emergency, scenes that bristle with a bantering “fuck you” tension between the cops, who want to control every crime scene, and the paramedics, who actually do, until the needs of the sick and dying are taken care of at least.
Benson also makes Steve a reasonably interesting dude – as well as a hard-partying paramedic who’s painfully reluctant to tell anyone about his condition, he’s a keen student of physics, quoting Einstein at one point (“The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”) He also has a a dog called Hawking, after the author of A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking, presumably.
The fact that Steve is black adds a frisson when he jumps back in time on one of his exploratory “experiments” to find out just how precisely the Synchronic pills do their thing and winds up being menaced by the Ku Klux Klan. Later, a drunk white Confederate soldier will mistake Steve for his slave.
Benson and Moorhead (plus Michael Felker) handle the cinematography and editing, both of which are excellent. Budget constraints can’t hide the sparseness of some of those jaunts back into the past, though the special effects work as present and past bleed into each other is also excellent.
To what extent have the talented Benson and Moorhead taken the shilling and subdued their own instincts to make a movie someone else thought would be a good idea? I don’t know, but making an obviously Nolan-esque film means comparisons are going to be made every step of the way. All in all, Synchronic would seem a much better film if it wasn’t standing in someone else’s shadow.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021