Creative team Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson have an obsession with time: how it moves, how it operates, how it functions in relation to the space we occupy. This curiosity has given rise to three films — Resolution (2012), Spring (2014), The Endless (2017) — and now offers audiences a fourth, Synchronic, once more written by Benson. Grounded via theoretical physics (or as grounded as one can be), Synchronic bears more of a resemblance to Spring than any of the others in how the exploration of time is an aspect which colors the story but is not the primary element driving it. Yes, Synchronic utilizes a theory which states that time is not how humans perceive it and this provides the necessary catalyst for the science fiction elements at play which do generate some delightful horror in its depiction, but the anchor of the tale, the true purpose, is an exploration of family, love, and loss.
Best friends since high school and current EMT partners Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) tackle the direst calls of the night every night. They deal with drug overdoses, stabbings, shootings, broken bones, and anything else the streets of New Orleans can throw at them. Together, they can handle it all and do so with the intent to save as many lives as possible. Then a new drug, Synchronic, hits the streets and a series of hard to explain injuries and deaths become the leading call the two paramedics receive. At first, it seems like just another designer drug, until Dennis’s daughter goes missing and Steve develops a theory about Synchronic’s true nature.
If you’re like me, your first foray into the minds of Moorhead and Benson was The Endless, a film I think about from time to time in the way it tells a compelling narrative about trust, brotherly love, and recovery amid a science fiction tale involving time loops. There’s already mystique and intrigue long before any truly bizarre things begin to happen and explanations are put forth (along with a fantastic connection to their first film Resolution). In contrast, Synchronic puts the weirdness upfront, using that as the entry point for the audience, so that we’re already teed up for the incredible realty-bending to come. This is a smart tactic as the duo have built a reputation on weirdness, so putting it out front, even without a proper explanation, enables that particular curio to be experienced and processed early in order to make way for the characters we’ll eventually invest in. The Cine-Men co-host Darryl Mansel recently tweeted that the best twist M. Night. Shyamalan can deliver is to play a movie straight and the same idea applies here. When you’re known for making things weird, the audience comes to expect it. Ergo, the best tactic is to get that out of the way and, by doing so, enabling the audience to open themselves more fully to the stories of Steve and Dennis, which is where the emotional impact of Synchronic resides.
As for science itself, don’t worry. You don’t need any kind of advanced degree to understand what’s happening, why, or how. Smartly, Moorhead and Benson offer the audience, via Steve, an armchair physicist who can explain what is known as special relativity (find a short-hand here, if you’d like to know more now), the theory which offers the only explanation of how the drug Synchronic works. By making use of an actual theory, Moorhead and Benson create for themselves a doorway of infinite possibilities to play with, and what they present is surprisingly and profoundly rich in both narrative and visual elements. For instance, they often utilize jump cuts to indicate quick movements in time, often with the individual in focus (Steve or Dennis) shown in the same position while the location around them will shift. Using this technical approach continues the sense that the experience of time is all about perception vs reality, that what we experience is not how time functions under a different guiding principle. In the case of Synchronic, that means their direction, whereas for the characters, it may be something entirely different. Impressively, this isn’t empty splash as the majority of these jumps in time are presented more often than not as memory, something which might be argued is a means of reliving time, which the characters explore to reconsider interactions or to relive a significant interaction. In this way, Moorhead and Benson present memory as something which exists outside of the time in which it occurs, but also as a constant event within the individual who remembers.
Something unexpected and equally powerful within the narrative are the depictions of racism throughout the film. After arriving at a call, Steve, wearing clothes he had to borrow instead of his uniform, tries to treat an unconscious girl when an officer approaches him from behind, gun drawn, and makes a derogatory comment including calling him “Tupac.” When he identifies himself, the officer doesn’t apologize for the mistake, but blames Steve for being improperly dressed. The view of Steve as less-than appears in continuous ways throughout Synchronic, a subtle way for Moorhead and Benson to highlight just how systemic racist attitudes are and how they have not yet disappeared. One such reference includes a frightened individual calling the police, only for the KKK to arrive, linking early police forces to the original slave patrols. Moments like these occur quickly with little fan-fare or discussion, which is either a by-product of pacing or is intended as subtext. While I personally found the inclusion to be unavoidable given the history of New Orleans even before Hurricane Katrina, the film itself isn’t an exploration of racism, so none of these moments are explored in how they impact Steve physical or emotionally. This doesn’t mean that some will feel it’s a worthy inclusion within the narrative, but I would argue that the lengths the film goes to explore the connective tissue of what family means, by blood or by choice, the inclusion of these physical and psychological threats add depth to what Steve is willing to do and endure for those he loves.
When it comes to seeing movies in the COVID-19 era, the stance of EoM is fairly simple: be as safe as possible within your realm of comfort. Some films are releasing strictly in standard theaters, while some either take advantage of drive-ins (established or make-shift) or drop the film on VOD/digital simultaneously. In the case of Synchronic, it’s theaters and drive-ins only, with an expected home release in the coming months. The creatives behind Synchronic urge you to wait until then, which is an incredibly bold and, frankly, amazing stance to take as they’d rather people be safe and healthy than have their film deliver a kick-ass theatrical run. They, and obviously those of us at EoM, want the theatrical experience to stay alive and healthy, but make sure you make the right call for yourself. Synchronic is just as amazing as you’d expect from Moorhead and Benson and it will undoubtedly deliver the experience you hope to have. Just experience it in the way that makes you feel the most secure and comfortable. Thus far, we have time.
In select theaters and drive-ins October 23rd, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.