The premise here is certainly promising: a dangerous synthetic drug that takes lives in an unusual way, altering users’ biological makeup so much that they literally fall back in time and die at the hands of whatever they find there. This also felt like a good opportunity to comment on the ongoing opioid epidemic in some meaningful way, but I don’t think Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead capitalized on it. Instead, they opt to make this a noir/sci-fi hybrid that calls to mind works like Bringing Out the Dead, Looper, Edge of Tomorrow and Altered States, all of which deal similarly with either mind-altering drug use or time travel. Sadly, Synchronic is an inferior film to all of them, for it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be in the end. As a film about the friendship between Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan’s paramedic characters, it struggles to make Dornan’s character as relevant as Mackie’s is, often ignoring him for entire stretches at a time so that Dornan’s presence ultimately feels like nothing more than a bit of stunt casting. As a gritty noir about urban drug consumption, it isn’t at all incisive about the subject, nor does it convincingly incorporate its New Orleans setting within the context of the story other than to geographically situate the action. And as a time-travel fantasy, it feels half-baked and too reliant on sentimentality. In order for the fantasy to kick into high gear, for instance, Mackie’s character has to suffer from terminal brain cancer so he has literally nothing left to lose by experimenting with the Synchronic drug (and, conveniently, the cancer nullifies some of the drug’s extreme effects, making him more immune to its fatal consequences). And when he does experiment, Benson and Moorhead feel the need to bring in a dog to enact a tragic little twist, before pivoting to a highly melodramatic ending that piles on the same old clichés about the hero preparing to sacrifice himself to save someone’s life.
It’s hardly clever, or much of anything, really. The most I can commend is the way Benson and Moorhead continue to find innovative ways to incorporate special effects without an extravagant budget to spend, doing enough to make the Synchronic sequences look suitably fantastical in the moment. It’s something they do well overall, as is evidenced by their previous effort, The Endless. However, like The Endless, I felt they could’ve done a lot more to make their vision more idiosyncratic and truly their own. As well-versed as they may be in the sci-fi lexicon, they now need to begin weaving an original vision that takes their knowledge to higher levels, transcending their derivative qualities rather than capitulating to them. When they do that, I think they could truly succeed and have a breakout hit. Synchronic, I’m sorry to say, is not going to be that film.
Synchronic had its world premiere at TIFF in the Special Presentations programme on September 9, 2019.