Thursday 21 January 2021

Synchronic (USA 2019: Dir Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead)

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's previous three features have all foregrounded believable sympathetic characters encountering horrific, mysterious or sci fi infused scenarios, and in many ways Synchronic, their latest movie, is no different. 

We're in New Orleans, and two emergency services recovery workers, Dennis (Anthony Mackie) and his friend Steve (Jamie Dornan) are on hand to clean up when things get messy. Steve reckons that the pair only get to see a small proportion of total deaths in the city - the sudden ones - and that there's infinite possibilities before one karks it, indicating that the future isn't set.

Dennis has a wife, Tara (Katie Asleton) and an 18 year old daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides), with whom he finds difficulty communicating; she's failing at school and can't see the point of her education. Steve, as a man without commitments and a seemingly younger outlook, has no such problems in being able to talk to the restless girl.

In the course of their day to day duties, the pair come across some weird emergencies: a woman in a hotel room bitten by a rare snake; a guy who falls into a lift shaft and is mysteriously dismembered; a corpse run through with a medieval sword; a body, burnt to a crisp, with no other signs of fire; and a drugged out flop house with the words 'time is a lie' written on the wall. The connection between these incidents is a packet found at each scene, which contains a drug in pill form called 'Synchronic'. We've already seen first hand that the drug induces strong hallucinations, taking the user out of their body and apparently transporting themselves elsewhere in time.

Well there's no 'apparently' about it; that's exactly what the drug does. Ostensibly a legal high, for those who can vibe off its powers, mainly the young, 'Synchronic' is literally a time travelling pill. When Steve is exposed to a needle on one of his pickups, a routine blood test leads to some terrible news; he has a progressive cancer and a poor prognosis. He fails to tell Dennis, who nevertheless notices that his partner is drinking heavily and popping a lot of painkillers. Shocked by what the drug is doing to the community, Steve goes to the source - a downtown vape/legal high shop - and buys up the supply. Faced with an uncertain future, Steve tries the drug himself, the extent of the reaction to which depends on the state of the user's pineal gland; Steve's condition results in his gland remaining youthful (it calcifies with age apparently), and so he's able to experience the full 'Synchronic' effect, which literally lurches him out of one time to another.

But when Brianna, who also takes the drug while at a party, goes missing somewhere in time, Dennis and Tara fall apart; it's left to Steve, using what's left of the drug, to leap into time to try and find her.

Characteristically for the directors Synchronic isn't really about one thing, which has left some sci fi fans feeling short-changed. The movie uses the properties of the drug to ask questions about friendship, time, history and memory, rather than a tricksier approach that might have been taken by, for example, Christopher Nolan. Steve seems a doomed individual even before the diagnosis; a frequent dream about coffins sliding about in a storm leads to an awful family revelation which overshadows his life and possibly accounts for his itinerant existence. The limited lifespan available to him actually focuses his mind on what's important.

Some of the science of the drug nods in the direction of the HG Wells novella 'The Time Machine': the drug allows the user to go back seven minutes, but dependent on where they are they can be displaced to different points in time, a little like a needle jumping tracks on vinyl (allowing for some wild scenes including Conquistadors and KKK members); as a man of colour, this nearly always works out badly for Steve. The idea of looping time was effectively utilised in the pair's last movie, The Endless (2018), but the emotional core here is much stronger, while the mind bending-ness of the whole thing, and its take on randomness, chance and luck edges nearer to chaos theory than anything cinematic. 

But while the themes in Synchronic are a heady brew, Benson and Moorhead's trademark humour shines through, often unexpectedly; "You might see James Bond, but I experience Charlie Sheen" comments Steve at one point, in the middle of a dark conversation following the revelation about his cancer.

I fully get that some people won't like this movie. It restlessly never settles in any one direction, but the playfulness of the thing never gets in the way of the bigger themes it's offering up. Funny, thought provoking and damned sad, it's a film which offers some redemption but under a decidedly existential stormcloud.

Synchronic has its VOD UK premiere on 29th January 2021.

No comments:

Post a Comment