Two New Orleans Paramedics find their lives upended when they encounter a new drug that allows the users to travel through time in Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Synchronic.
I’m a huge fan of high concept science fiction. Framing a narrative around a single easily explained element that can be explored is always going to get my attention. A drug that allows the user to travel through time is a great hook that invites audiences to experience what this film has to offer.
The plot focuses on two paramedics, Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan). Their job leads them to encounter the mysterious after effects of the drug through them arriving at the scene of bizarre deaths that are difficult to unconventionally explain. Things like a body being completely burned with no sign of a fire that could cause such a thing or being stabbed with an anachronistic weapon. The prologue unfortunately answers the question of how such deaths are possible which puts the audience ahead of the characters in that respect. It would have been far more effective for the viewer to learn as the characters do though the opening is visually striking so justifies itself for that reason alone even if it drags the film down narratively to a large extent early on.
Once the characters catch up with what the audience already knows the film has the opportunity to really begin and spends a significant portion of its running time exploring what Synchronic is and what it can do. Steve is ideally placed to test the drug and an extended sequence where he employs the scientific method to learn more about it is a great example of plot and character developing simultaneously. His methodical approach is a great way to gain an understanding of the rules and mechanics of the narrative while also making use of Steve’s established traits to punctuate the time periods he finds himself travelling to. Being a black man going back to times where white people were far more hostile to those who look like him is used well and his experiences in the various time periods he finds himself in often inform his actions in the present in interesting ways. It’s a clean and sophisticated way of delivering exposition as it never feels as if the audience is being read the bullet pointed ruleset so that they can follow the rest of the film.
In general this film does character very well. Steve and Dennis’ friendship feels natural and lived in with a clear history existing between them. Both actors convey the toll the job they do has on the characters and how that bleeds into their personal lives in negative ways. Dennis is in a marriage that is strained by the mental anguish his job creates as well as the lack of time he has to spend with his family and Steve has become very isolated with drugs, alcohol and one night stands being his chosen coping mechanism keeping him from succumbing to the horrors he experiences on a daily basis. On paper this sounds like it would be relentlessly bleak and at times it is but the actors have natural chemistry together which combines nicely with their innate charisma to keep it all from getting too dark. There are moments of levity peppered throughout the script to be found in really natural character interactions that both exist for their own sake and feed into the plot.
On a visual level the film is both striking and memorable. The effect used when Steve or anyone else travels through time is simple yet effective, the general mood created for the present day New Orleans scenes is impressive and the various time periods are very deliberately created to stand out while hiding how small the locations are very well. There is also some gruesome imagery to be found in the dead bodies in the early part of the film that helps set up the danger associated with the drug in a really visceral way.
The film suffers from trying to be about too many things and failing to develop any of them fully. Racism is hinted at while never being fully explored, philosophical musings about the meaning of life creep into the narrative but never amount too anything more meaningful than brief conversations, the downsides to the loss of youth are closely linked with the drug itself but don’t receive the necessary attention to become more than a surface level observation. If a specific theme had been chosen and the film framed around that then the overall experience may have been a stronger one but what is presented here is compelling and thought provoking in its own right.
A thought provoking science fiction story with a compelling central concept, engaging characters, striking visuals and a really natural way of presenting the necessary information. Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan are both engaging presences in the film with a strong sense of history existing between their characters. In the case of Mackie’s character he is perfectly placed to explore the mechanics of the titular drug while also progressing the narrative naturally. Visually the film is excellent on all levels and the story presented is well told though there are too many elements at play for any of them to get proper development. Sticking to a single theme and concentrating on exploring that fully would have made for a stronger experience but what is presented is both compelling and thought provoking in its own right.
- strong performances from the leading actors
- excellent characterisation
- striking visuals
- explaining the core concept without it coming across as clumsy exposition
- too many elements at play for any of them to be developed properly
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