Prooving cinema doesn't have to be glitzy or stylish to be smart, Synchronic proves a bleak foray into the idea of time travel while always entertaining at the same time.
Often hard to pinpoint, Synchronic is a surprising sci-fi film that proves itself a lot smarter than its trailer lets on. Combining elements of psychological horror, gore, and a claustrophobic editing style, it blends into a remarkable piece of cinema that often left me without hope. While set in a reality we recognise, at the same time Synchronic is often unrecognisable, showcasing characters caught in traumatic events that hound this hopelessness and inescapability of its narrative. Even when the film reaches its conclusion, its brief glimmer of happiness is juxtaposed by enough death and melancholy that it never markets itself as an easy-watch, and nor should it be. As a testament to what directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead can accomplish together, Synchronic marks itself as a film everyone should see at least once, even if they never plan to rewatch it anytime in the future.
Following the story of Steve Denube (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis Dannelly (Jamie Dornan), it is about a synthetic drug called Synchronic that allows humans to experience time outside of its usual linearity. When Dennis’s daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) takes Synchronic and then seemingly disappears, Steve discovers that this medication has the ability to transport you to different moments in the past, taking it upon himself to travel back in time and save Dennis’s daughter before it’s too late.
As far as narratives goes, it recycles recognisable tropes that many of us are firmly aware of, but its time-bending elements allow for some pretty smart discoveries and unique explorations, dipping its toes just enough into the world of physics and philosophy to give it some smart bravado. Even if the narrative clearly segments itself into three parts, it provides enough mystery, intrigue and heartbreak to keep you rooted to the screen, but simultaneously makes us feel stiflingly claustrophobic. Anthony Mackie’s performance is mainly so deadpan that there’s a bluntness to his onscreen presence which feels uncomfortable in the absurdity of the world he inhabits. It’s similar to our own but in the perspective of Mackie’s character Steve, who we sadly learn has terminal cancer at the start, it’s nothing but strange and unsettling as the film drives towards an inevitable conclusion. The editing style also makes this apparent through transitions between scenes that lock audiences in the same sort of prison that Steve is confided in. A shot will end on Steve sitting on the couch, before the next will have him in the same framing and position but doing something completely different. It’s subtle and uncanny but also unique, giving Synchronic a greater sense of identity outside of its exploration of time.
Mackie and Jamie Dornan deliver great performances, but both are often somewhat muted onscreen. They rarely show any emotion, often talking in a monotoned voice and embodying a sense that they’re living because they have to rather than they want to. This is also realised in Ally Ioannides’ performance as Brianna, who is strikingly similar to her father’s emotionless gaze but with an added teenage awkwardness. The three main characters all lack a sense of drive or emotion, which often detaches them from emotional engagement. However this makes the various supporting characters all the more disturbing. From crazed Voodoo men laughing at the sight of their own mangled bodies, to teenage girls covered in blood and people foreshadowing that something bad has happened in the house behind them. What we’re seeing isn’t remarkably new, but these moments still produce a desired impact for us. Even through the countless dead bodies that we meet, each have a distinct feeling of character surrounding their death which only makes it harder and more uncomfortable when Steve and Dennis appear unconcerned by them. It helps drive the monotony of its world but also enhances what is meant by the fact that the pacing doesn’t give you many moments to breathe or relax. From start to finish, it’s intense and covers a lot of ground in the process.
When Synchronic finally finished, I felt like I needed a breather. It is one of those films that feels like a pit of despair which is ironically entertaining yet somehow harrowing at the same time. Everything about it seems rather bleak and inescapable, and I guess that’s what makes it so compelling to watch in the first place. It’s not a film I’ll be hampering to watch anytime soon again, but it is worth the initial watch and definitely deserves some attention and love from anyone who is a psychological horror fan, interested in time-bending narratives, or knows Moorhead’s and Benson’s eclectic filmography.
Synchronic, directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, is distributed in the UK via Signature Entertainment, certificate 15. It’s available now on selected digital platforms.