They have been hailed by some of my critical colleagues as exciting new voices in science-fiction filmmaking, but as big a lover of SF as I am, I have not been a fan of the American team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. (They jointly direct; Benson writes; Moorhead serves as cinematographer.) I found their last film, The Endless, rather dull and pointless, and I really hated the one before that, Spring. But ever the optimist and always willing to be convinced, I gave their latest film a shot. Alas, the third time was not the charm.
If nothing else, Synchronic proves that Benson and Moorhead seem to believe that because their tales are science fiction, essential storytelling elements such as plausibility and cohesion are not required. Sure, making shit up is great; it’s fun, especially for a writer. But even fantastical stories need solid foundations and a credible structure. Sure, all fiction is contrived. But it should never, ever feel contrived.
Here, we have longtime besties Steve (Anthony Mackie: Seberg, Avengers: Endgame) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan: Trolls: World Tour, Endings, Beginnings), who also work together as paramedics in New Orleans. They are, to say the least, rather lackadaisical in their jobs: for one big thing, they mostly fail to act with any sense of urgency even though they’re ostensibly responding to emergencies. But hey, they mostly seem to be responding to calls from junkies who’ve overdosed, whom they treat with disdain once they arrive, so… their contempt is supposed to be justified? Anyway, this is about as much characterization as these guys get, and it fails to endear them to us.
It’s in the course of their professional duties that the guys keep coming across a new recreational drug called Synchronic, which seems to be making people do odd things or causing them strange, even impossible injuries. Steve takes an interest in it and begins experimenting with it, and discovers that Synchronic sends you back in time for a few minutes, though you remain in the same geographical place, before you pop back to the present again. If you’re lucky.
For a long time, Synchronic fumphers around, a potentially intriguing science-fictional idea in search of a story. But the movie is already problematic: Benson throws a lot of Reasons into his script why there is a limited supply of the drug, why only certain people can have the time-travel experience, and what the rules of the time-travel stuff is… and all of it is in aid of funneling the story in a very particular direction. The contrivances and, somehow even worse, numerous coincidences are meant to up the ante, to create a sense of looming crisis, but it’s too hamfisted for that. Nothing about this feels organic, like a slightly alternate reality we’ve stumbled into. Instead, we can see how manufactured the story is. We can see the narrative strings pulling along characters who are barely more than puppets.
And then, Synchronic gets extra awkward and uncomfortable when we see the direction in which the story is being prodded: When Dennis’s teenaged daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), disappears, and Steve believes that she has used Synchronic and gotten lost in time, he determines that he will go after her, which risks his own life, for several more Reasons, including that he, a Black man, may get lost in time himself… lost in the the past. In the American South of slaveholding and the Civil War and Jim Crow. (It’s another of the film’s contrivances that the drug seems to send users only back in time, never forward, even though one explanation of how it works describes all of time, past and future, as existing simultaneously. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why the drug wouldn’t send someone forward in time. It just doesn’t.)
Bad enough that two white filmmakers dare to construct a story that is, along one major vector, about a Black man and his life in racist America; they may think they were being smart to mostly avoid diving deeply into that, but even Mackie’s terrific performance, in which he injects a lot of feeling into a few lines of dialogue, cannot overcome the sense that they really have no idea of the enormity of what they’ve taken on. But then to have that Black man be willing to sacrifice himself? Into another era in which he will only suffer, because that’s how the script has been concocted? For the benefit of a white man? A white man whom the machinations of the script prevent from rescuing his own daughter? Really? All that sci-fi woo-woo to get here?