The first few moments of Synchronic write a check that the remainder of the film not only can’t cash, your brain gets hit by an overdraft fee before the credits roll. The opening sequence is a delicious tease of cosmic horror, hard science-fiction, and blissfully upsetting visuals. Yes, please! The second half is an all-out avalanche of half-assed explanations, laughable cliches, and an unforgiveable use of a dog. No thank you, please!
As with their previous film, 2017’s The Endless, what writer/co-director Justin Benson and co-director Aaron Moorhead are trying to do is far more laudable than what they actually succeed in doing. Sci-fi is known for having fans willing to forgive squidgy acting performances and questionable logic. If you make me—a guy with a Doctor Who forearm tattoo—roll my eyes at your time-travel film’s conclusion, something has gone terribly wrong.
Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are EMTs who arrive to help somebody who OD’d and also sorta got stabbed with a conquistador’s sword. It doesn’t take long to surmise that the titular designer drug, Synchronic, mucks with time the way that cocaine mucks with the nasal passages of heirs with billion-dollar daddies. Without getting into spoilers, Steve receives some very bad news that also serves as a logic loophole the script uses as a hula hoop. Before long, he’s popping pills on a quest to save someone he cares about, who has slipped through time, while proving himself to be an inexcusably bad dog owner.
As Bruce Willis yelled at Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper, “I don’t want to talk about time travel!” In a fitting paradox, the more you attempt to explain and exposition away a particular take on the familiar sci-fi gimmick, the less sense it actually makes. As such, Synchronic’s conclusion is abject nonsense at best and uproariously hilarious at worst. It has the audacity to ever-so-briefly play footsie with race issues and ends with what would be the wackiest special effect in years, had The Craft: Legacy not briefly transformed David Duchovny into a twentysomething young woman. Though to be fair to The Craft: Legacy, at least it actually had women in it…
In another paradox, Moorhead’s murky, hazy cinematography shines most brilliantly here, as it did in The Endless. The score by Jimmy LaVelle is equally as disorienting and captivating. The gist of the film, the kernel of the concept itself, is intriguing and could well have made for either a cult-classic gem or B-movie mayhem. Instead, Benson and Moorhead take things far, far too seriously, and the film hubristically Wile-E-Coyotes itself.
For the record, I’m still rooting for the directorial duo, who just got tapped to work on Marvel’s Moon Knight. It’s impossible not to watch their work without recognizing the potential at play. At some point, maybe after getting in on some of that sweet, sweet Disney cash, the pair will find the place where idea and execution meet. Synchronic doesn’t live there, but it feels like a pit stop along the road.
Grade = C-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Roxana Hadadi at Pajiba says “The flip side of all that time travel, though, is how often the movie relies on people of different ethnicities and cultures to stand in as boogeyman villains: Native Americans and Haitians, in particular, are presented as less confused by the modern interloper in their midst than instantly nefarious and violent. And it’s unsurprising that there are lengthy scenes in which Steve must face off against murderous KKK members and Southerners; the film never takes the risk of giving Steve an ally, or having him interact with any women in the past. Or any women at all, if he’s not sleeping with them!”
Dominic Griffin of Spectrum Culture says, “Synchronic is able to tap into something primal about taking the present for granted and living in the past or imaginary futures, but its finishing stretch, though thrilling, cements those themes in too dull a fashion to fully resonate.”
Jeanmarie Tan of The New Paper (Singapore) says “The film has two distinct halves that seem to be from different movies with extreme tones.”
Dwight Brown at Dwight Brown Ink says “So, with this fairly fanciful notion, how crazy and weird do the filmmakers get? Do they play with your head? Show mindboggling illusions? Invent uncanny creatures? Choreograph incredible blood-rushing action scenes? No. Are there cheesy, gory, bloody horror elements, the kind that make sci-fi/horror fans squeal with revulsion and delight? No.”