Chances are you missed Synchronic, the latest sci-fi film written and directed by indie filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, when it was released in limited theaters and drive-ins last month. Not only were many theaters still shut down because of the pandemic, the filmmakers themselves made the unusual move of warning potential viewers (via Instagram) of the health risks associated with indoor movie theaters. (“We personally wouldn’t go to an indoor theater, so we can’t encourage you to,” they wrote.)
It was admirably responsible of them, but it did severely limit the audience, especially since the film’s distributor inexplicably opted not to release it simultaneously on VOD—now a common practice in these pandemic times. And that’s a shame, because Synchronic is a smart, inventive, thought-provoking film, featuring standout performances from co-stars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan.
(Mostly mild spoilers below, with a couple of significant plot twists below the gallery. We’ll give you a heads up when we get there.)
Benson and Moorhead are well-known around the film festival circuit, co-directing the 2017 sci-fi cult hit, The Endless, as well as 2014’s Spring (which made a splash at the Toronto International Film Festival that year) and 2012’s Resolution (which takes place in the same fictional universe as The Endless). Over coffee one day, they came up with the idea for Synchronic. “It was brand-new, completely insane, and made an odd sort of real-world sense,” the directors have said, where the past would be the main antagonist—a very different kind of movie monster. “We could also express how we tend to always be looking forward or backward for happiness, rather than right here in the moment.”
Per the official premise:
When New Orleans paramedics and longtime best friends Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are called to a series of bizarre, gruesome accidents, they chalk it up to the mysterious new party drug found at the scene. But after Dennis’s oldest daughter suddenly disappears, Steve stumbles upon a terrifying truth about the supposed psychedelic that will challenge everything he knows about reality—and the flow of time itself.
The film opens with the duo responding to a call concerning a couple in a motel. The couple’s drug-induced hallucinations resulted in the male partner somehow plunging several floors down the elevator shaft, while the woman is in shock and unresponsive, staring in horror at something only she can see. She also has a mysterious snake bite. Steve and Dennis also respond to a call involving a burned body in an amusement park and a drug user who has been stabbed by a vintage sword.
The common factor in all these bizarre calls is a new designer drug called “synchronic.” We learn that it’s similar to DMT (the hallucinogen in ayahuasca), with a molecular structure just sufficiently different for it to be technically legal. But this particular batch was rushed to market amid rumors of a pending FDA crackdown and has some pretty severe side effects. Steve manages to buy up the remaining supply at the local Big Chief smoke shop to get the drug off the local market, but not before Dennis’ 18-year-old daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), goes missing after attending a fraternity party that left one young man dead.
In the midst of all this, we learn the results of Steve’s recent MRI, and the news is not good. He’s got an inoperable brain tumor on or near the pineal gland, a tiny pea-shaped region near the center of the brain that secretes the hormone melatonin, which is tied to sleep/wake cycles, among other functions. (Fun fact: the 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes believed the pineal gland was the seat of the soul.) That turns out to be significant, since synchronic messes with the pineal gland—hence its unusual effects with regard to how users experience time.
(WARNING: a couple of significant spoilers below.)
Both Benson and Moorhead describe themselves as “armchair enthusiasts of astrophysics, philosophy, and futurism,” among other interests, and they particularly liked the idea of a designer drug that causes people to experience past, present, and future simultaneously (or all jumbled up), rather than in a neat linear progression. When Steve encounters the chemist who created synchronic, the chemist draws an analogy to a vinyl record: you drop the needle on whatever track you wish to play, but all those other tracks are still always there. “These tracks are like time, and synchronic is the needle,” the chemist explains. Steve is also something of an armchair physicist, citing a letter by Albert Einstein to a friend whose wife had died: “the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Synchronic temporarily shatters that temporal illusion.
But there’s a twist: it’s not just one’s perception of the flow of time that is affected. The drug actually makes you physically experience different time periods. And if that happens to involve a Spanish conquistador attacking you because you just appeared out of nowhere in a swamp, you will suffer a very real death if he succeeds in skewering you with his sword. And teenagers whose pineal glands haven’t yet calcified can actually travel to another time period and get stuck there, which Steve realizes is what has happened to Brianna.
Because of his cancer, Steve has the uncalcified pineal gland of a teenager rather than an adult. So he thinks he can rescue Brianna with his limited supply of the remaining synchronic. One of my favorite elements of the film is how Steve conducts a series of videotaped experiments, gradually figuring out the “rules” at play. For instance, where you are standing turns out to determine which time period you end up in (for some reason, it’s always the past, never the future), and you have to return within a short window of time.
But Steve screws up when he decides to take his trusty doggo, Hawking, back in time with him for one experimental run. Suffice to say that dogs will be dogs, and Hawking doesn’t make it back to the present in time. Instead, Steve gets one final glimpse of Hawking whimpering sadly at his beloved master before the vision fades. And Steve only has enough synchronic left to either rescue Hawking or rescue Brianna. He makes the right call (Brianna), but that doesn’t make Hawking’s fate any less heartbreaking.
It’s the most upsetting scene in the film; I’m still kinda mad at Steve for risking Hawking instead of running that experiment with an animal that was not a beloved loyal canine companion. Yet there’s no denying its power. That moment is permanently seared onto my brain, and it’s critical in terms of raising the emotional stakes. So objectively, I have to applaud Benson and Moorhead for not blinking on that score. I can always console myself by imagining Hawking being befriended by a young boy, and they go on to share all kinds of fun adventures. Hawking still gets to live his best life, albeit in a distant past.
The entire structure of this movie is admirably tight, as Benson and Moorhead continuously add extra constraints to further heighten the tension and build genuine suspense. Synchronic is a smoldering slow burn that pays off with a surprisingly moving, bittersweet conclusion. But I still maintain that Hawking was a Very Good Boi who deserved better.
Synchronic should be coming to VOD in the next few months.
Listing image by Well Go USA