Spoilers ahead, if you haven’t seen the film! For those who want a quick without spoilers review: The less you know the better, but I give it two Robert Ebert thumbs way up.
There are some other worthy contenders (looking at Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Back to the Future, Edge of Tomorrow, and Terminator 2), but uh, I think Synchronic might be the best time travel film I’ve ever seen?
The film follows two longtime best friends and paramedics, Steve (played by Anthony Mackie), and Dennis (played by Jamie Dornan), who get called to some bizarre scenes, and eventually, Steve finds out it’s due to some new designer drug called appropriately, Synchronic.
I recently saw Tenet, and have mentioned how Christopher Nolan’s big theme throughout his films is the concept of time and playing with its nonlinear structure. The HBO series True Detective (brilliant show) starring Matthew McConaughey, also played a lot with time and to meme effect with the idea of time as a flat circle.
So the overall basis here of time being nonlinear is not a new concept. However, the execution, and the message (as I interpret it) presented is new. Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Benson also writes, produces, and Moorhead even does the cinematography) shot a film that from the get-go felt like I took a designer drug on my way into the theater. There’s hazy colors, almost similar to that orange hazy look from Blade Runner 2049 and Roger Deakins’ cinematography. But it’s not just the colors. The camera is often moving up and down and backward and zooming in and out. It creates that trippy atmosphere and experience.
Steve is dying. He has a tumor on his brain. Meanwhile, Dennis’ 18-year-old daughter, Brianna (played by Ally Ioannides) goes missing after taking the designer drug. It turns out, she’s missing somewhere else in time. The designer drug allows you to experience time as it actually exists: nonlinear and all at once; the illusion of liner this event happens, then this event, and so on, is ripped away.
Once Steve catches on to this, he starts trying to figure out how it works by going back in time through downing the pill. He ends up in the swamps before his house was even a thing, and then going even further back to the Ice Ages. He messes up and loses his dog in a heart-wrenching scene. It was a darn good dog! And for Steve, I don’t think he’s too worried about himself since he’s going to die (or presumably would) anyway.
What separates this from, say, Back to the Future, which Steve actually rants about, is that the past sucks. It absolutely sucks. It doesn’t matter which time he goes back into, it’s a hellscape. In other words, the past is brutal compared to the present. We take all of this — look around you at modernity — for granted, and for some reason, have an innate pining for the past, but the past is “behind us” for a reason. I thought that message, to appreciate the present, was welcome and beautiful.
Meanwhile, on a personal level, Dennis’ marriage to his wife, Tara (played by Katie Aselton), is falling apart in the wake of Brianna’s disappearance. Dennis, in a heart-to-heart with Steve, says one of my favorite lines of the film, and I’m going to butcher it by paraphrasing from memory, “You know the worst thing about meeting the love of your life? That it happened.” Because everything ahead of you is hard after that point and that feeling of finding that love of your life is now in the past. So it’s part pining for the past again, but also talking about how hard the future itself seems sometimes.
I will say, I thought it was weird they didn’t play with the future at all. Steve goes back into a few different iterations of the past, but he never does go into the future. If time is nonlinear, and you can go back into the past, then he should be able to go into the future, too.
The Rottentomatoes critical consensus focused on Moorhead and Benson, “Synchronic sets off on an intriguingly idiosyncratic sci-fi journey that should satisfy fans of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s earlier work.”
Welp, I’ve never seen their earlier work, but I will check it out now!
I’m a sucker for a beautiful, technically well-shot film (which this was), with good acting (which this had), and that makes me think (which this did). Time is a flat circle. Time is nonlinear. I get it. We’ve all heard that theory at this point. We’ve all heard the Albert Einstein quote, “The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
But it’s the execution here that elevates it about some nerd up at 1 a.m. reading a Wikipedia page (I am the nerd), with stunning visuals, an unsettling and unfolding atmosphere, and a payoff with real heart and emotion. That’s the other key, folks. You can throw all the wizardry and style at the screen you want, and infuse it with inquisitive exposition, but at the end of the day, you gotta make us feel something for the characters experiencing it all.
Moorhead and Benson did that here. I cared about Steve, Dennis and Brianna, but mostly Steve because he’s the primary character throughout the film. Oddly enough, for a film ripping Steve from his feet to transport him to different time periods, this film is grounded. That also helps to set it apart from other time travel films. It’s not only not romanticizing the past, but it’s grounded in the real world. In other words, it feels as if it could actually happen.
So overall, again, two thumbs up, and I suggest you go into it prepared for an unexpected experience.