2019 | dir: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead | 103 m
Almost invariably, time travel films incorporate some issues of causality into their plot. Essentially, there's some event in the past that influences the characters in the present / relative future and it turns out that the characters in the future were actually the ones who were actually responsible for the later events. And almost invariably, the character who is most directly affected by those past events is usually revealed to be the one that caused them initially. This is a well-worn trope in the time travel genre, and like most tropes, the fun isn't in recognizing it, but in seeing how the author/creator finds unique ways to deploy that trope within the worlds they've created.
Synchronic is no different. Which is to say, it's very different. But still the same.
It's time travel, so admittedly, there's going to be some head scratching. The best advice I can give when engaging with any story involving time travel is to quote the late, great Hunter S. Thompson: "Buy the ticket, take the ride..."
Synchronic is the fourth feature film from Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, and one of the few movies I was truly looking forward to in 2021 (and in 2020, but the less said about that particular historical period, probably the better). Not just because I'm a sucker for a good time travel film (or even a bad one), but because Moorhead and Benson have established themselves in the indie film circuit as men of a visionary nature and a distinctive voice. I was hooked immediately after watching their debut, Resolution, last year and was similarly impressed/enamoured with their follow-up to their follow-up movie, The Endless, and their just plain follow-up, Spring. Though Resolution and The Endless have roots reaching deep into the fertile soils of both science fiction and horror (I couldn't help shake the feeling after watching Resolution and The Endless and Ari Aster's Hereditary and Midsommar in the space of a couple months last year that I was witnessing a new age in horror), the dominant genre seems to be science fiction. This is a genre that, like fantasy, requires that rare combination of Big Ideas and Big Imagination and the willingness to, as the character Eames from Inception might have put it, "dream a little bigger, darling."
This random quote isn't the only connective tissue between Moorhead and Benson's movies and those of Christopher Nolan. Like Nolan, the majority of their films demonstrate a preoccupation with themes related to time. Like Nolan, Moorhead and Benson focus on how the perception of time affects our understanding of the world and of ourselves; however, unlike Nolan, they also seem fascinated by the horrors that time holds.
Synchronic focuses on two paramedics in New Orleans: Steve (Anthony Mackie), the consummate bachelor, and Dennis (Jamie Dornan), the devoted family man with an 18-year-old daughter and a newborn. As the pair respond to increasingly strange calls involving injuries and deaths from pirate swords, snake bites, and good, old-fashioned spontaneous human combustion, they begin to see the link to a new designer drug called Synchronic. The sudden disappearance of Dennis' teenage daughter Brianna (Ally Ionnides) takes on obvious emotional and personal toll while Steve is simultaneously dealing with his own diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. Steve figures out, with the help of Dr. Exposition Kermani (Ramiz Monsef) the designer of the drug, that Synchronic allows adult uses to physically experience other periods in time while remaining firmly rooted in their own present, but actually sends teenage users to those other points in time due to their underdeveloped pineal gland for about seven minutes at a time. Luckily(?), Steve has a medical condition (presumably linked to the brain cancer) that kept his pineal gland from developing fully, allowing him to travel through time as well and mount a rescue operation to bring Brianna home. There's also, smartly, a bit of a "ticking clock" aspect to the movie (especially impressive in a movie specifically about how nonlinear time is), as Steve has the last known supply of Synchronic, meaning he only has a set number of trips to both figure out time travel and save his friend's daughter. This helps to add a necessary sense of urgency and tension to give the movie narrative momentum.
Synchronic functions excellently as a science fiction movie, but if you stripped away all of the sci-fi elements, it would still function well as a drama. One of the things that make a movie like this work is the human element, and thanks to the performances of Mackie and Dornan (and, of course, the writing and direction), the relationship between Steve and Dennis feels fully fleshed out and offers the emotional core needed to really elevate the material. I do have to take a moment to acknowledge Jamie Dornan especially. I think I'd only ever seen him in the Fifty Shades of Grey movies, and had no idea this guy could act. Because of the scope of the film, it essentially succeeds or fails based on the relationship between Steve and Dennis. Mackie and Dornan (both great actors) are able to sell the friendship between these two men, which is complicated and messy enough to feel real.
The friendship between these two men, as well as the personal tribulations they're facing, provide the necessary anchor that keeps the narrative from drifting once the hardcore sci-fi elements kick into full force and Steve starts his test runs to the past as he prepares to find Brianna. What was truly unique about how time travel in Synchronic functions that I haven't really seen in other time travel films is the connection between time and space. This time travel mechanic is reflected in the title of the film itself, which is so clever it hurts. Synchronic has a dual meaning: it can refer to two or more events happening simultaneously, and it can also be used when considering the concept of events or phenomena at a particular point in time without considering their historical antecedents. Every trip (literal or slightly less literal) from taking Synchronic takes its user to a different time, but where in time they're taken depends on their physical location. As Steve begins to experiment with the drug in his own home, he finds that the difference between sitting on his couch and standing in the middle of his living room amounts to a difference of hundreds of thousands of years, facing off against a Spanish conquistador in the former instance and meeting one of our prehistoric relatives on a glacier-covered North America in another.
Within the framework of rhetorical theory, location plays a part in the interpretation of dialogue. Buildings are more than just brick and mortar; they're spaces imbued with meanings, ideologies, and implications that have an influence on our experience and our dialogue. On a larger scale, it's easier to see how the geo-political divisions of countries on a map of the world not only influence our perception and interpretation of that world, they're also a form of rhetorical dialogue in and of themselves.
Synchronic acknowledges the importance of place in a way that I can't ever recall a time travel film doing. When Steve visits his stone age ancestor during a second trip, this time bringing enough wood and materials to start a fire, I couldn't help but be reminded of The Creation of Adam, the now-ubiquitous fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Steve sits across the fire from his prehistoric counterpart a few feet apart, but there is a chasm between them that will never be traversed, just as the painting of Adam and his deity are destined to be locked in that eternal tragic pose, so close to a connection that will forever be denied (like the one between you and your definitely real Canadian girlfriend). Steve feels a connection to his nomadic ancestor, and it's depicted as an almost spiritual moment on the one hand, but on the other, they're meeting in the middle of a blizzard that's likely to kill this prehistoric man once Steve jumps back to his own time. They share a space that is both the same and different, and there's something profound about this moment. This link between this space and these people transforms the otherwise mundane space of a modern living room and an ancient glacier into something sacred.
This connection between time and space is also used as a means of shining a light on the history of colonialism and slavery that still haunts us in North America today. Steve's first encounter with the past is a near-fatal confrontation with a Spanish conquistador in a time when New Orleans was nothing more than swampland. During another trip, he's taken to pre-civil-rights era America where, as a black man, the dangers of time travel are made abundantly clear. It's a not-so-subtle commentary on white privilege, considering the potential consequences of a white protagonist travelling back to different points in history versus a black protagonist who would still not be free of the same biases, discrimination, and outright violence that still linger to this day. After all, Marty McFly never had to worry about lynchings. One can't help but be reminded of a particular routine by Louis CK from his 2008 special Chewed Up, where he makes a similar observation: “Here’s how great it is to be white: I can get in a time machine and go to any time, and it would be... awesome when I get there! That is exclusively a white privilege.”
The association of time to space speaks to the relationship between the past and the present and how they enter into dialogue with one another and, invariably, influence each other. In a very literal sense, of course, we're connected to our past through our genetic ancestry. On the level of making meaning, however, our connection to our past is about history: the stories we tell and how we tell them and the stories we choose not to tell. It's about our culture, our language, our architecture, all passed down from one generation to the next and all, at some point, rooted in a specific place and a specific time. Just as software can never exist on its own and requires the physical substrate of some form of hardware to house it, so too do the abstract components of the social fabric require some sort of spatial anchor. The way we organize into societies requires us to allocate and delineate spaces in a way that imbues them with meaning. Telling the same story to friends in a bar and to a jury in a courtroom imbues it with a very different meaning in each case because of the space and the context it both represents and helps create. It's no wonder that ancient monuments and the ruins of ancient cities fascinate us; they serve to remind us both how similar and how different we were to those who came before us. The dialogue between past and present isn't a one-way conversation. As we look back at the artefacts left by those who came before, we also grant these things specific meanings based on our own perspectives. There's a very specific reason that many courthouses and government buildings in the Western world can still trace their architectural heritage back to the structures of ancient Greece. That is to say, there's a reciprocity to the conversation between the past and the present; the past informs how we act in the present, but our present perspective informs how we interpret the past.
On a surface level, this connection between time and space also drives the plot in Synchronic, and is actually key to Steve's eventual rescue of Brianna from a bloody battlefield in the middle of the American Civil War (again, not a particularly great time period for a black person to time travel to). There's a large boulder that has a special significance with the misspelled word "allways" etched into it that allows Steve to track down Dennis' daughter in the past. Steve's ability to decipher the meaning of that particular space and the connection it created between Brianna and himself essentially allows him to save the day.
Which brings us back to the issue of causality and the philosophical implications that time travel films inevitably explore: the conflict between determinism and free will. Although the boulder in the movie's present bears the word "allways," Steve and the audience are both acutely aware that the stone at the particular point in time that Steve and Brianna jumped to does not yet bear the word. Both within the logic of the story and as viewers who have seen many a time travel film, in order for the events of the movie to unfold and Brianna to be reunited with Dennis and the rest of her family, somebody at some point has to carve that making into the side of that boulder.
Synchronic brings up the same issue determinacy versus free will, but it also leaves us with an ambiguous ending, much to the movie's benefit. While Brianna makes it safely back to her own time, Steve's fate is far less certain. On the cusp of returning home, Steve reaches out across time, and unlike earlier in the film with the prehistoric man or with Adam and God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, is actually able to connect with Dennis physically. Their temporal handshake implies that the chasm between the past and the present can be bridged, that there are moments of harmony among the swirling storms of cosmic chaos. In the end, Synchronic doesn't give a definitive answer to the question of free will, but I think it does imply a sense of agency, as Steve is able not just to affect positive change in other people's lives, but come to some sense of acceptance about his own fate. There's obviously no clear resolution to the debate of free will, but I think Synchronic shows that maybe how we construct meaning in our lives is more important than the what of the universal forces that exist beyond our control.
Whether or not Steve is the one who etches the word into the boulder in the past is, in a way, irrelevant in the context of larger idea of agency. In the face of his own impending mortality, he made a choice to take action and made an effort to make a positive impact on the lives of people around him. He could have remained emotionally isolated, reflecting on all the things he failed to accomplish as the cancer in his brain slowly killed him. Instead, he chose to use the time he had left to act, and in so doing, not only helped Dennis and Brianna, but found meaning in his own life. That's why it doesn't feel like a cheat when there's no scene at the end where Steve is shown carving the message into the stone; we already see the agency he exercised in his own life and the lives of the people he cared about. There is no more fear or anger, only acceptance and purpose.
Synchronic is another great film from Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson that truly highlights how a good story and a good script are far more important to the quality of a movie that a large budget. Though, of course, as a fan, I wish them long life and prosperity and dump trucks full of cash, I hope that as they move forward in their careers, that they continue to deliver the high quality films that we've seen so far, and not lose sight of what made their work so great in the first place, as money has a way of doing sometimes.
I have faith that this filmmaking duo will continue to surprise and inspire audiences. If Resolution was Moorhead and Benson announcing themselves to the world, Synchronic is them telling us loud and clear that they're here to stay. And I have to say, we're all the better off for it. I can't wait to see their next project, but for now, I'm going to have to go back and marathon their films, because like the best films, Moorhead and Benson's work gets better and better the more you watch them and think about them. I recommend that you do both as often as you can.