Resolution, The Endless, Spring–Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have been behind some of the decade’s most thoughtful, inventive, and eerily beautiful horror and science fiction movies.
They also made Synchronic. I don’t know why. I don’t know how.
Synchronic is about Steve (Anthony Mackie) and–to a lesser extent–Dennis (Jamie Dornan), night-shift EMTs and long-time best friends. Steve serves as a kind of surrogate uncle to Dennis’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), who’s feeling a little off-kilter since her parents have suddenly supplied her with an unexpected sibling. Actually, everyone is feeling a little off-kilter. And dour. And unfortunately verbose.
Steve gets diagnosed with both a brain tumor and a preternaturally sprightly pineal gland, one that apparently hasn’t aged along with the rest of him. He eventually refers to this as “the youth tumor,” which I’m relieved to see isn’t an actual term. His conversation with his doctor does not, unfortunately, go like this:
Doctor: Take these MRI results, but beware: they carry a terrible curse.
Steve: That’s bad!
Doctor: But they come with a free revelation about your pineal gland!
Steve: That’s good!
Doctor: Your pineal gland is also cursed.
Steve: That’s bad!
Doctor: But you could possibly live another sixty years.
Steve: That’s good!
Doctor: Of course, it could also only be another six weeks. But your non-calcified pineal gland will enhance the time travel side effects of the designer drug Synchronic. … That’s bad.
Steve: Can I go now?
He can. We can’t. Yes, there’s a designer drug called Synchronic that, due to its interaction with the pineal gland, causes its users to make involuntary trips through time. This falls smack into the uncanny valley between hand-waving and over-explaining. I will accept a drug that makes people travel in time. I cannot get behind not-quite-vague-enough bullshit about how fucking with the gland that helps regulate your circadian clock is somehow enough to make you travel in time.
Steve works out that Synchronic is leading to all the bizarre injuries and fatalities he’s been seeing–and that it’s responsible for Brianna’s mysterious disappearance. He gets the backstory on the drug, buys up what’s left of it, and starts experimentally traveling in time to try to find Brianna.
The scenes with Steve working out time travel mechanics through trial and error–learning that traveling from a different spot means traveling to a different time, for example–are probably the best in the movie. It probably helps that these sequences are relatively low on the movie’s glum, ponderous dialogue, and they actually feature some forward momentum. Then, of course, Steve decides that he needs to test whether or not he can travel with another living creature, so he’ll know whether or not he can safely bring Brianna back. For his very first experiment, knowing that he’s dealing with dangerous past environments and chancy physics, he chooses to bring … his dog. Shockingly, the trip does not go well, which is probably why most people doing experiments that regrettably require lab animals don’t use their own pets, Steve.
Intermittently, Dennis appears to glumly emote at Steve. The movie wants there to be a deep and palpable bond between these two, but they spend most of the movie miserable, with Steve hiding multiple massive secrets from Dennis and Dennis suspecting his friend of mainlining stolen morphine. I guess they can bond over their shared love of sitting in gloomy strip clubs and delivering weak monologues to each other. In a Hail Mary pass at cementing the viewer’s investment in Steve and in the Steve-Dennis friendship, Dennis tearfully tells his wife about how Steve’s little sister’s coffin floated up during Katrina clean-up, and how he cried at seeing “her tiny remains,” forcing Steve to comfort him. He ends this wild detour into tragic back-story with: “And that was his thirtieth birthday.”
I can only assume this wasn’t supposed to make me dissolve into helpless laughter, but here we are.
I don’t usually spoil endings in these columns, but since there’s nothing here to spoil, you should know that Steve eventually rescues Brianna from being stuck in the middle of the Civil War, but he winds up stranded back in time and almost enslaved, a plot point that the movie blows through in seconds by having the would-be slaver step on a grenade. I guess that ends all problems Steve might have as a Black man in the middle of nineteenth century America! Whew, what a relief. Now he can just look forward to dying of his brain tumor sometime over the next sixty years. (The movie is intermittently sensitive to race–there’s a well-observed, well-acted scene early on between Steve and some cops–but “bittersweet ending strands dying Black man in the Civil War South to save a white girl” is not one of its strongest moments.)
We get one more slathering of sentimentality with Steve briefly appearing as a kind of ghost in time. He solemnly shakes Dennis’s hand and gazes at him and Brianna with angelic, self-sacrificing solemnity as he fades away.
And that was his forty-fifth birthday. Probably.
Synchronic is streaming on Amazon Prime and Netflix. You’re fine, though.