The sci-fi mystery of Synchronic starts off fairly scientific but quickly veers off into wilder territory. The initial explanation for its fantastical appeal of time-travel drugs is that a pill has been invented which alters our perception of time so we experience different eras. By the time we get a more firm explanation of what this drug does, we know it’s a little more than just vibrant hallucinations of history. That twisty nature is nothing less than what I’d expect from the higher-concept drive of directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.
The film starts as a detective story with a series of strange murders and suicides. Paramedics Dennis (Jamie Dornan) and Steve (Anthony Mackie) makes some strange discoveries in the scenes they respond to. They notice stabbings that don’t quite make sense based on the exit wounds and snake bites from a species not native to New Orleans. The connection they all have is that all the victims were taking a mysterious drug known as Synchronic.
The unexplained mystery becomes of particular interest for Steve when he realizes a brain tumor has given him limited time and his best friend of Dennis disappeared while dealing in the drug. Curious as to what exactly this drug does, even after being given some exposition from a scientist, Steve begins some trial-and-error experiments while taking Synchronic. He slowly starts piecing it together. Different spots in time depend on where you take the drug. In the case of his living room, the couch will take him to a swamp of AD while the rug will take him to the tundra of BC. He also films himself while taking the drug to assure himself and the audience that this is not just all in his head.
Steve’s adventures in drugs and time travel thankfully find room enough to explore with variables that make it dangerous, considering there are no clear rules about what can and cannot come back. You may be able to bring an item back with you but you may also not be able to come back if you’re too displaced. This leads to some unexpected consequences and plenty of danger, being unsure of what will await you in the same spot at a different point in time.
Similar to the directors’ previous efforts, there’s plenty of dark atmospheres to compensate for the modest special effects. The soundtrack is sinisterly brooding while the camera lingers for quite long on a few scenes, holding the attention precise on the mystery. I enjoyed how the time-skipping never settles on just one timeline and ventures into any other point in time. It does feel a little too convenient, however, that every trip through time results in some attack. Steve’s early trip to the BC time finds him almost killed by a caveman. His venture to a tribe has him fleeing for his life. And when he travels to the early 20th century with its out-and-proud racists, well, you get the idea.
Compared to Benson/Moorehead’s more mind-bending works, Synchronic is more straightforward. There’s never anything that radically twists around the story as it eventually settles on the path for its third act pretty early. It does, however, still have a human angle with how Steve grows more morose and how he clashes with Dennis with his darkening marriage amid the loss of their daughter. The picture breathes with much more life than just shoving in this time-travel pill gimmick with little else to show for it than spectacle. The directors have never favored such easy routes and thankfully don’t fall back on simple tricks either.