Justin Benson’s Synchronic is a sci-fi horror that explores time travel through the medium of hallucinogenic drugs. It is centered on the concept that all of time exists simultaneously but that human beings are only capable of perceiving in it a linear format. The film uses the metaphor of every song existing on an album, but the needle of a record player only being able to play one at a time.
Synchronic follows paramedic duo Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) as they visit a number of unusual scenes triggered by people who have taken a synthetic drug called Synchronic (they said the thing!). Aside from the drug and some serious psychological trauma among the survivors, there is no clear connection between each patient’s experiences.
They don’t seem to overdose in the usual way. One victim has been stabbed with an ancient sword. Another has been bitten by a snake that definitely wasn’t in her hotel room to begin with. One is smashed to pieces at the bottom of an elevator shaft. Another has been burned alive despite being found in the middle of the road nowhere near any fire.
In his investigation, Steve meets the creator of the synthetic drug. He is told that Synchronic impacts the pineal gland of the brain, which controls the way humans perceive time. When some people – particularly young people – take Synchronic, this causes them to travel back in time until the drug wears off.
Coincidentally, Steve learns that he has a brain tumour on his pineal gland that means it has not calcified the way an adult’s brain usually would. This means that Synchronic will affect him the same way it affects under-25s, allowing him to experiment with it and attempt to travel through time to rescue Dennis’s 18-year-old daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) when she mysteriously disappears during a college party.
This is the kind of sci-fi premise that can be confusing if you try to think too hard about it. It is never fully explained, for instance, why your location determines which time period you’ll travel to.
Nonetheless, Synchronic is quite clever in the way that it never promises to give you all the answers. The creator of the drug knows just enough about how dangerous it is to warn people, but his understanding is limited. The film follows Steve as he learns about it, but his focus is on saving Brianna, so it’s reasonable for the exact physics to take a back seat. You are given enough information to know what is going on and the film consistently sticks to its internal logic so it’s easy to follow the story.
If you do feel the need to overthink anything, remember that this is a universe in which Steve repeatedly describes Jamie Dornan’s character as “ugly”.
The choice to follow paramedics through this investigation rather than police officers makes a refreshing change. It mixes up the format enough to give Synchronic a bit of uniqueness. It’s also nice to see the cops Steve and Dennis interact with portrayed as flawed individuals. Some are smart, some are incompetent, and most are at least a little cynical.
All the characters are constructed in this way. Steve is an alcoholic womaniser. Dennis is a married father of two who doesn’t appreciate his family. When Brianna goes missing, the issues in Dennis’s relationship are exacerbated by the stress of losing her, and he is forced to confront his own shortcomings. This gives both the characters a great sense of humanity. Stress piles up on top of them throughout the film and they lash out at people they care about.
It would be nice to see more of Brianna’s relationship with both Dennis and Steve. As her father’s best friend, Steve has presumably played a near-parental role in her life. She only has a handful of interactions with each of them before she disappears, however. A bit more depth to her character and their relationships would give the film more emotional weight.
There are some nice details built into the background, particularly for Steve. His reflections on becoming an “armchair physicist” as a student and his dog named Hawking lead neatly into his instinct to record his experiments with the time-warping drug.
Generally, Steve’s reactions to travelling through time are suitably profound. The scene in which he makes direct eye contact with a Neanderthal is quite lovely. Setting the film in New Orleans also provides plenty of opportunity to explore the city’s history, with Synchronic touching on the city’s French colonisers as well as Hurricane Katrina. Some of Steve’s trips to the past become particularly intense when a modern-day black man gets dropped into the middle of the segregation era.
It would have been nice if there was more time for these kinds of story elements. They definitely make for some of the most interesting scenes in the film, but are so brief that they lose some of their depth. This is not an unsurprising pitfall given that the film is trying to juggle this historical weight with the physics of time, the missing person investigation and the development of Steve and Dennis’s relationships. It’s a lot to cram into 102 minutes.
Ultimately, Synchronic is a solid sci-fi that examines an interesting concept in a unique way. There are elements that would benefit from being explored in more detail, but this is often the case when you have a limited amount of time to tell a story with this kind of scope.