Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have been making intriguing, resourceful and idea-based (rather than action-driven) genre films together since “Resolution” in 2012. Last year’s enigmatic inner-/outer-space journey “The Endless” seemed to place them on the cusp of mainstream breakthrough, although that promise looks a little less bright for the arrival of “Synchronic,” which rather than being a leap forward offers a bit of a stumble. It may be a tad early for the multihyphenate duo to have their M. Night Shyamalan moment, in which the bag of tricks suddenly looks empty, but they’ll get past it.
Making underwhelming use of its not-bad “time travel pill” conceit, Benson’s sci-fi-tinged script is not at all ingeniously plotted, insists we care about tritely sketched characters, and is never credible enough to transcend an air of escalating silliness. (It is, among other things, surely the most trivial treatment of American slavery in recent cinema.) The directors bestow a fair degree of professional polish with their accumulated expertise and improved budget here, but “Synchronic” remains a misfire that gets sketchier the more seriously it takes itself. It seems destined to do better as a home-viewing prospect than a theatrical one, as reviews won’t likely help the creators much this time.
Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are New Orleans ambulance paramedics who are one another’s best and perhaps only real friend. (This is one of those underpopulated movies in which the characters barely seem to live in a tangible society.) Dennis envies Steve the bachelor life of one-night stands he’s actually weary of, while Steve envies the settled home life with wife (a barely utilized Katie Aselton) and kids by which Dennis feels trapped.
Their nightly work rounds are hardly cheering, as they deal with overdoses and victims of violence. But a new wrinkle surfaces when customers start turning up killed or wounded in mysterious ways — the connecting thread being that they were all doing a new recreational designer drug called Synchronic.
This becomes a concern of considerably greater urgency when Dennis’ teenage daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) disappears while partying on the same substance. Meanwhile Steve has been diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor that affects his pineal gland. This in turn impacts his receptivity to Synchronic, which he doses himself with to glean any clue as to Brianna’s whereabouts. The results are more than just hallucinatory. Steve fast realizes the pill actually thrusts users into a variably distant past for short periods, and whatever happens during their oft-perilous sojourn (like an injury) can be permanent, even fatal.
Sidelining Dennis from the narrative for a long stretch, “Synchronic” turns into a kind of time-travel “Altered States,” its bad-trippiness of a historical nature: Dropped randomly into his present location’s backpages, Steve experiences the Ice Age, meets a Spanish conquistador and on more than one occasion is reminded that being a lone black man among white strangers was a highly dangerous thing until quite recently (one hardly needs argue that it still is).
These episodes are too brief to offer anything beyond fleeting stereotypes, and as a result , they seem a particularly weak, escapist exploitation of still-sensitive topics like virulent historical racism. As if sensing that, the estimable Mackie sometimes plays for comedy. But “Synchronic” doesn’t really have the wit to be funny about how badly (as Steve puts it) “the past sucks.” There’s some inevitable tension at the climax when our hero finally does find what he’s looking for. Still, the movie’s fantasy logic and character writing are both so poorly developed that this resolution too ends up seeming rather arbitrary and preposterous.
Mackie and “50 Shades’” Dornan can’t sell such flimsy material, though they do bring some charm and sincerity to the two men’s grumpily codependent buddy dynamic. “Synchronic” is more accomplished in its packaging than its content, even if Jimmy LaValle’s pervasive original score sometimes obscures dialogue, and the decent visual design factors (including Moorhead’s widescreen lensing) have their own issues.
At first the film seems to take place in such a largely nocturnal, bleak realm that audiences may wonder if this is some sort of near-future dystopia — or simply a black comedy about life from an EMS perspective, à la “Bringing Out the Dead.” But that proves a red herring. It also proves counterproductive, since this shallow dive into the physics of time must ultimately hinge on Steve’s realizing that “the present is a miracle” to be savored — if only because the past in general is nothing to be nostalgic for. Yet “Synchronic’s” dark atmospherics cancel out that life-affirming message, offering one more way that this latest from a rising filmmaking team seems to have reached the screen a few script drafts short of readiness.