Nostalgia is: “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period.” So says the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The desire to rose-tint our past is a phenomenon that only appears to grow with each passing year; it’s not uncommon for people online to declare that the world is terrible and getting worse. Maybe it’s because Donald Trump tried to put up a wall, or maybe it’s the possibility of a black James Bond in the future, but things were just easier before, right? What our collective nostalgia ignores is the dangers and troubles faced by minority communities throughout history. Maybe things were easier before, but mistaking ease for greatness is a disturbingly small-minded outlook.
Synchronic, the latest film put together by the creative minds of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead is a continuation of their mixing of sci-fi’s temporal obsession with the horror of human mortality, a specialised brand of indie cinema that made their previous work, 2017’s The Endless, into a critical darling. This time, working with a bigger budget alongside bigger stars (The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Anthony Mackie and Fifty Shades’ Jamie Dornan), the duo have cooked up a delightfully unhinged exploration of the history of New Orleans and the United States writ large.
Mackie and Dornan play Steve and Dennis, two stone-faced paramedics, wandering through lives that face death at every turn. Dramatic encounters with troubled people and patients are treated with an impressive mundanity; nothing about this world is sensational or idealised – it’s grimy and tragically repetitive, an atmosphere intended to have the audience on the verge of an exit. Dead bodies, drug overdoses, domestic problems and cancer diagnoses are all packed up and delivered with such apathy that one could practically tagline the film with the opening lyrics of Yesterday. As for the craved escape from here and now? It comes in the form of a synthetic, questionably legal, high called ‘Synchronic’, and it’s once the drug becomes a clear plot device – around the film’s midpoint – that things begin to bounce around, quickly coming apart at the seams.
Highlighting the inherent privilege and ignorance in everyday fantasies of time travel is not a meek approach, but it’s an idea that appears to fall solely on the shoulders of Mackie, who carries the weight with little help from a manic script more impressed with it’s own reflection than getting to anything profoundly emotional about America’s past. Undoubtedly this results in some tense, action packed sequences, but it’s all too literal and surface-level for science fiction, coming at the expense of the genre’s traditional strengths of metaphor and interpretation.
Synchronic is a case of filmmakers suffering from eyes bigger than their belly – a commentary on the drug epidemic, a missing person drama, a time traveling thriller and a dissection of race when paired with sentimentality. The swings are impressive, but dishearteningly it misses more often than not. Nevertheless it’s a joy to see filmmakers go for broke again and again and again.
Available on On-demand from Fri 29 Jan 2021