Photo: Synchronic/Well Go USA Entertainment
2020 has been quite the year for time travel stories. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti battled millennial ennui in a Groundhog Day-style time loop in Hulu’s Palm Springs. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter reunited to recruit history’s greatest musicians and defeat an apocalypse of cynicism in Bill and Ted Face the Music. In An American Pickle, Seth Rogen helped make reparations for his turn-of-the-century Jewish ancestor, who was fantastically preserved into the 21st century after falling into a pickle vat. Christopher Nolan pitted John David Washington and Robert Pattinson against a shadowy terrorist cell from the future attempting to end the world by traveling back in time in Tenet. Perhaps screenwriters in 2019 found it too tempting to resist the once in a lifetime opportunity to literalize the phrase “hindsight is 2020.” Or perhaps, after years of facing the three historic crises of climate change, economic injustice, and racial injustice (2020’s introduction of COVID-19 brought the number of historic crises to four), storytellers were simply desperate for the chance to escape our current reality.
2020 has also seen some high-profile films crafted to highlight the injustices of our current reality. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods examined the pain of PTSD, the injustice of American military interventionism, and the systemic neglect of soldiers who risked their lives for their country. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 showed how American justice is blatantly skewed against its African American citizens. Sacha Baron Cohen even revived his 2006 Borat character to critique America’s failure to contain COVID-19, which has inordinately impacted the health of first responders and nonwhite Americans.
‘Synchronic’ – Time Travel Synthesized
Perhaps no film makes the link between time travel escapism and the hardships faced in modern America more explicitly than Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s new film Synchronic. Despite first premiering at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Synchronic is an uncanny synthesis of the 2020s most pressing concerns. The film follows two paramedics (Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan) working in modern-day New Orleans, a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina fifteen years later. While both are suffering from PTSD related to that disaster, Mackie’s character Steve seems to have it worse, as his situation is further complicated by alcoholism and other health problems.
Steve counters an attempt by his partner to glamorize his hard-partying lifestyle by stating, “You might see James Bond, but I experience Charlie Sheen.” On top of that, he is routinely unappreciated as a paramedic and discriminated against due to his race. In an early scene, Steve accidentally pricks himself with a needle while attending to a drug overdose and has a gun pulled on him by a police officer who mistakenly profiles him as a criminal. As if this litany of troubles were not enough, Steve soon discovers that the party drug that has been causing deaths all over the city is a pill that allows people to travel through time.
Fortunately, Justin Benson’s script gives Anthony Mackie plenty to do. When Steve finds the drug’s packaging at the site of multiple 911 calls, he takes over for an apathetic police department and does detective work. The indictment of police officers eager to draw weapons but slow to solve crimes in poor neighborhoods is a minor aspect of the film, but it’s yet another instance of the film’s timeliness. As Steve does the legwork to understand the mind-bending properties of Synchronic (which is a drug briefly described as an attempt at synthetic ayahuasca), his partner Dennis is preoccupied with domestic drama involving his pregnant wife Tara (Katie Aselton) and his college freshman daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides).
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Time is a Flat Circle
While Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s past films have all involved some heady sci-fi elements, they have been consistently character-driven. Their stories tend to be two-handers, with one character driven by a deep-seated curiosity or outsider mentality while the other is more aligned with worldliness or a desire for interpersonal harmony. Synchronic is the duo’s first film with A-list actors, but the stars involved here deliver surprisingly naturalistic and unostentatious performances. Perhaps this is in part due to their being immersed in New Orleans’ rough-around-the-edges texture, which the film indelibly translates. Serving also as a cinematographer, Aaron Moorhead captures the grit of the film’s decidedly not touristy shots of New Orleans. There’s a primordial swampiness to the film’s depiction of the city, including an unforgettable visit to the city’s rundown Six Flags theme park, which has remained closed since Katrina.
Taking the edge off the eerie locations is the film’s surprising amount of comic levity. Mackie gets ample opportunities to cut up as the adopted uncle of Dornan’s family, with Ally Ioannides threatening to surpass the actor’s charm in their scenes together. The film is also full of memorable side characters, including a smoke shop cashier who is blissfully unaware that the drug she’s selling has metaphysical properties, or the security guard defiantly attempting to explain the difference between venom and poison to the thoroughly unamused paramedics. The antics only heighten as Steve begins to experiment with the time travel drug, somehow encountering bloodthirsty settlers far more often than the law of averages might suggest. These mesmerizing time travel sequences, reminiscent of Alex Garland’s Annihilation, are a stunning showcase for production designer Ariel Vida (who also worked on this year’s excellent She Dies Tomorrow).
First Men and First Responders
As Steve delves deeper into the mystery of the drug, his duty-driven drive to protect becomes stronger. He continues journeying into the past, knowing that each trip could mean his demise at the hands of a Klan member or a Civil War soldier. Interestingly, when Steve travels even further back, he experiences a moment of wordless understanding with an Ice Age-era primitive man. Racism, like race itself, is a social construct. The ultimate arbitrariness of racial conflict in the grand scheme of things is further underlined by a recurring motif of the camera panning upward to the sky, revealing multicolored nebulae.
Synchronic suggests that linear time is an illusion, but one necessary for beings with linear minds. Non-linear thinking has the potential to expand horizons and save lives, but the inherent aspects of conflict and desire in human nature can often be at odds with a greater, more metaphysical understanding of reality. It also contextualizes the racism of the present against the racism of the past, simultaneously illustrating that we’ve come far and that we haven’t gone far enough. In Synchronic, time travel only goes backward–when it comes to the future, we’re on our own.
Synchronic is currently playing in select theaters.
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