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{Fantastic Fest} Synchronic

You’ve opened up your mind’s front door…What did you go and do that for?

Richard Hawley

In Benson and Moorhead’s newest film, Synchronic, a designer drug acts as a magical key to the “doors of perception.”  Taking this drug can be an awesome experience.  Or a fatal one.   Constructed like a mystery story, the film follows two New Orleans paramedics who become desperate to unlock the secret of the drug’s effects, each for his own deeply personal reasons. 

The writing-directing team have departed here from the style of their previous three films, Resolution, Spring, The Endless, which were 21st century versions of weird or cosmic horror tales.  Synchronic is straight ahead science fiction.  The drug’s origin, and all of its fantastic effects, are explained as the result of chemistry.  Which isn’t to say that the movie lacks its moments of awe or wonder, especially at the end where a lead character’s trips leave him with a new perspective on his own existence.  

This film’s strength is the knife edged balance it strikes between the allure of the imaginary drug Synchronic and its serious risks.  There’s a tradition in science fiction films that mind-altering, synthetically created drugs are almost always dangerous.  By creating them, and using them, we are toying with nature and unlocking powers we were never meant to have.   In the first half of the story, our protagonists Dennis (Jamie Dornan) and Steve (Anthony Mackie), witness the worst effects of the drug first-hand, as they arrive too late to revive some of its users.  Near its mid-point, Synchronic pushes back against sci-fi tradition to also show us the allure of this drug and what it promises to those willing to take a chance on it.   The experience can be deadly, but it can also be beautiful.

The creative duo have a bigger budget and higher caliber stars to play with in Synchronic.  The result is their most visually polished and well-acted movie.  But more is not always and in every way better.  The mechanism of the overall narrative depends on the individual stories of the two main characters.  Their stories don’t seem to run at the right speeds, are sometimes a bit too unevenly developed, and never quite seem to mesh at the end.  The film’s conclusion also depends too much on coincidence to be fully satisfying.  Perhaps it’s in comparison with the organic, improvisatory style of Resolution and its more clockwork, interlaced bookend, The Endless, that this film comes off as uneven.

Benson and Moorhead are staking out as their primary theme the bro-based weird/sci-if adventure where two male friends meet supernatural forces which test the limits of their friendship. One side-effect of this is that female characters end up as supporting props, like the strippers in a club where Dennis and Steve have a heart-to-heart, or as plot devices like a twenty-something daughter who we meet just long enough to set in motion a search for her when she disappears.  I mention this because Benson and Moorhead are skilled writers who should be up to the challenge of giving us stories with a greater variety of rich, sympathetic characters.

Synchronic shares its DNA with late 70’s/early 80’s movies like Blue Sunshine and Altered States.  Both of these also warn of hazard if we open minds through hallucinogens or sensory deprivation.  Yet in Synchronic, Altered States, and even Resolution it’s our close relationships that pull us back from the brink.  They’re nice ways to come home from a really bad trip.

I saw Synchronic at Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX in 2019.  It was also shown at Panic Fest in Kansas City, MO in 2020.

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