The filmmaking team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead is the most exciting voice working in independent genre cinema today. Every movie they make is a masterclass in marrying expansive, even cosmic ideas with human stories. Their most recent film, Synchronic (2019), takes on the often-handled science fiction trope of time travel in a new and fascinating way. The designer drug of the title offers the unique experience of seeing time as Einstein saw it — as an illusion in which the past, present, and future all exist at the same time. But the true power of Synchronic lies in the very human struggles and motivations of its characters.
The story begins with two EMTs, Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan), as they encounter a strange series of incidents around New Orleans, all involving young people: a man with a wound from an ancient sword; a woman with a snakebite from a species of snake not found in the area for hundreds of years; a man, face contorted in a rictus smile at the bottom of an elevator shaft, his body broken and twisted. Many of the sites are strange antique or even ancient artifacts that have been misshapen and distorted. Steve takes a Spanish doubloon from one scene that looks as though it came from the brush of Salvador Dali.
This all leads to the drug Synchronic and the big ideas of the movie. The best science fiction is built on ideas that are expansive and daring, that challenge the mind and imagination. These ideas do not always pan out in the real world as theories, technologies, and scientific discoveries expand our knowledge, but great science fiction speculates and swings for the fences. In Synchronic, the ideas are explorations of time and quantum physics, something I know very little about. But Moorhead and Benson wisely filter it through Steve, a self-proclaimed “armchair physicist,” and the experiments he performs with Synchronic in hopes of retrieving Dennis’s missing daughter Brianna (Alexia Ioannides).
In quoting Einstein, Steve sums up the film’s big idea: “the distinction between the past, present, and future is only a persistent illusion.” Synchronic affects the pineal gland and, as it were, melts this illusion away for about seven minutes. For adults with calcified pineal glands, they appear like ghosts in the past but are unaffected by it. For the young, however, the drug can be extremely dangerous as the past can impact them directly or they can even get stuck in an unknown time. The mechanics of all this is a complex theory, but the film presents it in a way that is accessible without being condescending.
One of the most brilliant ways that the film subtly addresses time travel is by using the medium itself as a form of it. Film itself has always been a medium of capturing lost time in a bottle. We have the gift of a treasury of lost moments captured on celluloid, nitrate, and digital files. These moments will never exist in the world again but will forever be captured in this magic lamp we call cinema. This film (as many films do) intercuts memories into the main narrative, which is mostly linear, and posits that memory itself is a form of time travel.
Which leads us to the more cosmic and philosophical elements of Synchronic. From beginning to end, we are shown the vast expanse of space, how small and insignificant we are against the infinite, but we share throughout time and the history of humanity a common view of that infinity. And one life, though it seems small and unimportant, matters to someone, and makes an impact on their time. Our nanosecond of existence actually matters, but we so often don’t realize it until we know that it is about to end, as one character learns early in the film.
During an emergency call, Steve is stabbed with a hypodermic needle and goes to the hospital for testing. What they find has nothing to do with the needle stick. He has an inoperable tumor on his pineal gland. He is given a vague prognosis that he could live sixty more years if radiation treatment is successful, or he could die in six weeks. The doctor also discovers something very unique about Steve. His pineal gland has not calcified as usually happens with age; his is like that of an eighteen-year-old’s.
There is significance in the fact that Steve’s cancer is on his pineal gland, the spot that philosopher René Descartes called “the seat of the soul.” Steve has reached the point in his life where he envies Dennis’s stable and relatively predictable life. He is weary of hopping from bed to bed and waking with the sour taste of cinnamon whiskey on his tongue. He wonders if the life he leads is corrupting his soul as the cancer is corrupting its “seat.”
Because Steve has the pineal gland of a young person, figuratively a “young soul,” he is the only one who can save Brianna, who has mysteriously and suddenly disappeared without a trace. As he begins experimenting with Synchronic to discover its patterns and mysteries, he speaks directly to the camcorder he is using to record his findings. “So hopefully with these experiments, I’ll learn a way to bring her back,” but Steve has seen firsthand the dangers of the drug already and continues, “or be stabbed by an early European settler, which sounds a lot better than wasting away from cancer.” His personal sacrifices to find Brianna, who he suspects has gotten lost in time while using Synchronic, are attempts at self-redemption. By doing something truly selfless before he dies, he can bring purpose to his own life by saving another.
This self-redemption has nothing to do with Providence, or God, or any kind of formal religion. Steve’s faith is “random events, chance, and luck,” but it does tap into something ingrained into every human and, perhaps particularly into men as they grow older: the intense need to leave a legacy and a mark of the world that lives on after we are gone. This is not the same as fame, which is fleeting, but something far deeper. Legacies last and are passed down, often in completely imperceptible ways. Fame depends on an individual, a personality. Legacies are ingrained deep in generations. They can be good or bad. Steve is intent on leaving a good one.
For some time, he keeps all of this from Dennis, who is not only his partner but his best friend. When Steve finally reveals the truth to him, he has come to a place of purpose and determination. Still, there are stark realizations that he comes to. “When you’re staring down at the end you realize that there are things that are far worse than death. And none of those things are what you’re upset about.” Steve wisely leaves the identity of those things up to each viewer of the film.
Not every moment of philosophical contemplation is met with such profundity. At one point, Steve travels to the ice age where he encounters a prehistoric hunter, who joins him at the small fire he has built. Steve and the audience look into the hunter’s eyes as Steve’s narration begins. “And in that moment, seeing what years of barely surviving is like, this man probably ten years younger than me but looking decades older despite his paleo diet that I realized — ”
Steve’s conclusion to this profound moment is spoken directly to his camcorder: “The past fucking sucks, man.”
Though facing death and contemplating the things that are worse, Steve also realizes that there is nothing better or sweeter than life at this moment. As he sits on a boulder in a park with his best friend nearby, drinking a beer, and staring across the Mississippi at the lights of New Orleans he says, “this is delicious.” Then he expounds, “this dirty, shitty river. This beer. This time. Wouldn’t change it. The clock just keeps ticking down and the lower that number gets you realize how fucking amazing now is. The present is a miracle.” So often we overlook the truth of this. The frustrations, annoyances, and grievances of each day can so often overshadow the good. How easy it is to get caught up in the minutiae of it all. We can spend so long staring at the “shit” that we miss the “river.” Beauty that may be mixed up with pain.
In many ways, Synchronic is a reflection of the theories it, at least tangentially, explores — quantum mechanics. It is all about the tiniest particles, the things that seem so insignificant that can’t even be seen. Just like each human can so often feel practically invisible, especially when placed against the vastness of the cosmos and the practical interminability of time. We are mere specks in a moment, a grain of sand on a shore under an infinite starfield above, but each tiny particle can have a massive impact on the endless.
These are mysteries beyond my knowledge and ability to fully grasp. What I do understand is the value of life and the hole left by the loss of one. Synchronic’s ambiguous ending leaves us wondering what lies on the other side of its cut to black. We learn earlier in the film that touching things in the present can act as an anchor but are uncertain if that will happen this time. And who left the mysterious message “ALLWAYS” on the boulder. Is it a misspelling of “always” or intended to refer to “all ways?” Is “always” happening always? Do all ways lead to the same place or remain divergent paths? The film’s mysteries and ambiguities only work to increase its power.
What I am left within the final moments is a sense of desire. Desire to know myself, my purpose, and leave my legacy. Ultimately, I think these things have more to do with putting my attention on others over myself. The ending of this oh-so-scientifically curious film is deepened by its connection to something deeply human and, yes, spiritual. The mysteries of the infinite are a marriage of the two and they need not be in conflict.
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