Synchronic and the genius of sci-fi pioneers Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson


Now playing in Australian cinemas, Synchronic is the latest mind-warping film from awesome sci-fi directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson.

Synchronic is upon us! This is the latest—and to date biggest—cinematic offering from the filmmaking team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who have steadily been making smart, low budget genre films for a number of years now.

The hook here is simple: what if there was a designer drug that lets you physically travel backwards in time? That alone is an intriguing enough premise, but as is now to be expected from Benson and Moorhead, there’s more going on than we might at first suspect.

It’s Rescue 911, with a mind-bending twist

The film is set in gloomy New Orleans where family man Dennis (Jamie Dornan of Fifty Shades of Grey) and hard-partying playboy Steve (Anthony Mackie, familiar as Marvel’s The Falcon) are paramedics working the after midnight shift. Given their jobs, they’re pretty inured to all the late-night horrors the city can throw at them: murders, robberies gone wrong, ODs and horrific accidents are all par for the course.

But it turns out that being at the emergency response coalface puts them in a prime position to start connecting the dots when party people start dying in gruesome and unusual ways. The connective tissue is a new designer drug on the streets dubbed Synchronic. Initially dismissed as a hallucinogen, it’s actually a mechanism for time travel, projecting the user backwards in time at their precise location—but for only seven minutes.

Such a trip—and what a useful word that is in this context—is not without risk. A lot can happen in seven minutes. So, when Dennis’ teenage daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) goes missing while on the drug, Steve realises there’s a chance she’s stranded in the past, and resolves to rescue her before time runs out.

Pharmaceutical science fiction

There is, believe it or not, a loose subgenre encompassing this sort of thing; every once in a while we get a piece of science fiction that delves into the speculative possibilities of drugs. Let’s call it Pharmaceutical Science Fiction. Consider the reality-altering effects of A Scanner Darkly’s Substance D, the cognition-enhancing NZT-48 that made Bradley Cooper a genius in Limitless, or the multi-effect “fluid karma” of Southland Tales.

Heck, one of the biggest sci-fi novels of all time (and soon to be one of the biggest movies of the year), Dune, is all about the battle to control the universe’s only supply of a consciousness-expanding narcotic: the spice melange. There’s also the delightfully loopy Altered States, in which William Hurt uses a combo of magic mushrooms and sensory deprivation to, among other things, devolve into an ape-man.

Rather than use drugs as a plot point or an excuse for special effects trickery (ala Dredd’s Slo-Mo), these films use them to explore consciousness, character, and reality—subjects that Benson and Moorhead have focused on for their entire creative partnership.

Synchronic is a step up for Benson and Moorhead

So, who are these guys? Benson and Moorhead, who split or share directing, writing, producing, cinematography and occasionally even acting duties between them, first made a relatively small splash with the 2012 microbudget indie horror Resolution.

In it two old friends, Mike (Peter Cilella) and Chris (Vinny Curran), are holed up in remote cabin in a last ditch attempt at weaning the latter off his drug addictions. It soon becomes apparent that someone—or something—is leaving photos, slides, rolls of film and other ephemera for them to find, which seem to show both men the victims of violence that hasn’t happened yet.

A scene from 2012’s Resolution

It’s a study in creeping tension and heightened unreality. The horror elements sizzle, but the steak is the relationship between the two: a formerly close friendship now hanging by a thread but still emotionally intimate. That’s a theme that recurs throughout their work, as is the concept of time.

Their next feature film, Spring (2014), follows a young man (Lou Taylor Pucci) who decamps to Italy to sort his head out following the death of his mother. There he falls in love with the alluring Louise (Nadia Hilker), who has a secret: she’s a 2000-year-old reptilian vampire, who must give birth to herself every 20 years in order to prolong her immortality. It’s a haunting Lovecraftian love story, one praised by Guillermo de Toro as one of the best horror films of the decade.

Benson and Moorhead’s fixation on close male relationships gets very metatextual in 2017’s The Endless, in which they themselves play two brothers, escapees from an apocalyptic UFO cult, who return to the compound where they were raised in order to make peace with their past. Again it’s the dynamic between the two main characters that is paramount.

Justin Benson (left) and Aaron Moorhead (right) in a scene from The Endless

The duo’s next project is a Marvel TV series

The same can be said of Synchronic. Yeah, it’s a mind-bending psychotropic trip through time, but it’s also an examination of the close friendship between Dornan’s Dennis and Mackie’s Steve. They are guys who thrive on crisis in their professional lives, but who live markedly different personal lives.

The key focus is on Steve, a hard-living bachelor with no close ties, who must decide what he’s willing to sacrifice to find Brianna and keep Dennis’s family together. How far will you go for your friend? Or your lover? Or your brother?

It’ll be interesting to see how—or if—it reoccurs in their next, and certainly most prestigious, project: directing some of Marvel’s upcoming television series Moon Knight, starring Oscar Isaac. Obviously, a Marvel/Disney joint is a fair few rungs up the budgetary ladder than their usual projects, but authorial voices as strong as Benson and Moorhead’s should shine through. In the meantime, discerning genre fans should definitely make a date with Synchronic in cinemas.