Opening Friday, “Synchronic” is visually striking and narratively distinctive enough to qualify as satisfactory sci-fi, with cool trippiness and dashes of social content enhancing the deal. But at the same time, this time-travel thriller disappoints. It could have been much sharper and deeper.
The movie is directed by Justin Benson, who also wrote the screenplay, and Aaron Moorhead, who together make films that use the science-fiction genre to consider the human psyche. Less philosophical and more commercial than, most recently, the pair’s immersing “The Endless,” but not without reflective elements, the drama contains components of “Bringing Out the Dead” and “Edge of Tomorrow,” and hints of “A Ghost Story.”
The New Orleans-set tale initially follows paramedic partners and best friends Steve (Anthony Mackie), who’s a longtime bachelor, and Dennis (Jamie Dornan), an unsure family man, as they arrive at scenes of mysterious, gruesome accidents.
The two determine that the victims have OD’d on Synchronic, a new party drug. But that doesn’t explain the bizarre physical findings at the accident sites, like a sword that appears centuries old, or a snake bite that has occurred in a dwelling where no snake exists.
The situation becomes personal for Steve when he finds out that he has a brain tumor and may have only weeks to live. He also learns that Dennis’ 18-year-old daughter (Ally Ioannides) took Synchronic at a party and hasn’t been seen since.
Upon discovering that Synchronic has time-travel properties, Steve, a self-described armchair physicist with a dog named Hawking, begins experimenting with the drug, hoping it will enable him to find his best friend’s daughter and bring her home.
At this point, the film becomes an ambitious science-fiction adventure, with Mackie’s Steve dominating the picture as he journeys to periods in New Orleans’ past. At one point, a mastodon appears. At others, European invaders, the Confederate army, and the KKK occupy the landscape. For a Black man, time-traveling in the Deep South is especially treacherous.
The overall experience leads Steve to observe — echoing the filmmakers’ message — that one should embrace the present, not dwell in the past.
Not without merit, the movie has a big-screen feel, with dazzling visuals, a century-hopping narrative, and New Orleans scenery. Mackie, meanwhile, is commanding and convincing as both an action hero and a struggling soul determined to make his mundane life meaningful.
The paramedic sequences, in which Steve and Dennis investigate the drug-scene weirdness — the camera itself seems to be sleuthing around the house for clues — contain impressive intrigue.
Unfortunately, though, the drama isn’t as original, daring or stirring as fans of Benson and Moorhead — or simply of good sci-fi — want it to be.
When the story shifts from a buddy procedural to a supernatural action-adventure whose plot is far from profound, a more conventional tone takes hold. The ordinary genre material sometimes overwhelms the characters, limiting the impact of the engaging rapport generated by Mackie’s Steve and the more than adequate Dornan’s Dennis, for starters.
These characters are somewhat entertaining, but never fascinating or transporting. Ultimately, we want more from this promising movie, though Benson and Moorhead remain talents to watch for.
Starring: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Katie Aselton, Ally Ioannides
Written by: Justin Benson
Directed by: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
A Korean-American man struggles to accept that his mother is dying as he cooks her favorite recipes for her in “Coming Home Again,” a small-scale Asian-American, immigrant woman’s, and mother-son story directed by Wayne Wang and based on Chang-rae Lee’s same-named New Yorker essay.
Wang has shifted into independent, intimate gear — more “Smoke” than “The Joy Luck Club” — for this chamber drama, recently in San Francisco’s CAAMFest Forward and opening at the Roxie virtual cinema on Oct. 23. It transpires almost entirely in a San Francisco apartment, where young writer Chang-rae (Justin Chon), having left his job in New York, is caring for his mother (Jackie Chung), who has terminal stomach cancer.
Devotedly, Chang-rae tends to his mother at her bedside, seeing to her IV needs. In the kitchen, he copes by cooking a New Year’s Eve family dinner consisting of dishes his mother used to lovingly prepare. The emotional stakes are high.
The efficient cinematography, reflecting Chang-rae’s psychological state, sometimes includes both rooms in a single shot.
As Chang-rae slices, pours, stirs and marinates the food, memories of his Korea-born mother in her healthy days, and of her cooking and the sacrifices she has made, fill his head.
The screenplay, by Wang and Lee, contains little narrative substance, and Wang’s use of long and mid-range shots to convey mood doesn’t yield emotional wallop.
But Wang avoids dying-mom-movie mawkishness, the flashbacks feel organic to the primary story, and Chon and Chung navigate their characters’ tangled mother-son relationship thoroughly believably. Both Korean flavored and universally relatable, the film quietly triumphs.
Coming Home Again
Starring: Justin Chon, Jackie Chung, John Lie, Christina July Kim
Written by: Chang-rae Lee, Wayne Wang
Directed by: Wayne Wang
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes