Described as “a mind-bending sci-fi noir in the tradition of Dark City, Blade Runner, and Alphaville,” Jacob Gentry’s time-travel noir thriller Synchronicity certainly has a lot to live up to by unfairly placing itself in the pantheon of those genre giants. (And I must reiterate, never introduce your film by comparing it to some of the best films in history, it’s only setting yourself up for failure.) Does it live up to those lofty heights? Of course not. But as a smaller sci-fi film, it’s fair.
When it comes to smaller (below Ex Machina in awareness and budget) sci-fi movies, I’ve found it easy to utilize a sort of tier system. Tier 1 is for those films that are fascinating and compelling in their use of ideas and/or filmmaking styles that you want to spread them to anyone around you and immediately look forward to what the filmmakers are doing next and did prior. Recent examples include Primer, Time Crimes, and Presdestination. Then there are the Tier 2s – movies that aren’t bad, but they don’t imbue you with the enthusiasm of Tier 1 movies; they might have good visuals or interesting concepts, but they never really do anything particularly clever with them. Recent examples include The Machine (another movie about an AI female, except this one starring Arrow/Mad Men‘s Caity Lotz), Time Lapse, and writer/director Jacob Gentry’s latest film, Synchronicity. (And there is a lower Tier 3 which includes something like 2013’s Upside Down. Beyond that, we’re watching SyFy).
Gentry, who earned recognition almost a decade ago as one of three directors of 2007’s The Signal (a film that I admittedly haven’t seen), returns to that tried and true concept behind low budget sci-fi movies – time travel! Genius physicist Jim Beale (Chad McKnight) has developed a way to open wormholes that will presumably allow for traversing the temporal spectrum. However, this scheme hits a snag as Jim must contend with a mysterious woman who seems to know more than she’s letting on (Abby, played by Brianne Davis), an unscrupulous investor (Klaus Meisner, played by Michael Ironside), and all the other pitfalls and dangers that come with both time travel and being one’s own guinea pig. While it’s not the most original approach, Gentry clearly enjoys playing around with the concept, even if he fails to rise to the intellectual heights of Primer‘s Shane Carruth.
While many of the aspects of the film are far from perfect, the largest problem is the acting. To be sure, this is a primarily “no name” movie. The biggest actor is Michael Ironside as Klaus Meisner, Evil Capitalist Man, who wants *gasp* profits at the expense of Jim’s invention. But Ironside, who has made a career of gruff heroes and villains (as well as the voice of Sam Fisher in the Splinter Cell series game), brings a quality energy and intensity to his role as a foil, and it’s disappointing when he disappears around halfway through.
Unfortunately, the performances of the two main characters physicist Jim and femme fauxtale Abby fell the most flat for me – especially when they share the screen together. From nearly the start, the movie forces them into a romance and the chemistry simply is not there. Worst of all, the love story takes away from the better parts of the movie: the experiments and the mystery. When the two are apart, they’re more interesting; Jim plays well off his fellow scientists, the underused Chuck (AJ Bowen) and Matty (Scott Poythress) and even Abby works better when not trying to awkwardly be a temptress. Ironically, it’s the type of forced love story that seems included to give the characters some humanity and warmth (because love = humanity and warmth), yet it ends up feeling faker and less human than the other parts of the movie. Talk about your paradoxes! If we better bought McKnight as a genius losing his grip on reality, if we better bought Davis in the femme fatale role, if we better bought why he’d throw everything away for her, Synchronicity could have definitely been stronger. The writing seemed to be there, but their acting brought it down.
Visually, the movie is good – even if its tendency to cast everything in a visual palette of dark blue/grey can be a bit much at times. The filmmakers clearly did a lot with the limited budget they had, but they never reach the startling creative design of a Beyond The Black Rainbow. Gentry’s penchant for using Blade Runner as his go to aesthetic-point is very obvious, not just with the building designs and some of the props, but with the way he keeps framing Abby with lighter flames and cigarette smoke like the Replicant Rachael in the earlier film. There are some effects blow-out moments like a gigantic office building and the lab, but there are also long stretches periods where all we get are people sitting around apartments. Despite a lack of consistency in the use of visual effects, the film does a fairly respectable job at maintaining a noir aesthetic (complete with occasional jazzy saxophone and enough Venetian blinds and smoke lit rooms to border on parody). This approach doesn’t entirely fit the movie (as much as Gentry clearly wants it too), but it adds a nice quality to the proceedings.
Of course, with any mind bending science fiction movie, subsequent viewings are virtually a must. Part of the fun is going back and seeing if knowing all the twists and turns make for a more compelling experience – characters might be fleshed out more, nuances can be better appreciated, etc. Will Synchronicity benefit from such a rewatch? Almost certainly; there are twists in the film that will make seeing it again richer, though the ultimate twist is far from the “mic drop” moment I think they expected it to be. But will it be enough to raise it a tier? Only time will tell. (I’m sorry I did that.)
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
A Tier 2 smaller science fiction movie, Synchronicity is nonetheless worth a watch among those of us (myself included) who enjoy finding tinier sci-fi films based more on concepts than in action. Unfortunately, the film’s pretty basic concepts and relatively unimaginative use thereof, plus the mediocre lead performances keeps it from rising above a late night Netflix watch.