Dog-lovers beware: Synchronic (2019)

Synchronic_UK_Digital_BannerSynchronic has an enticing pedigree, coming from the team behind The Endless and Spring, two of the most interesting genre films of the last few years. For the first half-hour its really pretty great, rather like a weird, winning combination of Videodrome and Angel Heart (two of my favourite movies), but unfortunately it gradually self-destructs in bewildering fashion: the ending is supposed to be some kind of climactic, emotional resolution but its more of a whimper, the narrative running out of steam and floundering, never reaching the catharsis it deserves. Is this a case where giving film-makers a bigger budget actually works against them?

Two New Orleans paramedics, Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) on a series of night shifts are called out to unusual deaths that are related to a new designer drug, named Synchronic, which alters the users perception of time, and appears to enable travel into the past. In some ways it feels a lot like a Philip K Dick-kind of story, a strange tale about altered perception of reality and reality changing around the central protagonist- in Videodrome, it was the signal creating tumours in the viewers brains that altered their reality, while in Synchronic, its the drug altering the users brains breaking them from the usual forward flow of Time. Its a fascinating premise that initially isn’t as silly as it might sound, and there is an ingenious twist that a person’s position in three-dimensional space dictates where in time the drug will send them, Spacetime like a hologram: as the scientist who developed the drug states, Time is the tracks/grooves etched into a vinyl album, any moment existing in perpetuity and instantly ready to be played, and the drug Synchronic is the needle that drops on any position (the analogy was described better in the movie, mind). 

The film has a certain visual flourish in its first sequences that display what people taking the drug actually experience, with an unsettling music score that reminded me of those of Altered States and Annihilation; its all quite arresting and exciting and seems full of all sorts of possibilities. Unfortunately the script struggles to take it anywhere meaningful and for some reason, in editing, some scenes seem to have been placed out of order, a stylistic choice that is perhaps intended to unsettle the viewer or perhaps prefigure the films suggestion that Time is not linear. Adding to this confusion is the sound mix losing some of the dialogue, letting it get buried in the mix, a sin I find particularly annoying. 

It isn’t helped by Anthony Mackie, who I really struggle to take to in most any film he appears in- he just sees to be the same guy in every film and here he seems terribly miscast : he just can’t convince as a loner with an addictive personality who womanises and drinks too much and cannot find peace, and is then diagnosed as terminally ill with a brain  tumour. He looks like he’s walked straight offset from a Marvel movie (which he probably did). Part of the conviction of movies of old was from their casting: you can buy James Woods as Max Renn in Videodrome, as he’s patently dangerous and on the edge, and there is always something ‘wrong’ about Mickey Rourke’s Harry Angel in Angel Heart, but films these days just like its actors/characters to be some kind of ideal or ‘perfect’. Movies just don’t do flawed characters well anymore, certainly nobody overweight or with a bad complexion or not fresh out of the gym.

So that’s the root issue with Synchronic, well before the film starts to unravel into a plotline involving going back in time to rescue Dennis’ daughter who has become lost in the past (no, really, that where this damn thing goes). I just never ‘buy’ into Mackie. To be fair, parts of the script do him no favours; how any guy can risk taking his dog into the past and then not fall to pieces when said dog gets left behind, well I call bullshit on that right there (non-dog-owners mileage may vary). Any dog owner would never risk that and would be in pieces afterwards when the pet was lost; Steve hardly bats an eyelid. This ill-thought writing can be seen elsewhere: it turns out Dennis’ marriage is on the rocks, presumably this is intended to add tension/drama but it comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, there is a sub-plot involving the scientist who created the drug, but that again comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere (and the scientist dies, apparently, offscreen). Most crushingly of all, Dennis’ daughter Brianna is ill-served by the plot, we don’t really ‘know’ her, she takes the drug offscreen and disappears offscreen and frankly, who cares about her at all (and her connection to Mackie’s character seems perfunctory at best)?

So watching this, I had the feeling I was watching a solid 8/10 movie for awhile but could sense the score slipping as it went on. If I did score films I review, it possibly fell back to a 5/10 that becomes a 6/10 because of just how good the beginning and its mood and execution early on was. Such a shame, really; its so rare that I watch something that compares favourably to films like Videodrome and Angel Heart, and this film could have, perhaps should have, been a classic. 

Some connections:

Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead also made the much better Resolution, The Endless and Spring.

Anthony Mackie similarly failed to impress in Outside the Wire and The Woman in the Window.

As far as better movies with a similarly atmospheric New Orleans vibe go, obviously there’s Angel Heart.

Outside the Wire (2021)

Netflix has a something of a persistent problem with its ‘Netflix Originals’: its clear that they have lots of money to throw around at projects offered up to them and a really desperate need for new content on its platform. It must be a great time to be a creative in Hollywood right now.

Well, it was until Covid came along and rather derailed things, but what I’m getting at (Hollywood studios making hugely expensive blockbusters that it has no cinemas for notwithstanding), is that with Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Netflix, Disney+ and countless other streaming platforms financing all sorts of productions (series and movies), it must be a good time to be a creative in Hollywood or anywhere else, for that matter. All sorts of productions that wouldn’t ordinarily have ever seen the light of day suddenly get greenlit as if by sheer desperation for content. Money is getting thrown around these days like there is some kind of goldrush. Content is everything in the streaming wars, but the real trick is, not just any content, it has to be GOOD content. There’s not much point spending millions on something rubbish that nobody watches or that is killed after the first weekend by word of mouth: you don’t want your streaming service to be considered the Happy Dumping Ground for stuff no other streamer wants and nobody watches.

But maybe Netflix didn’t get that memo. Or maybe they have so much money they don’t really care (Katee Sackhoff’s Another Life got a second season, for fracks sake). Its fairly obvious that Netflix has more than its fair share of material that is leaning on the ‘average to absolute rubbish’ scale. It needs to put more quality content up, and unfortunately Outside the Wire is absolutely not it.  It opens with an intriguing premise but slides into absurdity within very little time at all, in that manner that is beginning to seem peculiar to so many Netflix Originals. Like The Midnight Sky, another Netflix Original that I watched just a few weeks ago, there is something fundamentally wrong at the screenplay stage with Outside the Wire. Its a mess. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t make sense. But it went into production anyway: gotta fill that January 2021 slot.

Sure, its executed efficiently enough- I mean, it looks pretty good with decent production values and fairly well-staged action sequences, but that’s really just about it. The cast are much better than the material: in fact, there is more than just a suggestion that this is a case of guns-for-hire just doing their job, and a really poor b-movie project being elevated by the money Netflix is throwing around and the cast and crew that money attracts. Its the kind of project that as a low-budget b-movie in the 1980s might have been fun and worthwhile- elevated to a ‘big’ movie with its high production values, it just made the thing seem worse than it possibly might have.  If you’re going to hire Anthony Mackie, give him something to do. If you’re going to make him a cyborg/robot, have some point to it, some reason for that, other than to have him looking cool in numerous video-game-like action sequences doing superhuman stuff. As it was, I was much more interested in the “Gumps” that were being used as frontline mechanical warriors, and how ‘remote’ and ‘acceptable’ they made combat seem in just the same way as military Drones do. Why not have some commentary about that? Why not do something like what  THX 1138 did decades ago? Have a military operation and run a cost evaluation against it that goes up with every bullet fired and Gump lost and collateral damage amassed, and once the op exceeds its budget the top brass back home pulls the plug. You know, throw some social commentary in; surely that didn’t go out of fashion with Robocop

This, unfortunately, is some other totally different movie/nonsense that pretends to raise big subjects and themes but, er, doesn’t, really. It conjures up some future civil war in Eastern Europe if only so it can shoot the thing in Hungary and thus benefit from increased production efficiencies, because its setting narratively doesn’t really add anything or even make any sense, necessarily. Why would the US go into Ukraine in the future when it never has up to now, even when civilian aircraft are shot out of the sky? Why would Russia allow that and why don’t we see any Russian presence or dramatic tensions or threat from its border? It eventually posits a nuclear threat from hidden silos but by this point the film is laughably implausible and its hard to feel any real threat. And if out hero has worked out thermal rounds/grenades do the business against our renegade robot, how come the bad guys never managed to work it out?

Ach. I’ve gone and done it again, devoted too much time and too many words posting about a film that really doesn’t deserve it. You really need to sort out the Quality Control, Netflix. Simply throwing the dice just doesn’t cut it, not anymore- certainly now that Apple and Disney are getting in on the act.