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.

Upgrade (2018)

upgradeSet in an undefined near-future city, Upgrade is a low-budget sci-fi action thriller that reminded me of the good old days of the (original) Robocop. Its a reminder that sci-fi films don’t have to be mega-budget/high-concept blockbusters to succeed, and indeed in many ways Upgrade is more successful than Alita, which I happened to have seen not long before.

The film seems to have been spun off the possibilities, for good or ill, of AI (Artificial Intelligence) – there are trashy settlements of disenfranchised and unemployed on the wrong side of the AI divide, while the rich live in high-tech homes that are controlled by AI and who are driven around by AI cars. Inevitably, while it reminded me (through its violence and corporate dystopia) of Robocop, it also reminded me of Black Mirror, in how it spun its story around the technology and how it impacted the characters and world.

Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), an analogue guy in a digital world, is a mechanic who prefers old-fashioned cars that are driven, over high-tech cars that drive people around. His wife, Asha, has no such issues, fully at ease with the AI world that serves her every whim and ensures her a promising career with a tech company. However one night their AI car is hacked and malfunctions whilst driving them home and crashes. Four assailants pull them from the car wreckage in what is apparently a high-tech robbery, but it escalates into something more and Asha is killed, and Grey left crippled by a shot though his spine.

One of Grey’s clients who he rebuilt a car for, approaches Grey in hospital where Grey, mourning his dead wife is also bitterly looking ahead at a life as a quadriplegic. This client, Eron Keen, is the head of a tech company that has a radical (albeit illegal) new tech that involves implanting a revolutionary computer chip named ‘Stem’ into his spine to fix his new disability and offer Grey a normal life again. Grey agrees to the experimental procedure and signs an NDA to ensure the technology remains secret.

The operation is a success, although Grey has to continue to pretend to be paralysed until the procedure can be analysed and proven safe.  It also has unexpected benefits- Stem is a self-aware AI that Grey can ‘hear’ in his head and while it ‘fixes’ his disability is also able to take control of Grey’s body giving him super-human reflexes and combat skills, and all sorts of high-tech connections through databases. Stem offers to help Grey investigate the robbery/murder that ripped his world apart and Grey accepts, frustrated by the police inability to solve the crime.

Logan Marshall-Green is pretty damn good as Grey, it’s a tricky role in that he’s often reacting to, and having conversations with, a voice in his head and it’s a pretty physical  part as well, with some considerable action scenes and stunts. He manages to elicit some sympathy for his condition and fight for justice and carries the film pretty much by himself.

Naturally there are plenty of twists involved and in the great tradition of both Robocop and Black Mirror nothing in the corporate world is as genuine as it seems and the AI tech has a few issues of its own. The low budget ensures the film has a few limitations but on the whole its very successful, with offerings of body-horror/manipulation that reminded me of Cronenberg’s Videodrome.  Ultimately what seems to be a pulpish sci-fi action flick transpires to be a rather cautionary tale and on the whole it’s a great little movie.

Cam (2018)

camCam is a very effective thriller/horror film in the vein of the tv series Black Mirror, in that it takes a modern-day technology (in this case web-cams and video streaming) and goes a little bit into the future with it – albeit a rather dark future. It also has a very Videodrome-vibe; indeed, it’s often really a very modern-day Videodrome, complete with that films comparison of reality and the video-reality of the screen.

Alice Ackerman (Madeline Brewer, in a great central performance) is a cam girl, broadcasting online live semi-nude shows from a room in her home, appearing as “Lola”. Obsessed with her ranking on the cam site platform she is using, she gets more daring and provocative in her show in order to attract more views and earn more money from her viewers. During one episode she fakes her own suicide, pretending to slit her throat live on the net, and is rewarded with a high ranking. She then performs a sex-act with a friend who also works as a cam-girl, her desperation to hit the top ten making her susceptible to riskier content if it gets her more hits.

One morning however she wakes up and discovers she is locked out of her account and that “Lola” is somehow online. Alice accesses the live stream and finds out that sees a woman that looks, sounds and acts exactly like her. Thinking it might be recording being broadcast she soon discovers that this “Lola” is reading and responding to messages posted by her viewers. Of course Alice cannot fathom what is going on, and sets out to discover who/what this “Lola” is and try to get back her virtual persona that climbs up the cam site rankings doing increasingly salacious things as if to mock her.

Its a very taut, well-directed, smartly-written piece, and while it favours the feel of a Black Mirror episode it never feels like there’s any padding in its 90+minute running time.  Madeline Brewer is particularly good and delivers praise for what must have been a tricky and demanding part. Mostly though, I really did enjoy those echoes of Videodrome and its questions of reality and of losing control- it’s a very clever, well-thought-out drama. One of the better Netflix Originals that I have yet seen, which is more than the premise might suggest.

Spoilers ahead-

 

One of the things I thought most rewarding is that the film never really over-explained anything regards who/what “Lola” is- I came to the opinion that it was likely a Military AI that escaped from R&D labs out into the internet and now ‘lived’ there, mimicking popular streams with virtual doppelgangers (Alice learns that the ‘number one’ cam girl on the site actually died six months before and is therefore another doppelganger), but that’s just my own reasoning, as the film itself explains nothing. There’s all sorts of questions regards identity and what is real. It offers tantalising suggestions but refrains from explaining anything, which I found refreshing- it’s nice watching something and being left to think reason things out.

 

 

Long Live the (Betamax) Flesh

vid1Videodrome (Blu-ray)

We’ll spice up this October Horror fest with a bit of body horror, and no-one does body horror quite like David Cronenberg. So its another welcome slice of the unwatched Blu-ray pile with last year’s Arrow release of Videodrome finally getting put in the player.

In much the same way as Field of Dreams always seems to me to be the perfect Ray Bradbury movie, though he never wrote the story it was based on, so Videodrome always feels like the definitive Philip K Dick story. Okay, PKD never dealt with deviant sex or body horror in his stories, but Videodrome’s faltering sense of reality and perceptions of time and self, and its dysfunctional every-man hero, seems to be pure Philip K Dick. As chief protagonist Max Renn’s reality disintegrates you’re never sure what’s real or what isn’t, increasingly hallucinatory sequences twisting reality so far that, for much of the movie, the viewer is questioning everything he sees and the nature of reality itself. Indeed, one of the characters, Brian O’Blivion, is actually dead, only existing on hundreds of videocassettes in a sort of virtual existence: what could be more PKD than that (memories of his Mercer-ism from his story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep spring to mind)?

Decades after its release, the film remains a visceral experience, tactile in its analogue horrors (fleshy, ‘breathing’ videotapes and CRT televisions), compared to the digital-streaming world we live in today. There is something cosy and familiar about the old technologies of my youth, loading cassettes into top-loading video players, video drop-outs and tracking errors.Its also incredibly prescient too, with television ‘lives’ more ‘real’ than reality, predating celebrity culture and having hundreds of satellite/cable channels- back when this was released, the UK only had four channels and I don’t believe any of them were 24-hour transmissions, either. Feels like a different world.

Tim Lucas in his commentary track refers to a circular element of the film that was new to me- he describes the final shot of Max shooting himself in the head being followed by the start of the film with Max waking up in his apartment, stirred back to reality by the voice of his assistant’s wake-up message on his television. Its a new interpretation of the film to me and quite a seductive one. A very-noir horror, Max caught in a never-ending loop of hallucinatory reality. Videodrome is still a startling, strange and mystifying film, and James Woods is utterly brilliant. Great stuff.