Robert Zemeckis must be pleased; Back to the Future is now officially the definitive time travel movie. It was H.G Wells adaptation The Time Machine for a long while but now that has dropped right out of pop culture, Doctor Who used to be the go to in the UK at least, Terminator had its moment and The Butterfly Effect gets the occasional nod but nowadays if you want your time travel film to reference another time travel film then you’ve got to mention Back to the Future. The Lego Movie 2 did it, as did Tomorrowland and Avengers: Endgame of course. Welcome to Marwen did it too but that was Zemeckis own film so feels like cheating. Now this new film from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead can be added to the list.
In the movie, Anthony Mackie’s Steve has a couple of little trips to the past care of a street drug with some unusual side effects and having not had the best experience takes umbrage with the suggestion that time travel is all rocking out to Chuck Berry with no consequences. It’s an oddly mainstream reference for Benson and Moorhead who up until now seem to have delighted in being anything but.
I have to say I admire them for this. I was sure after the quirky but excellent The Endless these guys would be immediately snapped up to helm some huge blockbuster à la Colin Trevorrow’s leap from Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World, Gareth Evans giant step up from Monsters to Godzilla or Cate Shortland’s reassignment from Berlin Syndrome to Black Widow. I’m sure the offers were there, in fact they have taken the gig directing Marvel Studio’s Moon Knight for TV, but I applaud them for taking the bigger budget offered and making this with it first. Synchronic is a clear stepping stone as it is their most accessible story yet but it is still full of trippy visuals and head scratching plot developments so they’ve not sold out their own artistic sensibilities.
Mackie and Jamie Dornan play New Orleans paramedics who come across a series of strange accidents caused by ancient weapons or no longer indigenous animals. Then one of their family members goes missing and Steve learns that it isn’t a case of where she has gone but when. It’s the mood as much as anything else that doesn’t feel akin to most Hollywood movies. It’s dour but not oppressive, dark but not alienating and the friendship between Steve and Dornan’s Dennis feels genuine and lived in.
The science fiction and fantasy elements, as in The Endless and Benson and Moorhead’s previous film Spring, also feel original. These guys are able to take common notions and make them fresh with well thought out ideas and new concepts. The rules of time travel here are very specific and make sense in the context in which they are presented. It isn’t like Back to the Future, which Scott Lang in Endgame realises is ‘a bunch of bullshit’. It certainly does things with the genre we’ve not seen before.
My hope is that even with a studio contract, Benson and Moorhead will take us to surprising places and even if Synchronic may not be as good as The Endless, it is another example of two exciting film makers breaking conventions. Where they’re going, they don’t need moulds.