Making a sci-fi film on a limited budget can be a risky prospect. Filmmakers like Shane Carruth, Jonathan Glazer, and Alex Garland have found recent success crafting their low-budget sci-fis by doing away with elaborate and expansive production designs, as well as large-scale action sequences. Instead, it was their complex ideas and themes that were placed at the forefront. “Synchronicity,” on the other hand, has an elaborately detailed production design, a distinctive and inspired visual style, and despite being set in the future, it never comes across as a cheap SyFy film. It may lack the cerebral and thematic complexities of “Upstream Color” or “Ex Machina,” but “Synchronicity” still works — mostly because it’s a throwback sci-fi noir that’s largely entertaining and, on a technical level, is admirably well-crafted.
Written and directed by Jacob Gentry (“The Signal”), “Synchronicity” wears its influences on its sleeve. The main visual inspiration is most obviously “Blade Runner” as the film goes through great efforts to emulate the look of those vast cityscapes, particularly during its establishing shots. And, like Ridley Scott’s film, the movie has a constant hazy, smoky sheen throughout. Gentry appears to be really fascinated with 1980s sci-fi; you get the impression that the design of the film represents a 1980s vision of the future. The videoscreens, the boxy computers, the dated cell phones — none of the technology used on screen appears to acknowledge any of the subsequent advances that’ve been made in the last decade or so. And honestly? There are times when “Synchronicity” feels as if it could have been made in the ‘80s. That has to be some sort of an accomplishment.
With all this in mind, “Synchronicity” isn’t just some love letter to “Blade Runner,” it’s actually pretty damn good in its own right. While the plot and some of the characters’ behavior initially comes across as odd and incomprehensible, it really starts to come together in a surprising way once you get past all the time travel technical jargon from the first half hour. “Synchronicity” also entertains partly because it knows how to have fun with itself. The characters feel grounded and down-to-earth despite living in a world where time travel is possible. And time is made for these characters to have brief moments of levity in the midst of this serious, mind-bending adventure they find themselves in.
The film follows physicist Jim Beale (Chad McKnight) who, along with his team, invents a device that can bend space and time and create a wormhole. This wormhole can send something (or someone) back in time, but Jim Beale has difficulty proving it can work. His first experiment resulted in receiving an exotic flower, a dahlia, from the future, but he can’t prove that it was ever sent back into the past. This doesn’t go over well with his investor, a greedy venture capitalist named Klaus Meisner (Michael Ironside) whose funding is desperately needed in order for this device to keep operating.
The first half of the film is a clash between the physicist and Klaus Meisner. First, Klaus is unimpressed by the device, but over time, Jim begins to suspect that he’s trying to acquire complete and total ownership over it. After all, Jim discovers that this dahlia flower he received from the future happens to have Klaus Meisner’s name on it. But how? And when Jim discovers the very same flower in the apartment of a young woman named Abby (Brianne Davis), who just seduced him, it only exacerbates Jim’s paranoia.
Describing the plot any further would be a disservice to those who’re curious to see the movie. “Synchronicity” has quite a few amusing twists and turns up its sleeve. The story that unfolds in this film is not wholly original, as time travel has been tackled in sci-fi so many times before, making it difficult for this tale really stand out from other, similar fare. Still, the way Gentry constructed the story is pretty clever and there’s almost a sense of glee to the film as it explores all the concepts and ideas that the first 40 minutes set up.
The film’s narrow focus on the plot can be a little too intense at times, which eventually starts to become a problem. Gentry plays with time in a way that’s reminiscent to Christopher Nolan films such as “Memento” and “The Prestige.” But whereas Nolan gives his films enough time to explore his characters, “Synchronicity” is too focused on getting from point A to point B to really allows its characters to grow. As a result, we don’t get to spend enough time on the budding relationship between Jim and Abby to understand how they’ve eventually come to have such strong feelings for each other. This keeps “Synchronicity” from being as emotionally involving as it could have been.
And while it’s nice to see veteran character actor Michael Ironside in fine form as the movie’s villain, he’s essentially sidelined in the second half as the movie deals with other concerns. This, in turn, makes the ending of “Synchronicity” feel a bit underwhelming and Ironside’s character ultimately comes across as one-dimensional.
Of all the sub-genres in science fiction, the toughest to get right (in my estimation) are time-travel films. But when a film gets it right, I fall deeply in love with it. In more recent years, I look to works like PRIMER, TIMECRIMES, and LOOPER as really fun time travel experiences that work because they are trying something unique, within a familiar mold. Most recently, PREDESTINATION absolutely floored me, with its true crime elements mixed with themes of sexual identity. Now let’s add to the list SYNCHRONICITY, from writer-director Jacob Gentry, who returns to feature filmmaking (after spending some time working in television) after his ambitious previous work THE SIGNAL.
Right off the bat, I’m going to suggest to watch SYNCHRONICITY at least twice, not because the first time is confusing, but because you can tell almost immediately that this is a film that will resonate a bit more with each viewing. I’ll take a crack at giving you the introductory plot. In one of the nerdiest time-travel films since PRIMER, the story begins with three scientists led by Jim Beale (Chard McKnight, also from THE SIGNAL) along with Chuck (AJ Bowen from YOU’RE NEXT, THE SACRAMENT, and, of course, THE SIGNAL) and Matty (Scott Poythress), about to run their first test on a machine that will open up a wormhole that will allow for the purposes of time travel. The plan isn’t to jump back or forward in time, but to send something through the hole to themselves in the past, something easily recognizable as a message from them. They bring in their primary financier, Klaus Meisner (the great Michael Ironside, in the first of two films I saw him in at Fantasia), to show him the fruits of their labor and his money.
Sadly, the first test seems to be a failure, but nothing could be further from the truth as footage of the experiment reveals two things—a blurry figure can be seen at the heart of the time machine and a rare Dahlia flower has been apparently sent from a few days in the future. Is this the sign they were looking for? As Jim runs after Meisner to inform him the experiment worked, he runs into Abby (Brianne Davis), whom Jim at first believes might have been the figure he saw running from the machine. When he realizes she probably wasn’t, he immediately finds himself attracted to her and she seems receptive, which complicated things since she also happens to be Meisner’s mistress, but she’s also a key part of this story and her knowing ways about science and time travel and life in general are important to the entire story.
With the pretzel-like structure, one of the characters goes back in time and revisits key moments in the story with fresh eyes and minor alterations that make it as much a puzzle as a narrative. And, as if the time-travel story weren’t complex enough, Gentry includes a love story that is absolutely vital to the primary tale being told, but you may not realize just how much until the very end. I assume that the film is set in the future, but even that feels deliberately nebulous, with the film’s old-school vibe (including a fantastic synth score by Ben Lovett and lush cinematography by Eric Maddison) combined with a cityscape that feel as if we’re looking at the future through 1980s eyes (think BLADE RUNNER with less rain).
McKnight is the perfect combination of hero scientist and lovesick patsy. I’ve always gotten a vaguely Guy Pearce groove from him as an actor, nevermore so than in SYNCHRONICITY, and that’s absolutely a compliment. He wears many faces here, each of them meant to be distinct yet similar. Some may complain that the film wears its influences a little too loudly on its very long sleeve, but it’s for those very reasons that I adore it. It’s more about capturing an atmosphere than copying a classic. The end of the film is spectacular and something I didn’t see coming, and the questions it brings up about the time-spec continuum are going to haunt me for quite some time. SYNCHRONICITY has heart and humor to counter its periods of despair and angst, and it all blends together with touch of grace and ambition that science fiction lovers are going to devour.
In his third feature film after Last Goodbye and The Signal, writer (with Alex Orr) and director Jacob Gentry takes on time itself through physicist Jim Beale (Chad McKnight), who is working punishing hours with very little sleep as he barrels his way toward a discovery that could change the fabric of our universe.
Beale’s assisted by two friends, also scientists (AJ Bowen as Chuck and Scott Poythress as Matty), and he’s financially backed by the powerful Klaus Meisner (genre legend Michael Ironside), but it isn’t until he meets Brianne Davis’ Abby that Beale’s invention – a wormhole-generator that folds space-time – seems like it just might work. Or has it already worked? An unusual dahlia appears out of nowhere, and Jim begins to realize that he might already be in the middle of a much bigger story. How many dahlias are there, how many timelines? How many Jims?
Synchronicity has some superb inspirations – the intricately nested timelines of Primer, the dusty, DIY science fiction of Alien, the vintaged futuristic anywhere city of Blade Runner and Dark City – but it’s also very much its own thing. Abby, for one, is a character who feels like a trope, the femme fatale archetype, and is revealed to be a far more complicated and compelling character. Is she using Jim or protecting him? A little of both, and also neither, because Abby has motivations that have nothing to do with Jim or her sugar-daddy Klaus. She’s a singular character, and Davis gives her a lot of life.
Jim himself isn’t quite as interesting. McKnight turns in a great performance as a scientist driven by ambition and stymied by love, but he’s a character we’ve seen before. Meisner, too, but who’s going to complain about Michael Ironside playing a sinister corporate heavyweight in a great genre picture? Chuck and Matty both serve very effectively as the film’s comic relief, but despite the high stakes and the drum-tight tension, Synchronicity doesn’t require much comic relief. It’s just naturally a funny, very entertaining movie, a dark thriller that’s never dour.
The score, by Ben Lovett, is extremely groovy, and the film’s opening credits are cool and spacey in the way of an ’80s arcade game. This is a very stylish movie, one that looks much more expensive than it probably is. Gentry edited the film himself, and that might be Synchronicity‘s biggest achievement, crafting a coherent emotional narrative out of such a fractured and complex storyline.
Synchronicity is the kind of movie that will have you lingering in the lobby afterwards, asking questions and forming theories about the film’s many revelations. It’s one to see twice, at least, and I’m already looking forward to my second go at this world.
Fantasia Film Fest Review: SYNCHRONICITY
When 2007’s THE SIGNAL first hit audiences, it did a hell of a job showing a small glimpse of the capabilities of the film’s trio of writer/directors, David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry. Each director’s segment felt completely different from the previous director’s, and there was a sense of promise that you felt upon watching the film, one that made you know each of the three filmmakers would go onto promising futures in storytelling. Bruckner went on to direct the best segment of the first V/H/S film and is now set to helm the latest FRIDAY THE 13TH, while Bush directed one of the most memorable films of this year, the sci-fi grounded in reality film THE RECONSTRUCTION OF WILLIAM ZERO (review). Gentry, following THE SIGNAL, focused on solid short films, and the made for MTV slasher series of films, MY SUPER PSYCHO SWEET 16. While this short history lesson might seem like an odd way of starting a film, it’s crucial to realize how each filmmaker went on to do good work, and there’s a mind-blowing level of technical and storytelling accomplishments in what is EASILY one of the best sci-fi films to have been made in years, the Gentry-directed time travel film, SYNCHRONICITY.
Focusing on Jim Beale, a physicist who, along with his two physicist colleagues, Chuck and Matty (a film-stealing duo of AJ BOWEN and SCOTT POYTHRESS), has invented a machine that will open a wormhole in the universe, allowing them to send something into it and have it come back through the other side. Being both Beale’s investor and biggest threat, is the wealthy Klaus Meisner (Michael Ironside), a man who doesn’t care about the advances in science that Beale is on the tip of making, but is completely interested in the monetary gain and taking control of the machine. The early in the film dilemma of this does a fine job of bringing viewers into a story that from the first couple of scenes, you can tell will be a very layered one.
The crucial element to pushing Beale and the story along, is the sudden appearance of Abby (Brianne Davis), a woman that Beale doesn’t know if he can trust, but is drawn to right from her first appearance, following what seems like an unsuccessful test of the machine. As viewers, we know that the femme fatale-like character of Abby has secrets and almost immediately, Jim finds out the hard way, with realizing that he has been double crossed by Meisner and Abby. While that seems like a lot of plot given, that’s DEFINITELY not the case, as SYNCHRONICITY strives on making you think you know what’s going on, what’s going to happen, and what you think you saw the first time around. Feeling completely betrayed, Beale decides to run into the wormhole himself, and try to change the events that happened, and off we as viewers go, directly into a story full of twists and turns, and enough revelations to make your jaw drop. It’s a film that is so full of layers, that each time one is peeled back, you find yourself wondering why you didn’t realize something the first time around, and causing you to bask in the glory of a true accomplishment in not only the sci-fi genre but in filmmaking in general. What’s so interesting about the film is how certain things change the way you think, with each of those revelations. Initially the film felt a bit miscast, with Beale (THE SIGNAL and ER‘s Chad McKnight) and Abby feeling a little bit off, but as the film and its many mysteries and twists happen, you find yourself realizing why you felt the way you did and the film just works so wonderfully. A film’s lead is only as good as the characters who support said lead, and the duo of Bowen and Poythress do such great jobs in roles that are beneficial to the story and film, playing the concerned friend/colleague and the awkward and nervous sidekick to great results. Combined with the fractured, noir-like love story between Jim and Abby, the villainous and stern performance from Ironside, those roles all gel together to provide such a refreshingly original film.
Aside from SYNCHRONICITY‘s successes in performances and storytelling, a gigantic marvel of amazement comes in the form of both the film’s score by Ben Lovett and the film’s visual scope, which just seems so very huge. Gentry creates a world that feels futuristic yet current, very technologically advanced, but also of today in various other ways. It feels like a huge studio film, one that would sit very confidently next to films like DARK CITY and the recent PREDESTINATION in terms of smart, science fiction filmmaking with a budget. With the ability to create a film and world that seems astronomically larger than the film’s budget, this writer would be happy with Gentry at the helm of a huge studio film, I mean, hell, why isn’t HE directing the upcoming BLADE RUNNER sequel?! Until the day in which something on that level happens (and mark my words, it will), SYNCHRONICITY is a bold and original take on the sci-fi genre, very smart and a film that will stay with you, long after it’s over.
Directed by Jacob Gentry
Written by Jacon Gentry and Alex Orr
Shadows abound, pierced with swaths of light cut to ribbons by venetian blinds. Odd, angular futurist architecture juts into the sky, illuminated by spotlights from passing flying vehicles. There are fans slowly rotating everywhere. This is the future, after all. There must be fans. If nothing else, Synchronicity cuts an interesting shape, a quasi-dystopian future that seems devoid of affection, warmth. Taken purely on visuals, Synchronicity is top-notch. The problem, then, lies in storytelling.
Synchronicity presents a twisted, tangled pretzel of a narrative, a classic time travel thriller that loops back on itself multiple times, placing the audience in danger of crossed eyes. Narratives this complex have been attempted before, but where Synchronicity falters is how it conveys the narrative. The complex story is made more head-spinning than advisable by some unclear storytelling, making an otherwise good sci-fi thriller into a more baffling experience than it should be.
Our protagonist is Jim Beal (Chad McKnight), a young scientist working on a time travel experiment. Of course, his time machine requires an expensive lump of Mcguffonium, requiring him to get in bed with shady industrialist Klas Meisner (Michael Ironside). At the same time, Jim meets Abby (Brianne Davis), a beguiling woman who seems like a keen ally for Jim. But Jim seems wary of Abby’s advances, and his suspicions lead him down a winding path.
As previously mentioned, Synchronicity‘s strongest quality is its visuals. The production designers were able to craft a convincing and engrossing futuristic landscape on what must have been a relatively small budget using some well placed CGI backdrops, lighting, and excellent location scouting. The most obvious influence is Blade Runner, minus the infusion of Asian style. Ben Lovett’s excellent score, which also channels Vangelis’ Blade Runner synth tracks a bit too hard at times, additionally provides Synchronicity with a moody, trance-like soundscape.
However, problems arise when Synchronicity fills the world its created with a story. Like most time travel thrillers, Synchronicity is complicated, a mind-bender in the classic sense that challenges the audience to keep up with a story full to bursting with time travel shenanigans. But the film often leaves the viewer confused with vague, confusing explanations of major plot points and turns. Of course, there’s more than enough room for films that challenge their audience with a narrative that has to be untangled and teased out through discussion and multiple viewings. But Synchronicity seems too unwilling to slow down and help the viewer make some sense of all this on their first viewing, which may lead to many leaving the theater more confused and frustrated than satisfied.
In terms of characters, the film does fine. AJ Bowen does what he does best, playing a likeable and sometimes comedic role as one of Jim’s fellow scientists. Chad McKnight, burdened with the most intense role in the film, holds up well, walking the line between an everyman grappling with some self-destructive and occasionally misogynistic tendencies and a full-on obsessive. Brianne Davis, while initially comes across as a stock femme fatale/mysterious dream-girl, slowly brings out more depth as the film goes on, presenting a much more realized character by the end. Michael Ironside, bless him, is in classic form, speaking in an intimidating rumble and being altogether imposing and scary. It isn’t a complex role, but he pulls it off with gusto.
Synchronicity is a somewhat hard film to judge on first viewing. The visuals are grade-a, but the storytelling leaves something to be desired, making an already complicated plot harder to follow by being too obtuse and vague. Perhaps with repeat viewings Synchronicity will untangle itself, but simply viewed once, it feels as frustrating and vague an experience as a rewarding one.