Benson & Moorhead’s Synchronic

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead have consistently been putting out wild, innovative and boundlessly creative ideas into cinema including Lovecraftian romance, esoteric doomsday cults, otherworldly time loops and more. What’s so great about their work is that along with these very grand, high concept SciFi ideas they always have the right application of atmosphere and tone as well as extremely believable, well written characters to back it up and with their newest film Synchronic they just may have outdone themselves. Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan play two New Orleans EMT’s who are also steadfast besties, their bromance banter a huge asset to this story. They seem to be getting a lot of disturbing calls lately, of people injured or hurt very badly after taking a mysterious experimental street drug called Synchronic, which is available in Vape form at various stores. It’s basically a synthetic DMT compound that acts on the pineal gland to provide unnervingly vivid hallucinations, but what really happens is that for the duration of the high, you quite literally go backwards in time to a random period of history, could be five years ago, could be five thousand years ago. This powerful but dangerous ability is the lynchpin of a story that involves these two characters as Dornan struggles with family issues, Mackie wrestles with a terminal illness diagnosis and the drug itself comes into play in ways you might not expect. Both actors are terrific especially when onscreen together, with Mackie being the standout and taking full blooded advantage of the deep, ponderous and soulful writing. What really makes the film sing is the synergistic flow of atmosphere, music and special effects for the trips back in time and there are several breathtaking set pieces including a Spanish conquistador in a damp bayou, a hellish picture of the New Orleans harbour on fire sometime around the civil war and an absolutely stunning trip back to the ice age. These sequences feel fully realized, immersive and tactile and where other films would take a high tech gadgetry approach to time travel, this one uses the onset of the drug’s effect in an eerie, elemental biochemistry fashion to transport us into the film’s realm. Moorehead and Benson floored me with their 2015 film Spring (couldn’t recommend it enough) and then their follow up The Endless left me a bit underwhelmed but for me this is them roaring back into cinematic innovation on all levels with a wondrously moody, unbelievably creative SciFi that’s sure to become a classic. Brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

The VHS Files: Yesterday’s Target

Today’s VHS File is a dusty old SciFi time travel flick called Yesterday’s Target whose plot I just couldn’t get a handle on, despite it having some cool ideas, ambient atmospherics and neat set pieces. It stars one of the Baldwin brothers, and you pretty much know what you’re in for when they headline something. Daniel Baldwin is an unassuming factory worker who is recruited by a shadow organization because of his untapped psychic talents, targeted by a mysterious rogue military scientist played by Malcolm McDowell in one of his classic mega villain roles but he’s curiously restrained and relaxed here. Baldwin basically goes on a cross country road trip to find other psychics like him including a clairvoyant (Stacey Haiduk), a short order cook who is a firestarter (T.K. Carter from The Thing in this film’s liveliest performance) and others. They’re pursued by McDowell’s top man, a cowboy hat wearing Levar Burton in a bizarrely cartoonish performance that doesn’t work and brings the film somewhat down whenever he’s onscreen. There’s an absolute deluge of expository mumbo jumbo, arbitrary subplots and just garbled SciFi clutter here including some secret society that travels through time to prevent people from having shitty lives, a child prodigy, Vegas card sharking, McDowell’s random personal life with his wife and all sorts of interludes that muck about until I really wasn’t sure what this film was even about beyond a vague idea of ‘time travelling clairvoyants.’ Still, it’s very atmospheric and some of the performances are a lot of fun. It’s also quite muted and laidback and even when there’s gunplay or a pursuit it feels just… hushed and soothing somehow. There’s a deliberately anticlimactic ending as Baldwin and McDowell standoff only to surprise each other with revelations regarding identity, time loops and serendipitous phenomena that again, I wasn’t clear on, but allows Malcolm to inject some real poignancy into an otherwise standard villain role, if even for a brief moment when all is almost said and done. It’s worth a look but nothing special. I have no memory of where I even got the VHS tape but it’s another one of those screeners that nobody is supposed to sell yet somehow find their way to good homes. I see this is also streaming on something called Tubi though, if anyone is at all curious.

-Nate Hill

The VHS Files: Yesterday’s Target

Today’s VHS File is a dusty old SciFi time travel flick called Yesterday’s Target whose plot I just couldn’t get a handle on, despite it having some cool ideas, ambient atmospherics and neat set pieces. It stars one of the Baldwin brothers, and you pretty much know what you’re in for when they headline something. Daniel Baldwin is an unassuming factory worker who is recruited by a shadow organization because of his untapped psychic talents, targeted by a mysterious rogue military scientist played by Malcolm McDowell in one of his classic mega villain roles but he’s curiously restrained and relaxed here. Baldwin basically goes on a cross country road trip to find other psychics like him including a clairvoyant (Stacey Haiduk), a short order cook who is a firestarter (T.K. Carter from The Thing in this film’s liveliest performance) and others. They’re pursued by McDowell’s top man, a cowboy hat wearing Levar Burton in a bizarrely cartoonish performance that doesn’t work and brings the film somewhat down whenever he’s onscreen. There’s an absolute deluge of expository mumbo jumbo, arbitrary subplots and just garbled SciFi clutter here including some secret society that travels through time to prevent people from having shitty lives, a child prodigy, Vegas card sharking, McDowell’s random personal life with his wife and all sorts of interludes that muck about until I really wasn’t sure what this film was even about beyond a vague idea of ‘time travelling clairvoyants.’ Still, it’s very atmospheric and some of the performances are a lot of fun. It’s also quite muted and laidback and even when there’s gunplay or a pursuit it feels just… hushed and soothing somehow. There’s a deliberately anticlimactic ending as Baldwin and McDowell standoff only to surprise each other with revelations regarding identity, time loops and serendipitous phenomena that again, I wasn’t clear on, but allows Malcolm to inject some real poignancy into an otherwise standard villain role, if even for a brief moment when all is almost said and done. It’s worth a look but nothing special. I have no memory of where I even got the VHS tape but it’s another one of those screeners that nobody is supposed to sell yet somehow find their way to good homes. I see this is also streaming on something called Tubi though, if anyone is at all curious.

-Nate Hill

Eternity’s Music, Faint and Far: Nate’s Top Ten Time Travel Films

I love a good time travel film. There’s something so purely exciting about opening up your story’s narrative to the possibility, and once you do the potential is almost endless. From the mind stretching nature of paradoxically puzzling storylines to the sheer delight of seeing someone stranded in an era not their own and adjusting to the radical development, it’s a sub-genre that always has me first in line to buy tickets. Here are my personal top ten favourites:

10. Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time

How’s this for a concept: H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) chases Jack The Ripper (David Warner) around 1800’s London, through a time machine and all over 1970’s San Francisco. This is a brilliant little picture because as sensational as this high concept is, the filmmakers approach the story from a place of character and emotion rather than big style SciFi spectacle or action. McDowell plays Wells as a compassionate, non violent fellow while Warner’s Jack relishes in the ultra-violent nature of the time period. This is also the film where McDowell met Mary Steenburgen and shortly after they were married.

9. Rian Johnson’s Looper

Time travel gets monopolized by the mafia in this stunning futuristic tale that is so specifically high concept it requires a near constant expository voiceover from Joseph Gordon Levitt so we can keep up. Playing an assassin hunting his future self (Bruce Willis), this has a vaguely steam punk feel to it, an uncommonly intelligent and surprisingly emotional script as well as scene stealing work from Emily Blunt, Pierce Gagnon, Paul Dano and a scruffy Jeff Daniels.

8. Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits

A young boy tags along on one hell of a epic adventure with a band of time travelling dwarves on the run from both the Devil (David Warner for the second time on this list, how nice) and God himself (Ralph Richardson). This is an exhilarating, lush example of what can be done with practical effects, from a giant walking out of the ocean to a Lego castle somewhere beyond time and space to a recreation of the Titanic. Not to mention the cast, which includes cameos from Gilliam’s Monty Python troupe regulars as well as Ian Holm, Shelley Duvall, Jim Broadbent and Sean Connery in several sly roles.

7. Robert Zemeckis’s Back To The Future

“Great Scott!!!!” Man, who doesn’t just love this film. It’s practically it’s own visual aesthetic these days, and spawned two fun sequels that couldn’t quite capture the enchantment found here. From scrappy antihero Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) to demented genius Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) this just hits all the right notes and gets a little taboo in the process as we see what would happen if someone ended up in the past and got hit on by their own mom. Yikes!

6. The Spierig Brothers’s Predestination

The less you know about this tantalizing, twisty flick going in the better, except to know that it will fuck your mind into submission with its narrative. Ethan Hawke plays a rogue temporal agent who’s been pursuing a relentless terrorist through time since he can remember, and finally has a plan he think will work to end the chase. Featuring Noah ‘exposition in every other SciFi film’ Taylor and the sensational new talent Sarah Snook, this is not one to miss and you’ll need a few viewings to appreciate it fully .

5. Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu

Scott’s trademark visual aesthetic blesses this kinetic, elliptical story of secret FBI technology used by keen ATF agent Denzel Washington to find and stop a mad bomber (Jim Caviesel) who has already slaughtered hundreds in a riverboat explosion. Adam Goldberg and Val Kilmer are welcome as agency tech experts but the real heart of this film lies in Washington’s relationship to a survivor of the incidents (Paula Patton) and how that plays into the fascinating central premise that doesn’t start *out* as actual time travel but gradually becomes apparent.

4. Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency

A father son relationship is the beating heart of this tale of cop Jim Caviesel (again!) and his firefighter dad Dennis Quaid. They are able to communicate across a thirty year gulf of time and the barriers of death itself via a miraculous HAM radio and some pseudo science involving the aurora borealis. This provides an exciting, involving and heartbreaking dual experience as the son races to find ways to save his dad from several different grim fates and take down a nasty serial killer while he’s at it. This film has aged so well mostly due to the genuine emotion felt between the family including mom Elizabeth Mitchell. The yearning to escape perimeters of linear time and reconnect with passed loved ones is especially prescient for me nowadays days based on my own recent experiences and as such the film holds extra weight now. A classic.

3. James Cameron’s The Terminator

Artificial intelligence works out time travel for itself in Cameron’s ballistic gong show of an action classic that sees freedom fighter Michael Biehn, civilian turned survivor Linda Hamilton, homicidal cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger and a few hundred short lived cops engaged in a bloody, brutal fight for the future. I picked this over the sequel because the notion of time travel in the saga overall feels freshest and most well worked out here, despite my love for T2 being just a smidge higher on the gauge. Perhaps it’s also because the excellent Biehn makes damn believable work of convincing us that he’s a weary, distraught soldier from a different era, and sells the concept with his beautiful performance.

2. John Maybury’s The Jacket

Hazy, experimental, haunting and atmospheric, this was not a critical hit and it’s chilly vibe is evidence of that, but beneath that there’s a heartfelt story of confused gulf war vet Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) trying to make sense of his shattered psyche while surviving a gnarly mental institution run by a madman with a god complex (Kris Kristofferson). Somewhere along the way he discovers he can jump through time and uses the phenomena to investigate his own death and prevent others from happening. Featuring a low key, emotional turn from Keira Knightley and fantastic supporting work from Daniel Craig, Kelly Lynch and Jennifer Jason Leigh, this is a harrowing psychological thriller that gradually reveals itself as a meditation on life, death and the realms in between.

1. Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys

Gilliam gets two on this list, lucky him! He deserves it though, this is a curious film with unbelievable production design, a deeply felt performance from Bruce Willis and one from Brad Pitt that kind of defies description and erases doubts of his immense talent from anyone’s mind. Willis is a convict sent back in time from a bleak future to discover how and why a deadly virus wiped out most of earth’s population and sent the rest into subterranean caves. It’s not the film you’d expect and the sad, eerie resolution at the end is something that will stick with you for a long time.

Once again thanks for reading! There’s many that didn’t make the list as it’s tough to just pick ten, but I’d love to hear some of your favourite time travel films!

-Nate Hill