The 2020 movie landscape has certainly been affected by COVID-19. If there's a silver lining in all the big-budget blockbuster wannabes getting postponed, it's that independent films have had a chance to shine. Science-fiction has particularly prospered, with Proximity, The Vast of Night, and Save Yourselves! all getting the chance to attract more eyeballs than they would have if James Bond and Black Widow had been around to hog all the attention. Those pictures are good, and so is Synchronic, the newest effort from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the team behind Spring and The Endless. This is intelligent, stylish sci-fi that leaves you with ideas to contemplate.

Anthony Mackie plays Steve, a New Orleans paramedic who works alongside good friend Dennis (Jamie Dornan). Their job has been especially difficult lately, because a new designer drug called Synchronic is flooding the streets. Users go into a bizarre state that causes them to hurt others and/or themselves when under its effect. One day, Dennis's daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) disappears after attending a party where the drug is present. He's distraught. Steve, meanwhile, runs around the city buying up all that's left of Synchronic so no one else can take it.

I'm going to leave out two specific details here in order to preserve the plot's developments. Instead, I'll just say that Steve has a reason why he decides to try the drug for himself, and he promptly discovers it affords him a very unusual ability that could help him find Brianna.

Synchronic deals with ambitious themes, addiction being just one of them. Although never preachy, the movie certainly offers a cautionary message about designer drugs and the side effects they can have. Loss is another significant part of the story. Dennis has obviously lost Brianna. Steve is at risk of losing something, too – something that he struggles to come to terms with. On a more overt sci-fi front, Synchronic asks us to consider what we would do with a power that allowed us to twist our reality.

As it juggles these ideas, the film never loses sight of its human center. Mackie does some of the best work of his career playing a guy who feels he has nothing to lose and might as well take risks that could make the world around him a better place. He also feels a deep loyalty to Dennis that motivates him. In several regards, Steve is a tragic character, weary and worn-down from the distressing sights he regularly sees on the job. Mackie brings all that to life beautifully. Dornan's role is smaller, yet still significant. Steve's motivation to find Brianna is more credible because he conveys Dennis's distress with such potency.

Benson and Moorhead create a dark, tense ambiance with Synchronic. The longer things go on, the more ominous it feels. To work, movies like this have to adhere to their own internal logic. The directors succeed on that level, too. If done well, you don't notice or think about any plot holes. I was sufficiently caught up in the ride that I never questioned the integrity of the story's twists.

Synchronic fires on all cylinders. Anyone who loves substantive science-fiction should make a point to see it.

out of four

Synchronic is rated R for drug content and language throughout, and for some violent/bloody images. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.