An intriguing but low-budget sci-fi time-travel tale that accents character over computer-generated imagery, “Synchronic” (*** OUT OF ****) seizes your attention from the get-go with a startling scene about the titular hallucinogen. According to one hard-boiled cop, “Synchronic” concerns a synthetic, Spice-like designer drug that makes “junky monkeys go nuts.”

In the opening scene, a couple in a motel room gobble white pills emblazoned with the letter S. Not long afterward, they have unforgettable experiences. When he exits the elevator with a bucket of ice, the guy finds himself stuck in a vast Sahara-like desert.

Meantime, the gal imagines a dense jungle has taken over their room and an exotic snake is slithering toward her with evil intent. Eventually, two New Orleans paramedics, Steve (Anthony Mackie of “Ant-Man”) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan of “Fifty Shades of Grey”), who’ve seen just about everything, find the guy dead and dismembered at the bottom of the elevator shaft.

The distraught dame hasn’t left their bed. She has two gaping snake-bite puncture wounds in her swollen right knee. She had watched in stupefied paralysis as the jungle encroached on their motel room. Foliage covered the walls. A primitive man also materialized out of nowhere. Similarly, he was stunned by her presence, too.

Co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead of “The Endless” orchestrate similar episodes, skinny dipping through history with vignettes portraying Ice Age hunters, 17th century pirates, 19th century slavery, and the 20th century KKK, as Steve and Dennis find themselves in the thick of a synchronic epidemic.

The greatest shortcoming of “Synchronic” perhaps is its barebones budget. The sight of a soldier atomized when he treads on a live artillery shell during the Battle of New Orleans is tastefully spectacular. Although a mite too talkative for its own good, “Synchronic” takes itself seriously, boasts a credible cast, agile cinematography, and an atmospheric orchestral music score.

Sadly, it strains credibility with its interesting spin on H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.” This provocative but complex R-rated movie approaches time-travel from a non-linear perspective. As their inspiration, Benson and Moorhead drew on American theoretical physicist Brian Greene and his  book “The Fabric of the Cosmos” (2003) about the past, the present, and the future all occurring at once.

Our African American protagonist Steve has been silently suffering with a terrible secret. He hasn’t been feeling well, and his doctor (Sam Malone of “American Ultra”) reveals that he has a terminal cancer on his pineal gland in his brain. He warns Steve that he might live less than six months.

He urges Steve also to start radiation treatment. Instead, Steve consoles himself with Jack Daniels when he isn’t on duty. His life-long best friend and paramedic partner Dennis is suffering, too. Recently, Dennis and his wife Tara (Katie Aselton of “Silk Road”) let their eighteen-year-old daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides of “Brand New Old Love”), move into a New Orleans university dorm.

One evening, Steve and Dennis respond to an emergency at a frat house. A white male has OD’ed on cocaine and an Asian female is just as oblivious. Steve learns Brianna had been there earlier but has since slipped off to parts unknown. They find a crumpled Synchronic packet on her chair. Dennis prints out missing persons fliers with Brianna’s photo.

Alarmed and outraged, Steve storms off to buy all the Synchronic left in the Crescent City. Dennis and he have seen enough of the reckless havoc the designer drug has wrought on the Big Easy. Little does Steve know the chemist who created the drug is feverishly buying back the last few packets, too. Eventually, Dr. Kermani (Ramiz Monsef of “Where’s George?”) crosses paths with Steve, and Kermani offers Steve triple what he paid for Synchronic.

Most sci-fi movies reach that moment when pandemonium rules, and nobody knows what to do. In the nick of time, a scientist saves the day. Conveniently, Dr. Kermani breaks into Steve’s house after our hero left him standing empty-handed outside a tobacco shop. Cornering him in a closet, Steve brandishes a baseball bat.

Desperately, Kermani begs Steve to sell the Synchronic back to him. Steve lies and says he flushed it. The chemist explains he had been designing “new drugs very similar to illegal drugs.” He altered the molecules sufficiently to assure FDA approval so it could be sold for public consumption. Unfortunately, the FDA started cracking down on the variants, and Kermani found himself in trouble.

During their exchange, Steve reveals he is dying from a cancerous pineal tumor. A surprised Kermani explains this affliction enhances Steve’s ability to time-trip with Synchronic. However, Steve runs the risk of getting lost in time. Kermani’s words echo Greene’s book. The chemist explains time isn’t linear, meaning one event that follows another and then another. Time occurs all at once, with past, present, and future co-existing like the grooves in a vinyl record. Synchronic serves as the needle that allows the user to cruise those grooves.

After he ousts Kermani, Steve conducts some Synchronic experiments and discovers time travel is possible. During his first foray, his house vanishes under him, and he finds himself stranded in a swamp. Moreover, an alligator and a sword-wielding Spanish conquistador have spotted him.

Suddenly, Steve finds himself back safely in his house! Afterward, he records videos of his departures. He learns he can go to different places in time from various spots in his house. Meantime, Dennis is angry when Steve reveals not only his brain tumor diagnosis, but also his decision to search for Brianna. Steve explains she is lost in time and unable to return without his help.

As Brianna’s bewildered father, Dennis feels responsible for her rescue, but Steve explains his pineal tumor enhances his ability to time travel using the drug. Reluctantly, Dennis watches Steve vanish into thin air. The camaraderie between Steve and Dennis is brotherly and adds a bittersweet poignance to Steve’s willingness to save Brianna. Ultimately, “Synchronic” qualifies as heartfelt but heavyweight hokum.

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