The cinema of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead has gone from less to more, for better and for worse. Among the ultra-minimalist Resolution (2012) and the ambitious Paratemporal (2019) —the first time working with Hollywood superstars— the duo have explored different aspects of horror and science fiction cinema. With very little (economically speaking), his work has been able to transcend in a commercial environment that leaves a tiny space for independent cinema; not for nothing have already been called by Marvel to direct episodes of the next series Moon Knight. But even so, there is a certain air of disappointment in his most recent work. Finally accessing a large budget and popular talent, Benson and Moorhead hit the first major bump of their careers. WARNING: The following review touches on some aspects that could be considered spoilers.
Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are two paramedics from New Orleans doing their job like every day. One night they witness a terrible scene: a couple of subjects – one of them stabbed – with an overdose of a mysterious drug: Synchronic. Steve and Dennis meet again with the narcotic, which leaves the user in a seemingly catatonic state, and more violent scenes during the days after. When, in a call, they learn that Dennis’s daughter, Brianna, has disappeared after ingesting the drug, Steve sets out to investigate the origin of the substance. As he faces a terrible personal discovery, he is getting closer to the incredible truth behind Synchronic.
On Paratemporal Many things happen, and that does not suit the story very well. The film, written by Benson, unfolds one of the intricate concepts for which the duo have become famous in the past decade; and even so, it is one of his most accessible works in his filmography. The mumblecore from Resolution, the fantastic strangeness of Spring (2014) and the complicated paradoxes of Infinity (2017) are left aside to give way to a simpler story, within the parameters of their filmic universes, of course. The presence of Mackie and Dornan is also decisive in this regard; Nevertheless, the idea they have now developed lacks the mystery and fascination of Resolution O Infinity, for instance.
On this occasion, Benson and Moorhead – placing us, as always, in unusual corners of the United States for this type of film – bring us closer to a theme in tune with the rest of their work: the rediscovery of life once it is known that the end is near (and to enjoy the infinite possibilities that existence offers, since death is the only thing we have for sure. Hence, the directors’ thesis falls on how miraculous the present is).
The meaning of existence, as cliché as it may sound, has been a concern in the work of these filmmakers. With a humorous treatment, directed largely towards terror, his films throw his characters into a series of unlikely situations that question everything they know, as well as their true purpose in a cruel world. This finding has devastating consequences for the protagonists and those around them; Paratemporal is no exception, but execution fails to keep up with Resolution O Infinity, where, despite the constant scenes that make us scratch our heads, the plot maintains the viewer’s attention due to the unusual but honest bond that exists between its protagonists.
Unfortunately, the first part of the film seems to be going on autopilot. Although the opening sequence offers clues to the effect of Synchronic, the first act is dedicated to delving into the personal tribulations of the paramedics. Steve is a guy jealous of the life of his partner, who has a family for permanent support. That Dennis does not appreciate her causes her enormous consternation, especially when her doctor reveals a devastating discovery. While Benson’s script tries to create report Between both, the way in which Mackie overshadows Dornan in every way, and a very superficial exploration of each other’s conflicts, prevents us from really engaging with the characters.
Plus, Benson takes too much liberty to get everything to do with Synchronic working. An example of this is when Steve’s specialist gives him details about a rare condition in his brain, which will be essential in Brianna’s subsequent search for the drug. The sudden appearance of the creator of Synchronic, for exhibition purposes only, is another example of the lack of subtlety in the story.
It is not until the middle of Paratemporal that Benson and Moorhead do what they do best: unleash their wacky concept. Mackie, with remarkable grace, takes us on this journey through time when he witnesses the effects of Synchronic firsthand. The scenes see the duo work with remarkable special effects, more technically complex pieces, and situations with a more evident political consciousness: when have we seen a black man travel to the past? This is how – taking into account the place where it takes place – the plot involves not exclusively quantum risks for the traveler.
For Benson and Moorhead, camaraderie is an essential tool in dealing with the end of the world – on an intimate level. Paratemporal desperately trying to present a new friendship that can withstand the onslaught of supernatural chaos that characterizes the work of these filmmakers. Unlike his other endeavors – particularly Infinity, where they themselves play the main characters—, the conflict between the characters never fully materializes. Primer (2004) is another remarkable example of how an extraordinary event truly represents a challenge for the relationship that exists between two men. Although they both share the theme of time travel, only one strikes a compelling balance between extraordinary circumstances and dramatic conflict.
Paratemporal it’s available (for rent or sale) on Apple TV + or Prime Video.
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Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead get caught up in their own tale