If you haven’t watched a single Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead film, don’t worry. I’m not holding that against you. Their films are relatively new, and they aren’t exactly a household name. The whole point of these articles is to encourage you readers to delve into some strangeness every now and again, to explore films, comics, and shows you might not have heard of, or even considered watching. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are the very definition of what a creator is since they not only direct, but write, produce, and often fund their own work. Work, mind you, that is outside the box of mainstream science-fiction. You will find no inexplicable explosions, or car chases (well maybe one), or combat sequences with CGI aliens in a Benson and Moorhead film. And you know what? That’s perfectly alright. Because instead you’re getting an emotional experience. They combine science-fiction with drama, romance, and psychological thriller genres in a seamless effort to get you to empathize with their characters before the inevitable sci-fi showdown.
Here I will list their films, and rank them for you too! Again, this is all just this writer’s opinion, but I hope to inspire you to give them a chance, as they have become one of my top tier science-fiction filmmakers of all time. That’s right! They go up there with Ridley Scott, James Cameron, and Stanley Kubrick. Most of you film aficionados are probably shaking your heads, but just keep on reading and maybe you’ll see why I put them on such a high pedestal.
In their career, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have given us four films, though their filmography extends a bit more, I’m only including those that were solely created by them. There are a total of four films that you should definitely binge and I’ll let you know if and where they’re streaming in my list below. I have personally ranked these films based on their direction, plot, acting, and originality within the science-fiction genre.
Benson and Moorhead’s debut was Resolution (2012), which tells the tale of Michael, a graphic designer leaving behind his pregnant wife after receiving an anonymous e-mail containing footage of his former best friend, Chris, who remains secluded in a remote cabin in the woods, behaving manically. Michael attempts to rehabilitate Chris himself by handcuffing him to a pipe, hoping he will relent and agree to be taken to rehab. As the two reach a stalemate, they are stalked by drug dealers, escapees from a psychiatric ward, members of a UFO religious cult, and an omniscient presence that seems to be toying with them. Interwoven in the melodrama of these two friends is a Lovecraftian design of an invisible force whose motives are beyond our comprehension.
The fear of the unknown and the sense of inevitability are at play here, as they consume our small cast and sets the stage for a bigger, and more terrifying universe. With a lack of budget, the cast is kept small which only means that there is a stronger and more potent intimacy between them as the plot focuses on how they interact with one another and their environment. It does have a sort of slow burn feel in the beginning, but the film isn’t long at all and eventually picks up the pace with full speed once the characters and setting have been established. Overall, a B+ for you tough critics out there, but a solid A entry for the two aspiring filmmakers. You can watch Resolution on Amazon Prime.
In 2014, given a higher funding and more confidence, Benson and Moorhead gifted us with Spring, which can arguably be considered their best work. This film gained the duo plenty of respect, and even acclaim from filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro who tweeted, “Spring is one of the best horror films of this decade. And the only Lovecraftian film that has blown me away…except for Alien and Possession of course.” Pretty strong words.
Spring focuses on Paul, a down on his luck American man who, after losing his mother to cancer, takes a last minute spontaneous trip to Italy in a quest to rediscover himself. There he becomes awed with the culture and lifestyle, making new friends, soaking in the rich, beautiful landscape, and even falls in love with a mysterious, intelligent woman named Louise. Louise harbors a strange and dangerous secret that can shatter everything that Paul has come to know. Despite his discovery, Paul pursues Louise, hoping that love can bear the weight of this dark and deadly truth. Spring lures us with its unique character depth, it’s stunning imagery of the Italian countryside, and its subtle brutality with body horror. Benson and Moorhead begin to bank on their trademark of easing us in with American drama and character development and then shocking us with horror and supernatural elements so that we’re caught off guard. Overall I grade this film an A-. You can watch Spring on Hulu.
After five years, the duo decided to develop their original film, and offered us a sequel to Resolution in 2017 entitled, The Endless. This is where I become biased as this well-developed expansion to Resolution was much needed, and I personally feel that this is their best work, despite the critical acclaim Spring received. The Endless introduces brothers, Justin and Aaron Smith (played by the two creators themselves), escapees from the same UFO religious cult from the original film. They spend their adult lives miserable, unable to support themselves financially or maintain functional relationships.
Older brother Justin is controlling and pessimistic while Aaron strives for independence. Similar to the original film, the brothers receive mysterious footage of their former cult claiming that they are preparing for “ascension”. Believing that they are preparing to commit mass suicide, Aaron convinces a reluctant Justin to return to the camp the cult resides on for just one day. There they discover the same members, unaged, unharmed, and in perfectly high spirits as they continue to thrive peacefully amongst themselves. A skeptic Justin attempts to uncover the truth behind the camp and comes across a familiar entity. To say the film was well thought out and carefully executed would be an understatement. It’s eerie use of surrealism within the community is haunting to say the least, and once more has us facing the great unknown with very little to protect ourselves. Overall a solid A for me. Unfortunately, The Endless is not currently up on any streaming platform, but keep an eye out for it as I’m more than positive it’ll become a favorite.
Their latest installment was Synchronic released in 2020 with Anthony Mackie (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) taking the lead. This film was a heavy hitter for them since it was graciously funded allowing them time to develop better special effects and gain top notch casting. Mackie’s performance, as expected, was eloquently done as he plays the role of a paramedic in the midst of an outbreak of a new drug that permits users to briefly travel through time. As expected, the drug becomes lethal and Mackie makes it a personal mission to uncover why, all the while dealing with his own shortcomings and consoling his best friend whose daughter went missing.
Benson and Moorhead’s magic is that they create their own rules. Whether it’s Lovecraftian gods or time travel, they make it their own without borrowing too much from their inspirations. Synchronic is no exception as Mackie’s character, Steve, uncovers the metaphysical laws of this peculiar drug. Heads up, this film contains a frustrating ambiguous ending that might leave some viewers scratching their heads, and others debating on what they just witnessed. Despite its enticing plot, it does eventually become convoluted as explanations begin to overlap in order to make sense of the drug. Overall, a B- for me. You can watch Synchronic for yourself on Netflix.
So if you’re looking for some originality, a word that has become nearly foreign and abstract in contemporary Hollywood, look no further. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have got what you’re looking for. They don’t offer us the simple, mindless entertainment we often flock to in order to escape reality, but rather a distorted reflection of the world we currently live in. They prompt us to think and come to our own conclusions, then simply accept what we just witnessed. Both Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead will be the lead directors of the upcoming Moonknight TV adaptation, and most of their fans are not the least bit surprised, as this comic book hero tackles more than just villains, but his own multiple personalities as well.