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Hypnotic review: an overcomplicated sci-fi thriller

Ben Affleck holds up a photograph in Hypnotic.
“Hypnotic is an ambitious but ultimately lackluster sci-fi thriller from director Robert Rodriguez and star Ben Affleck.”
  • An admirably ambitious plot
  • A memorable opening bank heist
  • An overly serious tone
  • On-the-nose writing throughout
  • Too many mind-numbing exposition dumps

An eye opens. A pen taps against a notepad. These are images synonymous with the concept of hypnotism, so it only makes sense that they’re the first things viewers see in Hypnotic. The new film from Alita: Battle Angel and Spy Kids director Robert Rodriguez is a neo-noir thriller about a detective who finds himself trapped in a conspiracy involving a handful of powerful “hypnotics,” aka, people with the ability to alter others’ perceptions of reality. At least, that’s what Hypnotic appears to be on the surface.

There’s much more going on in Hypnotic than meets the eye — too much, in fact. The film, which Rodriguez has reportedly been tinkering with for around 20 years, is deeply indebted to the kind of brainy, puzzle box thrillers made by directors like Christopher Nolan (Insomnia) and Alex Garland (Men). Hypnotic, to its credit, wears its influences on its sleeve and even goes so far as to create images that feel like they could have been pulled straight out of Nolan’s 2010 blockbuster, Inception.

The problem? Rodriguez is a far different director than Nolan, Garland, or any of the other contemporary filmmakers he tries to pay tribute to in Hypnotic. Rodriguez’s films have never been known for their narrative ingenuity or ambitious plots. He’s a scrappy filmmaker who works best when he’s producing lighthearted genre fare, which is why it’s so disappointing that everything in Hypnotic is played with such a straight face rather than a playful wink.

Ben Affleck holds a safe deposit box in Hypnotic.

Based on a screenplay by Rodriguez and Max Borenstein, Hypnotic centers on Danny Rourke (Ben Affleck), an Austin police detective whose daughter, Minnie, was kidnapped several years prior to the events of the film. When he and his partner, Nicks (J. D. Pardo), get a tip one day about a potential bank robbery, their efforts to stop the heist are thwarted by Dellrayne (William Fichtner), a man who has the power to make others do whatever he wants, including kill themselves. Following his discovery of a mysterious clue, Affleck’s Rourke sets out to find Dellrayne in the belief that he may have the answers necessary to uncover the truth behind Minnie’s disappearance.

Along the way, Rourke crosses paths with Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), a small-time hypnotic whose relationship with Dellrayne may hold the key to tracking him down and stopping him. The further into his mission he gets, however, the more Rourke begins to question his own reality. Behind the camera, Rodriguez visualizes Rourke’s increasingly loose control of his senses via a series of action sequences in which the world seems to fold in on itself and the walls around him seem to bend and transform.

Despite their obvious debt to Inception, these moments of visual experimentation and disorientation help elevate many of Hypnotic’s second-act set pieces. While the film’s contrast-heavy color filters often make it look far too much like a car commercial, too, Rodriguez succeeds at keeping Hypnotic’s visual energy up even in the moments when its script seems to be on cruise control. Along with 2019’s Alita: Battle Angel, the film ranks squarely as one of Rodriguez’s most visually accomplished efforts in recent memory.

William Fichtner holds up a lighter in Hypnotic.

Narratively, Hypnotic is a multi-layered puzzle of a film that never quite hits the highs that it so clearly wants to. Part of that is due to the film’s overreliance on exposition dumps and Rodriguez’s unerringly clichéd, on-the-nose dialogue. Most of the film’s narrative issues, however, stem from its insistence on overexplaining every single one of its beats and third-act twists, of which there are many. The film makes less room for ambiguity than even the most exposition-heavy Christopher Nolan movie, a fact which only sucks even more of the life out of Hypnotic’s overambitious story.

The film’s narrative missteps aren’t helped by how seriously it treats all of its twists. One game-changing moment in the film’s final third has the potential to be the kind of tongue-in-cheek turn that can lift an entire movie up from mediocrity to absurd fun, but Hypnotic fails to lean as far into the ridiculousness of its story as it should. Even Affleck, who brings his trademark smirk to some of Hypnotic’s later scenes, gives a performance that feels too wooden to move the film far enough away from its own overly self-serious zone.

Ben Affleck and Alice Braga face each other in Hypnotic.

Affleck isn’t the only actor who’s left stranded in Hypnotic. Alice Braga, William Fichtner, and Jackie Earle Haley are all accomplished, charismatic performers, but none of them manage to strike the right tonal balance with their performances. Like her director, Braga plays Hypnotic’s story with far too somber a tone for her character’s arc to be taken seriously. While Fichtner has the most fun of anyone in Hypnotic, too, he’s never on-screen long enough to get the chance to chew up the scenery as much as he might have liked.

These mistakes all connect back to Rodriguez’s own, fundamental misunderstanding of his strengths as a filmmaker. If Hypnotic is his attempt at playing in the same sandbox as directors like Garland, Nolan, and David Fincher, then it’s a reminder that he’s far more effective when he’s working in the same lane as directors like Avatar: The Way of Water‘s James Cameron and Last Night in Soho‘s Edgar Wright, both of whom are capable of bringing the kind of wry, winking attitude to their genre work that Hypnotic could have benefitted from. As it is now, the film isn’t so much mesmerizing as it is forgettable.

Hypnotic is now playing in theaters.

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Alex Welch
Alex Welch is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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