This New Sci-Fi Thriller Learned All the Wrong Lessons From Christopher Nolan

Robert Rodriguez is, for better or worse, the “fun” director. His name has become synonymous with the Spy Kids franchise — at least among a younger generation — but even his darker fare comes with a gonzo, stylized aesthetic baked in. Watching Rodriguez work, especially at the height of his creative power, is always a good time. Unfortunately, none of that creativity is on display in Hypnotic. Rodriguez’s latest is a slick yet sleepy thriller that feels utterly disconnected from any real creative vision — ironic, given how it’s been touted as a decades-spanning passion project.

If Hypnotic feels like it belongs in the 2000s, there’s good reason: Rodriguez has been tinkering with this particular story since 2002. While he teamed up with MonsterVerse scribe Max Borenstein for the finished product, Hypnotic retains an unmistakably noughties feel. That could have led to a bit of nostalgic, campy fun. But Rodriguez and Borenstein go the other way with it, landing instead on a dour, self-serious tone in the vein of modern noirs like Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Scorsese’s Shutter Island.

That influence is probably the most apparent in Ben Affleck’s dejected lead. The actor is in familiar form as Danny Rourke, an angsty detective with a textbook tragic past. When we first meet Rourke, he’s reeling from the abduction of his young daughter Minnie. Though a suspect was implicated, he claims to have no memory of the crime, or of Minnie’s whereabouts. Such a case would be enough to drive anyone crazy, but Rourke is eager to get back to work, as it’s the only thing keeping him afloat.

Ben Affleck is just as bored as we are.

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Rourke’s therapist doesn’t hesitate to clear him for duty — and not a moment too soon, as his partner Nicks (JD Pardo) just got a tip regarding an impending bank robbery. Is it all a bit too convenient? Maybe — but before we can think about it too hard, Rourke is caught in the web of Hypnotic’s enigmatic villain, Lev Dellrayne (William Fichtner). Dellrayne has already pulled off a string of bank robberies across the country, and thanks to his unique, mind-altering abilities, he’s never been caught once. He arrives on the scene, says a few trigger words to strangers he passes, and manages to implicate them all in his heist. What’s more, they don’t remember anything once he’s worked his magic.

There’s a clear allusion to Cure a neo-noir that brought horror to the art of hypnotism — in Hypnotic’s opening premise. Rourke tries to catch Dellrayne in the act, and though he does fail, he still witnesses his inexplicable power up close. More importantly, he uncovers a clue that might connect the mystery man to his daughter’s disappearance.

Rourke’s investigation leads him straight to Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), a part-time psychic with a past connection to Dellrayne. Braga’s in a thankless role as Hypnotic’s resident exposition bank: not only did Diana call in the tip about the heist, but she quickly brings Rourke up to speed by dropping another bombshell. Dellrayne is a hypnotic, a telepath with the power to rewrite a person’s reality, even their memory. He and a group of other hypnotics — Diana included — were once in the employ of a shady government program called The Division. Dellrayne was a prodigy, more powerful than any hypnotic that had ever come before. But he eventually went rogue, leaving Division agents scattered across the globe and working to stop him from the shadows.

If anyone’s having fun in Hypnotic, it’s William Fichtner as the shady, soft-spoken bad guy.

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Honestly, Diana’s backstory is a film unto itself, one vastly more interesting than whatever’s going on in Hypnotic. But again, we don’t get much time to sit with it: with Dellrayne now hot on his trail, Rourke must team up with Diana in order to stop him. It’s here that Hypnotic starts to riff on virtually every Nolan film ever made, which might have been fun if Rodriguez was at all concerned with bringing something new to the table. There are flashes of Inception in the film’s reality-bending intrigue — it even borrows a bit from Interstellar and Tenet — but there’s no real sense of what made those films so engrossing in the first place.

But even with the inherent silliness of its concept, it’s difficult to enjoy Hypnotic for what it is. Rodriguez seems more concerned with making his premise feel grounded and real, when he really should be leaning into the absurdity.

So many auteurs have already sucked the fun out of their outlandish sci-fi premises. Obviously there’s an appetite for it, but it’s high time the pendulum swing back the other way — and Hypnotic would have been the perfect opportunity for it.

Hypnotic opens in theaters on May 12.

Robert Rodriguez is, for better or worse, the “fun” director. His name has become synonymous with the Spy Kids franchise — at least among a younger generation — but even his darker fare comes with a gonzo, stylized aesthetic baked in. Watching Rodriguez work, especially at the height of his creative power, is always a…

Robert Rodriguez is, for better or worse, the “fun” director. His name has become synonymous with the Spy Kids franchise — at least among a younger generation — but even his darker fare comes with a gonzo, stylized aesthetic baked in. Watching Rodriguez work, especially at the height of his creative power, is always a…