A movie constructed to be its own spoiler, Robert Rodriguez’s new potboiler, Hypnotic, may be the only film ever made to frame itself as perfectly awful Hollywood junk in its first half, in order to pull back the curtains and reveal itself, ta-da, as merely mediocre Hollywood junk in its second. It’s not complicated, and here’s the spoilage: Everything that stuffs the movie’s first 45 minutes, including Ben Affleck’s brooding dimness as a dumbfounded detective grieving his kidnapped daughter, is not “real” but “virtual,” in the old-school Philip K. Dick way, manufactured within the story by nefarious means but executed in the pandering, good-enough manner of so many ’80s–’90s movies conceived by studio executives like Joel Silver. Is it sucking on purpose? you ask, and the answer is Yup. In fact, the cheesy badness of the film’s Act I rivals Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” half of Grindhouse (2007) for deliberate stupidity, if not for laughs.
Spoiler or not, knowing about this “gotcha” charade is the only reason to watch. Not that Rodriguez’s switcheroo Act II is so brilliant — movies with “twists” presumably often look good on paper, but onscreen they’re usually as much fun as being hit with a water balloon. Affleck, in a fog through both halves, appears to be simply waiting for the overexplained plot to sort itself out, so he can go home. At first, he’s that cop on the trail of weird bank-robber hypnotist William Fichtner, catching bizarre clues pointing to his daughter’s whereabouts and encountering the occasional Inception-style curving-city hallucination, leading us to think that he and we might all be not merely stuck in a dream, but a dream written and directed by mockbuster hacks like The Asylum (y’know, Transmorphers, Pirates of Treasure Island, etc.). Rodriguez, who more or less disappeared into his own cheesy vortex of kids’ movies and Star Wars TV shows years ago, isn’t such a reliable ironist that we’re not sure what’s wrong isn’t him. Once Alice Braga shows up as a “hypnotic,” able to control weaker minds, and plops wads of exposition about a secret federal project in between nonsensical chase scenes, you’re never quite sure how self-consciously idiotic the film is trying to be.
Thankfully, it’s all just a bad movie in Affleck’s head, and knowing that going in might turn that initial phase of the film into deft farce. It can also provide you with a pleasant thought experiment: If someone were to manufacture a manipulative virtual reality for you, how much would it helplessly resemble a hundred shitty late-20th-century multiplex movies? Would that be a development problem? Mightn’t it tend to more resemble a third-person shooter these days, or a reality show? Would algorithmic bias always turn it into cheap trash?
This is nothing new, of course — subjective modes of consciousness played like movie scenarios in production. Like Groundhog Day, After Life, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, et al., Rodriguez’s film equates movies with memory, both being subject to endless repetition, rewrites, and manipulation. But we’re not Charlie Kaufman-ing here — there’s no particular insight about cinema or cinema-watching in Hypnotic, and no ambiguity. In fact, the artificial realities on hand are mostly the work of evil governmental forces, cartoonishly so. So, is Rodriguez skewering his own mode of moviemaking, his own sellout to Disney, his own film? Or is he as semi-oblivious as we feared in the film’s first half?
You wonder how much devious fun Brian De Palma would’ve had with the premise; he wouldn’t have let Affleck doze this much, certainly. There are slices in the film’s second half that rather endearingly evoke the “bus stop to nowhere” living-center strategy for Alzheimer patients, in which real-life landmarks are faked in order to entrance and distract those suffering from dementia. Which is another type of movie set, and maybe a better idea for a film. Ultimately as absurd but not nearly as beguiling as the Spy Kids movies, Hypnotic is a fizzle — I’ll apologize beforehand, not for spoiling but for perhaps making it sound more interesting than it actually is. ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.