As I watched Red Lights, all I could think of was how much it reminded of other movies, TV shows, and pop culture icons – Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy were a pair of Mulder and Scully styled ghost-busters, while Robert De Niro was channeling David Caruso in CSI: Miami every time he oh-so dramatically whipped off his dark shades. There were also shades of The Amazing Randy (debunking footage), Wile E. Coyote (absurd fight scene), Nicolas Cage (Murphy’s acting), and M. Night Shyamalan (the twist). It’s crazy, I tell you.
But Red Lights wants you to take it Seriously. The questions it so earnestly poses include: Are there people out there with supernatural powers? Do mediums really exist? Mind-readers? Faith-healers? Prophets?
Respected senior investigator and professor Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her young assistant Dr. Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) are professional skeptics, and while they try to go into every case with open minds, it’s their mission to shut down the shysters preying on the sick and the superstitious. We meet them at a country-house séance, then follow them to the high-tech research department at the university where they work and teach, getting a good feel for the characters, quickly.
Weaver and Murphy have believable chemistry, and the first half of the film is interesting, mysterious, and absorbing. Spanish writer/director Rodrigo Cortés does a good job of revealing the techniques of the dishonest in some entertaining scenarios shown in the classroom and out in the field. A couple of pivotal players are introduced – Toby Jones as a rival professor fighting for the same grant money as our heroes; Elizabeth Olsen as a curious student on a quest for knowledge (carnal, and otherwise) – and then the final piece of the paranormal puzzle is dropped into place. It’s Robert De Niro as a mind-reading, heart-attack inducing, sightless, spoon-bending psychic, Simon Silver (“Even your name is a dime store joke!” to quote another of De Niro’s onscreen adversaries… See? I can’t help it. Red Lights just has too many targets in its kitchen-sink).
The dialogue is often expository and stilted – it’s easy to tell that someone whose first language is not English wrote Red Lights. It’s particularly evident in one scene in which a college student is working frantically against the clock to prove Simon’s suspected skullduggery, and when someone else with possible evidence walks into the room, he says, “I am so pleased to see you.” When in actuality, a 20-something American would say something like, “Oh, man! Am I glad to see you!”
The acting is uneven, and the character’s actions are puzzling more often than not. Of course, the situations they are in are extreme, but still. When one character repeatedly tells another, “Don’t leave me!” you’d think there would be some kind of response or reaction. In fact, their reactions and responses to the extreme situations posed in Red Lights are either way over the top, or so understated as to barely exist. They weren’t natural. The only affected thing which actually worked was Joely Richardson as Simon Silver’s stone cold, relentless right-hand gal – she’s terrific as the she-shark who uses cruel cunning in the lowest of low blows against Dr. Matheson on national television.
Once the mystery is laid out, the standard horror clichés flood in: boo-scares, birds flying into closed windows, creepy nightmare sequences, and so on. In the second half of the film, everything gets forced and pretty much negates all the goodwill it built up in the first half.
Having said that, fans of the actors might want to proceed with caution… while Murphy’s performance is fraught with uncharacteristic histrionics, Red Lights marks Sigourney Weaver’s and Robert de Niro’s best roles in recent memory, and Elizabeth Olsen, Joely Richardson, and Toby Jones are always welcome.
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson