Science versus superstition is certainly a great source of conflict for any good movie, but when a movie tries to have its cake and it eat it to, well that’s a whole other kettle of psychic fish. And that is the key problem with writer/director Rodrigo Cortés film, he doesn’t really pick a side. If you are going to make this kind of film it’s a good idea to have a point.
The film follows the emotional journey of Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), a physicist who works with noted skeptic Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver), in the field of the paranormal research. The two them drive around the country like Scully and Mulder as they investigate claims of people with supernatural gifts. Only in this case they’re both Scullys as neither one of them believes in the paranormal. Between exposing charlatans and fake hauntings they work at a university that would rather spend its grant money on the showier parapsychology department run by Paul Shackleton (Toby Jones), than on these two wet blankets.
That Cortés cast Ghostbusters alum Sigourney Weaver in the role of a skeptic may have been intended as some kind of Meta wink at the audience, but all it did was make me wish that Bill Murray would show up to investigate her fridge. Sadly we do not get a face off between her and Gozer the Gozerian, but instead the villain of this piece is Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), a formerly world renowned blind psychic who went into seclusion decades ago. When Silver comes out of retirement Buckley wants to strap on the scientific six guns and expose him, but Matheson wants him to stay away from Silver, because she believes he is dangerous. Years ago she and Silver met and he briefly caused her to doubt her beliefs in the rational world. For some reason this moment of weakness terrified her because it reflected on her decision to not pull the plug on her adult son, who has been in a coma since he was a child. She also gets a bit put off by a random spoon bending.
Buckley ignores her advice to leave Silver alone, and when he tries to secretly monitor one of his shows the entire auditorium is showered in sparks as speakers and monitors explode. When Buckley returns to the lab he is shocked to find his mentor collapsed on the floor. Earlier we learned that Silver went into seclusion after a reporter, and his biggest detractor, died of a heart attack during one of his shows. So did Silver’s power strike Matheson down? Or is this just another strange coincidence? With Matheson dead Buckley becomes obsessed with exposing Silver as a fraud; even sleeping with Sally Owen (Elizabeth Olsen), one of his students, can not deter him from his goal. During his investigations i.e. endlessly following Silver’s car around town, he is plagued by strange dreams, weird phone calls, and birds flying into windows.
The movie tries its best to be unsettling and atmospheric, but aside from a weird scene where Buckley meets Silver in some strange apartment, and Silver pontificates to Buckley a bunch of crap that wouldn’t survive the first draft of a David Lynch film, the movie is just not that interesting. The pacing is terrible, there is absolutely no suspense built in as we have not been given a character to root for, and the ending is ridiculous. This stems from the fact that mystery itself is less than stellar, with no decent clues that, in reflection, would reveal the truth. Is Silver a fake? Or does he actually have mysterious powers to send death and destruction upon his enemies? The answer may surprise you…or most likely piss you off.
Turns out Silver is a fake. Going over video footage, taken at the university when Silver agreed to be tested by Shackleton, Sally discovers that Silver is not actually blind. So for all these years he’s been able to fake his psychic ability through the most obvious way possible. Yet that isn’t the big twist, in a reveal that would make M. Night Shyamalan blush, we find out that Tom Buckley has paranormal powers, and all the strange events have been subconsciously caused by him. His chosen field was the result of an unconscious attempt to seek others like himself. *cough* bullshit *cough*
The level at which this film fails is staggering, and the biggest crime is the wasting the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro, and Cillian Murphy. All three of those actors are serious heavy hitters, and could easily knock a good script out of the park, but they are given nothing to do here. Rodrigo Cortés decision to go with “Paranormal abilities are all fake…except they’re actually not” is shamefully lame. Red Lights started out with some good potential, but after the first act that potential was killed along with Weaver’s character. And we never do find out if Buckley was responsible for THAT death. This film tanked at the box office, and it is no surprise, and worse is that it’s not even bad enough to be goofily watchable. It’s just drab and boring.