As a diehard skeptic of the paranormal, I have absolutely no trouble whatsoever suspending my skepticism for a rollicking tale of ooky kooky creepy shit that has no rational explanation. But I have an infinitely harder time when said tale wants to have its pseudoscience cake and eat it too. To wit: the ridiculous Red Lights.
Writer/director Rodrigo Cortés (Buried) gives us the debunkery team of Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver: The Cabin in the Woods, Abduction) and Dr. Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy: In Time, Tron: Legacy), college profs who dwell — professionally, that is — in an X-Files-esque basement office, complete with Fox Mulder’s “I Want to Believe” poster (inexplicably altered to read “I Want to Understand”); Cortés stakes out a very solid stand, via these two characters and their work, which occupies the first half of the film, for a reality-based, the-paranormal-is-nonsense philosophy for his story. And if the first half of the film was a bit tedious to me, that’s merely because I was already in the know about the techniques of fakery they uncover (although the awkward clumps of exposition that clutter the narrative don’t help); many people will not have encountered such notions before and will find them eye-opening, particularly since it’s not at all the sort of stuff we see depicted on film often, what with The Movies being mostly in the “ooky kooky creepy shit is real” camp.
But then Cortés stirs in celebrity psychic Simon Silver (Robert DeNiro: New Year’s Eve, Killer Elite), whom Buckley wants to debunk and whom Matheson fears because “he made me doubt” so he’s “dangerous.” Still: fair enough; even debunkers would like to believe, and even debunkers can doubt themselves… but that doesn’t automatically make the fantastical real. Except Red Lights, echoing those who embrace the nonsensical and ridicule skeptics, seems to think it does. The trope of the skeptic getting her comeuppance is unfortunately all too prevalent on screens big and small, but Cortés takes this to a new low, not only tossing in all manner of (would-be) ooky kooky creepy shit that cannot be rationally explained away but also giving us a scientist — in Matheson and Murphy’s student assistant (Elizabeth Olsen: Silent House, Martha Marcy May Marlene) — who actually has the irrational gall to say, “There are certain things it’s better not to know,” but also a subplot about a rigorous scientific study of Silver’s apparent psychic abilities — run by a rival of Matheson and Murphy (Toby Jones: Snow White and the Huntsman, The Hunger Games) that is, preposterously, nothing of the sort. (Science is not Settled Once And For All For All Time because a scientist signs a press release! Hello, peer review? Hello, replica studies? *argh*) And then—
No, I cannot tell you. It’s so absurd that I very nearly cried aloud in the screening room. Red Lights is all over the place in every way a movie can be, with a plot that, in the end, makes no sense, actively contradicts its own apparent premise, and shoots itself in the foot, drama-wise: for the very thing that it would like to be about it cannot be about because of how it arranges itself. Even the cast appears to be responding, with wildly erratic performances: DeNiro goes off on a bizarre histrionic rant at one point, and Murphy swings violently from comatose to overblown. The entire endeavor is laughable and ludicrous, a victim of its own misplaced earnestness. If only it had the nerve to be true to itself, instead of cheating itself out of its own potential power.