There were many reasons for which I was hesitant to see Red Lights, mostly because of the unwavering respect I have for the brilliant Sigourney Weaver. (And Robert DeNiro, I guess, but no one can beat Ellen Ripley.) But the premise of paranormal activity lured me in, as it tends to do, and I had high hopes that Sigourney’s on-screen presence would distract me from what I understood was a wholly flawed plot.
I guess I should know by now that even the most A-list of actors can’t hold up a film that relies on paranormal theatrics and the tired battle of skepticism versus faith.
Directed by the Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés, who gained notoriety at the 2007 Malaga Film Festival for The Contestant, Red Lights follows paranormal investigator and physicist Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) as he seeks justice for his mother, who died of stomach cancer after being misdiagnosed by a phony psychic. With the help of the quasi-atheist psychologist Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver), he goes up against the infamous psychic Simon Silver (Robert DeNiro), who has been hiding for more than 30 years and reemerges for what I can only liken to a poor imitation of a farewell tour.
It has the goods to be good, but Red Lights is unfortunately a victim of Cortés serious overreaching, and indicative of the sad truth that thrillers today are – at best – sub-par. Throughout Buckley’s hunt to expose Silver, we are treated to cheap pop-out moments and wince-inducing dialogue, especially between Buckley and his underused love interest and student, Sally Owen (Elizabeth Olsen). While the film’s initial premise is unique and even somewhat interesting, perhaps because it mostly revolves around the witty and astute Dr. Matheson, it – again, like most paranormal thrillers – fizzles as things pick up.
There are some appealing themes, notably Buckley and Matheson’s internal struggles to reveal their true convictions and capabilities, but they become utterly lost in the sheer calamity that arises around the time that Robert DeNiro levitates. It is truly impossible to witness such a moment without stifling a giggle. And the typical thriller “twist” that is revealed minutes after this bout of ridiculousness that renders the entire film laughable, as well as meaningless.
But what should I have expected? While Cortés is undeniably a talented director, he is victim to an industry that favors worthless spectacles over coherent plots and character development. Each character is charming in his or her way, but only because Weaver, DeNiro and Murphy are charming; I more pitied the actors themselves for the negative career ramifications they might feel as a result of this film. But I’m too worried for them – on the other hand, Red Lights proves we should be worried about the impending death of a genre that, at times, has been the beacon of Hollywood moviemaking.