Confession time: I can’t get enough of the whole paranormal investigation genre. I grew up on the X Files and old episodes of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, and I totally may have spent a few Friday nights as a teenager camped out in my room reading about UFO sightings instead of going out and partying. So when I saw the trailer for this, it was like an immediate must see reaction.
And hey, going by the trailer, you might get that must see feeling too. It’s basically about two university paranormal investigators (a team of Dana Scullies, if you will) on a mission to out false psychics around the world. Then, a certain celebrity psychic shows up, younger dude wants to investigate, and in doing so brings a whole host of bad things down upon their heads. So yadda yadda, you know the drill. Spoilers start next paragraph, so I suggest you jump off this train before reading further if this sounds relevant to your interests.
First thing, I’m going to have to say I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the acting. Cillian Murphy, pretty though he is, doesn’t really have the kind of screen presence you’d normally need in a leading man. Blockbusters where he stands out, I’m mainly thinking Inception and Batman here, either have a good supporting cast or a strong lead that he can act off. Sure he can carry the occasional lead role, and his work in 28 Days Later was pretty great (absolutely amazing, in fact), but he’s no miracle worker; he really needs a tight script to back him up. Red Lights is not this script. Robert De Niro doesn’t come off much better. For a celebrity psychic, Simon Silver is alternately dull as hell and eye-rollingly infuriating in his overacting. The scene in the room with the red drapes towards the end also comes off as confusing and unnecessary; I suspect Rodrigo Cortés fell asleep to an episode of Twin Peaks and this is what happened.
But of course, my main gripe about this film was that the actual scripting was dreadful. Take, for instance, the exchange between Elizabeth Olsen and Craig Roberts towards the end when they’ve figured out what De Niro’s deal was. In no way, shape or form was that a natural dialogue exchange. It’s awkward and sounds like something that might come out of Creative Writing 101 from someone who’s never had a meaningful conversation with another person in their life. And the end…. oh man, the end was so incredibly ill-conceived. Picture Robert De Niro and Cillian Murphy yelling at each other in a crowded theater about psychic phenomenon, but the tone’s all strangely Shakespearean and they’re both taking a turn for the melodramatic in the acting department. There are obviously some good ideas in there, but the dialogue’s so badly written that it just spirals downwards into a mire of pseudointellectualism.
And yes, that bad scripting filters right down to a twist ending worthy of the later works of M Night Shyamalan. Films that rely on twists should make the audience walk out feeling smarter, but in this case it was spectacularly mishandled. What good the the film get out of Cillian Murphy actually being The Last of the Psychics? Does it even actually gel with the story that’s been told up until the big reveal? A message about rationality triumphing over exploitation would have been so much more powerful, especially since there are few films in the genre that actually go that route (because science is boring apparently). Instead, it becomes a story about a real psychic guy trying to prove a fake psychic guy isn’t actually psychic in his ongoing quest to find more of his kind. Snooze.
I will say this though: everything up until Sigourney Weaver died was pretty interesting. I could totally have watched the Sigourney and Cillian Show for a few seasons, two university scientists battling fraud psychics and trying to get funding. But one of them has powers. Duh duh duuuuuh. At least then the plot arc would have been long enough to establish how being psychic would fit into the story.
Verdict: Red Lights is the kind of film that thinks it’s a lot smarter than it actually is. You might get a kick out of it if paranomal stuff is your bag, but I don’t see what this has to offer the average cinema-going audience. Also, irl scientists are going to be so annoyed by the whole plot point that once Toby Jones’ report gets signed, there’s no turning back a new dark age of pseudoscience. Um, since when has science taken one single report as fact?