The title of Red Lights refers to the giveaways Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her assistant (Cillian Murphy) look for when investigating instances of paranormal activity — mind-reading, telekinesis, spoon-bending, even magicians who claim to pull rabbits from hats. Played by Weaver with an intentional lack of humor and warmth, Dr. Matheson is one of those eggheads who likes to quote Occam’s razor while explaining away the seemingly impossible. Occasionally, she says things such as, “When I hear the drumming of hooves, I think horses, not unicorns.” Standing over the hospital bed of her son, who has been in a coma for years, she explains that she’s never been able to pull the plug on the machines keeping him alive because she’s an atheist and doesn’t believe in an afterlife. But she wants to, desperately.
Enter Simon Silver (Robert DeNiro), a blind psychic known for his ability to bend spoons on live TV — and for supposedly having caused the sudden death of a critic years earlier by stopping his heart with a thought. Simon is like the Tony Robbins of psychics — people pack concert halls to see him — and he’s come out of retirement with the intent to go on tour. This does not sit well with Dr. Matheson, who believes Silver is a con man.
Red Lights is the second film from writer-director Rodrigo Cortés, whose terrific 2010 debut Buried spent its entire running time trapped inside a coffin with Ryan Reynolds. The new movie is much more expansive and has lots of good actors (Elizabeth Olsen plays one of Matheson’s brightest students). Unfortunately, they all go to waste. Making a bad movie from a good script is easy: Red Lights proves making a good movie out of a bad screenplay is even harder. Despite the amount of talent Cortés has gathered in front and behind the camera (the film is shot exceptionally well by Xavi Giménez, who also shot The Machinist and Transsiberian), he can’t deflect your attention from the enormous silliness that permeates the entire picture.
This is ultimately a movie about highly intelligent people chasing after trivial pursuits. At least Mulder and Scully caught real monsters and killers. Weaver and Murphy are simply chasing frauds — they could have easily been IRS agents — which is a lot less exciting. Cortés tries to enliven the mood by amping up the violence (a fistfight in a bathroom is like something out of The Avengers) and suddenly killing off major characters to a curious lack of effect. Finally, with the sort of last-minute plot twist that sank M. Night Shyamalan’s career, Red Lights comes to an unexpected, risible end. Cortés is too good of a filmmaker not to learn from his sophomore slump. He’ll bounce back. Red Lights, though, can’t be forgotten quickly enough.