I really wanted to like Red Lights, the Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver-starring thriller about investigators who debunk paranormal hoaxes that premiered at Sundance this week. I like skepticism! I like Sigourney! But to my disappointment, Red Lights turns out to be a somewhat astute academic farce wrapped up in a deeply, profoundly silly paranormal quasi-horror flight.
Murphy plays Dr. Tom Buckley, an assistant professor who works with famed hoax debunker Dr. Margaret Matheson (Weaver). As their departmental budget crumbles and they lose ground to Dr. Shackleton (Toby Jones), a “parapsychologist” who believes in paranormal phenomena, Tom pushes Margaret both to take on a pair of student research assistants, sexy Sally (a woefully underused Elizabeth Olsen) and Ben, and to investigate a famous blind psychic, Simon Silver (Robert DeNiro). As the pair proceed, they’re plagued by creepy phone calls, birds flying into windows fast enough to kill themselves, and mysteriously bent spoons. Ultimately, Silver agrees to undergo trials run by the friendly Dr. Shackleton with Tom as an observer, and as the results are released, Tom confronts him at a show in a packed theater.
When the movie explores the horrors of academia, all is well. No self-respecting university would put this much muscle behind paranormal research, but no matter. Watching Margaret make a fool of Shackleton by beating his tests is tremendous fun, even if it doesn’t do any good. “There only way they could make it clearer they don’t want us is a marching band,” Tom grumbles as their position relative to Shackleton’s erodes further. Later, he forces Shackleton to at least let him observe Silver’s trials, shoving him up against a wall and screaming “I want to be on that committee, Shackleton! Don’t give me more excuses! Just do it!” Silly stuff, but it conveys some of the desperation of being shut out. I can imagine graduate students struggling to keep their funding will empathize. Ultimately, it’s Sally and Ben who make a critical discovery, rather than Tom, and their revelation turns out not to matter very much anyway. While I won’t reveal it, Tom ends up meeting a more dramatic fate that suggests whatever time and money he spent on his PhD may have been a waste. Academia has rarely looked worse.
Red Lights is also, briefly, a promising movie about doubt that brings some novel perspectives to common decisions. “If I thought there was something else, I’d turn off all that crap and let my son go,” Margaret says of her son, who has spent years in a coma in an interesting inversion of the rationalist’s approach to brain death. Other times, it’s less convincing: at one point, Tom compares acupuncture and homeopathy to belief in the paranormal despite the fact that the former is in use by military doctors. It’s a weird little slip that suggests the movie isn’t very serious about the line between hoax and scientific validation. And the movie’s twist ending ultimately undermines any commitment or rigor the movie has to the ideas it spends much of its time exploring.
It’s a perfect example of reaching for something more than human and coming away with junk. It’s too bad Rodrigo Cortés, who wrote and directed Red Lights, didn’t trust Tom and Margaret to be interesting enough on their own.