The other night I went to see the parapsychological thriller Red Lights, staring Robert De Niro, Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver, and as it is a film that deals with skeptical investigations of paranormal claims I thought it appropriate to write a review. Ok, so what was it all about then?
The film follows the investigations of psychologist Margaret Matheson (Weaver) and her assistant physicist Tom Buckley (Murphy) as they travel around the country finding and debunking claims of the paranormal. Matheson has become somewhat jaded over the years, convinced that all who claim to have psychic powers are either lying to themselves or others, and while she takes pleasure in exposing so called faith healers and psychics the whole thing has lost any real challenge for her and she has moved firmly from skeptic to cynic. Buckley on the other hand still thinks there are challenges to be found and sees one in blind psychic Simon Silver (De Niro), who has resurfaced after three decades in exile following the death of his most outspoken critic. Silver has a whole new bag of tricks and Buckley, despite being warned by Matheson to stay away, is determined to expose him as a fraud. As the film progresses the confrontations between the two become more personal and Buckley starts to question whether Silver may really have powers after all.
For the most part I really enjoyed this film, that pacing was a bit off and I found one of the films biggest twists incredibly predictable, correctly guessing it from the trailer alone, but otherwise it was well done with some clever moments, especially if you know your skeptical history. One such moment that made me smile came when Matheson and Buckley were investigating psychic Leonardo Palladino. Palladino’s “powers” came to him by way of a hidden ear piece by which his wife relayed details of various members of the audience, discovered from various databases and other unscrupulous means. When Matheson manages to pick up on this signal the first words we hear from Palladino’s wife are “Hello Leo, can you hear me? If you can’t, you’re in trouble“. This, with the exception of the name, is word for word the same line delivered by Reverend Peter Popoff’s wife, and picked up by magician James Randi, back in 1986 when Popoff was using the exact same scam as the fictional Palladino. Alas unlike Palladino Popoff’s scam didn’t land him in jail.
The film is littered with such nods to real skeptical investigations and reveals numerous simple ways in which so called psychics can con people into believing they have real powers. There are also a few moments that genuinely made me jump and the film does a good job of keeping you guessing as to what exactly is going on. Unfortunately for me two things really spoilt my enjoyment of this film, one I will tell you and one I will only hint at as not to spoil the ending. For a movie that apparently did a lot of research into real world investigations of the paranormal it seems to have learnt nothing about how science actually works. In Red Lights scientific papers are released to the world with the mere stroke of a pen and immediately given the weight of scientific law. No one seems to have heard of the peer review process or the fact that real papers take months of rewrites before they finally make it into scientific journals. Of course this would have detracted considerably from the urgency of the films closing act, but I found it very hard to take seriously as a result.
My biggest problem, and the one I will do my best not to give too many details about, was the films ending. About two thirds of the way through the movie I was suddenly convinced I knew how it was going to end. I found myself smiling that the writers had been so clever and had come up with such an effective twist. All the clues were there, it would fit perfectly with various things that the characters had talked about throughout the movie and would come as a genuine surprise to anyone who hadn’t worked it out. I sat there, smiling to myself, waiting for it all to unfold. Unfortunately the writers of the movie were not as clever as I had thought and the ending was not the one I had been expecting, but rather the one I really should have seen coming given how skeptics are usually portrayed in the movies. I found myself genuinely disappointed that, after such an effective build up, they decided to go in such a well worn and clichéd direction.
So at the end of the day would I recommend you go see this film? Well yeah, it is a good ride and you will learn some interesting things along the way, just don’t expect a particularly satisfying ending and you will be fine.
3 and a half Rabbit Pirates out of 5
P.S. The X-Files themed poster on the wall with the words “I want to understand” was a nice touch.