The world’s most famous psychic medium doesn’t talk to people. Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) spews, shouts or mysteriously whispers confusing platitudes like “We all try to be something with nothing” at them, with no particular respect for context.
One of Red Lights’ highlights is Eugenio Mira’s mugging De Niro impression as the psychic’s younger self in an explanatory newsreel. After dramatically retiring 30 years ago because a fan socked him, Silver is returning to deploy his Torpedo of Truth to the masses, one opera-scaled event at a time. At the top of his shows, Silver waxes poetic about the mysteries of sky, moon and wind, and compares himself to misunderstood genius-heretics like Giordano Bruno and Galileo.
A few determined skeptics are out to debunk the ESP myth and Silver’s scam. Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her protégé Dr. Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) are professors who drive around tricking folks into thinking they’re haunted by their beloved dead relatives, staging low-tech seance “sessions.” They’re bedraggled and cynical Ghostbusters in vintage tweed. They’ve done so much research on paranormal activity, and how’s it’s fabricated, that we can’t keep up with it, nor with the characters’ arguments over belief in superhuman ability or an afterlife. Like the Indiana Jones films, this tries to make academia an adventure, but tons of scientific mumbo jumbo, and casual references to Occam’s razor and its ilk, often falls short of connecting.
The team recruits a keen student named Sally Owen that Dr. Buckley has the hots for, and whom Dr. Matheson momentarily objects to, played by Elizabeth Olsen. She’s simply one half of a scantly seen romance that pops up when we need reassurance or closure, and one third of a procedural investigation without much bite.
Red Lights isn’t as claustrophobic as writer/director/editor/producer Rodrigo Cortes’s last film, Buried, which forced us to be in a coffin with Ryan Reynolds for a couple hours. It works best when it doesn’t take itself seriously, and some of the ways in which ESP is faked are briefly engaging, like short con games or magic tricks revealed. But, finally, the film doesn’t offer the sense of release, or of surprise, that it seems to take for granted. Plus, a letter to a dead person read in voice-over is expected to explain everything. Red Lights capably but goofily functions as light entertainment before a last-minute attempt to be a parable about the marginalized outsider: those poor psychics. If you’ve got the power, prove it.