I try to keep all my reviews spoiler free if I can, and while I don’t reveal any plot points here I guess some things I say could be considered mild spoilers on the general theme of the movie. Also, I feel I must mention that I am a fan of James Randi and his work, and could not write about the themes of this film without some of my support of this showing.
For those unfamiliar with James Randi, he is a former magician who went by the stage name of ‘The Amazing Randi’. Upon retiring from stage magic shows, he decided to become a ‘paranormal investigator’, whose mission was to scientifically test as many claims of supernatural powers as he could. He ended up debunking a large number of con-artists ranging from psychics to faith healers to spoon benders. His foundation still offers a $1 million cash prize to anyone who can prove supernatural powers under scientific conditions. Despite many applicants, the money remains unclaimed. He details a lot of his experience in the books ‘Flim-Flam’ and ‘The Faith Healers’. He is a truly admirable individual.
The reason I mention him now is that his work is clearly a very strong influence on Rodrigo Cortes’ ‘Red Lights’, and I have not heard him mentioned in many other reviews of this film or on its IMDb trivia page.
‘Red Light’s protagonists (Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver) are, like Randi, paranormal investigators/debunkers (though working for a university). Their exploits in the first part of the film recreate much of Randi’s famous work, including describing how ‘table tipping’ is achieved, performing his famed horoscope experiment with their class, and exposing a prominent faith healer via the exact same method (including replicating some exact audio) as Randi did to despicable fraudster Peter Popoff in 1986.
While this is going on, a famed paranormal performer by the name of Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) is coming out of retirement for his first performances in 30 years. His retirement was caused by the mysterious death of a vocal critic of his during a performance. Silver is in many ways, a combination of several ‘supernaturally powered’ charlatans; he is a psychic, he bends metal, he levitates, he performs ‘psychic surgery’ and appears on TV shows claiming his powers are real. He performs his feats in an eerily convincing manner and has legions of followers believing him to be the real deal.
These early scenes are mostly excellent and set up the film very well. I greatly enjoyed a lot of them, not just for what they were but for hopefully bringing some of these methods for avoiding con artists to a wider audience. One very realistic stand out scene involved Weaver’s character being hounded on a TV talk show by believers in Silver.
So the stage is set; the challenge is in place; our skeptical heroes are all poised to take on the biggest job of their careers, against the odds, to take on the world’s most famous and convincing psychic. It would be like a grand heist movie. Just how will they pull it off?
Except that isn’t the film that ‘Red Lights’ is. It doesn’t go down this route. Instead it turns into more of a paranoid thriller, with some cheap jump scares thrown in. Also it goes from showing the audience how they can be easily fooled by paranormal tricks to having them, and some characters, start wondering if such feats are really possible in its world.
To top it all off, we get a horrible twist ending that risks ruining the whole story.
In the end, the film is not terrible, it is mostly well made, with decent performances from the leads (and in an age when De Niro seemingly doesn’t care much about the quality of the projects he appears in, it is nice to see him tackling a memorable, if supporting, role here). But after the promise of its first half I just really wanted it to be a different film from what it was prepared to be.
I do hope though, that it may spark some people’s interests in challenging claims of paranormal ability.