Two university professors investigate paranormal phenomena between teaching classes, debunking psychics and mediums to expose fraud, but find themselves at odds when a famous psychic returns to the public eye. As a plot summary, that sounds either awful or brilliant, but what it should not be is mediocre.
There are some interesting ideas in Red Lights, and several clever and interesting scenes. The brooding, paranoid atmosphere is built effectively, there are some very dramatic and nicely-framed shots, and some moments of the film feel truly inspired. The main issue with it, for me, is the overreliance on clichés, the lack of character depth, and the forced focus on a twist which, whilst not necessarily obvious in its build up, feels unsatisfying in its hollowness. More attention to the characters and their developments and challenges would have made this a stronger film, but perhaps seeing it all as a sham upon completion reflects the trickery used by the very mediums and psychics the film lays bare and destroys.
Sigourney Weaver takes centre stage as the professor tortured by her past and committed to exposing the truth at any cost, yet her character is little more than that on the page. Her performance is heartfelt and she invests heavily into it, but the script is lacking and beneath her considerable talent. Cillian Murphy plays her assistant who becomes even more obsessive as the film progresses, and again his character is so thin that he out-acts the writing with ease. His questionable relationship with his student—Elizabeth Olsen, who is given hardly anything to do at all—is not really addressed.
Toby Jones plays a rival professor who later in the film conducts tests on a psychic, but the tests seem to be from the seventies, whereas the film is present day, so the scene falls flat. Robert De Niro is the notable psychic who causes so much angst, a blind performer with supposed God-like stage presence, yet he sleepwalks through most of the film, with his theatrics too hammy to be convincing. De Niro’s best moment—and the film’s—is an intimate one, where two characters are separated only by a line of salt, but that does not make up for the rest of it.
Red Lights could be such a good film, but the script is too concerned with being clever to be good. Straying into jump-scare horror does not benefit what should be a tense character study, and neither does the unnecessary fight scene which felt completely out of place. I wish Red Lights lived up to its potential, as I find disappointment worse than watching a less ambitious film that simply exists to its own standard. It could be something great, but unfortunately, it is not.