TROUBLE CITY

Movie Curiosities: Red Lights

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I had the Total Recall remake all good and pencilled in for today. I was perfectly willing to give this remake a chance, since the production design looked amazing, the ads promised a fresh take on the source material, and Colin Farrell makes for a far more believable everyman than Ah-nuld. Unfortunately, the film was directed by Len Wiseman, who I can't help lumping together with Paul W.S. Anderson. Both are total hacks capable of nothing but empty spectacle, both have sci-fi/fantasy franchises that have long since outstayed their welcomes (Underworld and Resident Evil), yet both keep working because they have unfairly hot wives who will star in anything they make with no questions asked (Kate Beckinsale and Milla Jovovich). Finally, the reviews for Total Recall (2012) came in. I knew that movie had the potential to be awful, but it's apparently worse than anyone could have expected. After careful consideration, I decided that my time would be better spent on a movie that doesn't suck.

Looking through my local listings, a surprise popped out at me: Red Lights. I admittedly didn't know much about this film, but I'd heard whispers. Here's a movie starring Cilian Murphy, Elizabeth Olsen, Sigourney Weaver, and Robert DeNiro, all with the screenplay and direction of Rodrigo "Buried" Cortes. With so much talent behind it, how bad could this movie possibly be?

More importantly, when will I ever learn to stop asking that question?

Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver play a team of paranormal investigators. More specifically, Tom Buckley and Margaret Matheson are professional skeptics. Their specialty is the investigation of reported metaphysical phenomena and the collection of evidence to prove it fake. Enter Simon Silver (Robert DeNiro), a world-renowned psychic who just might be the real thing. Even Margaret is afraid to go after him, based on a prior encounter that went horribly wrong.

How badly does this much talent ruin such a great premise? So badly that I'm not really sure where to start.

First off, with a premise like this, you'd expect our intrepid researchers to finally come against an adversary powerful enough to challenge their conviction. And that does indeed happen, but only an hour in. Until that point, I was left scratching my head, bored to tears, wondering what the conflict was and why I should care. Without exaggeration, there is absolutely nothing at stake until Tom starts going after Silver. And even after that point, the movie has so many problems.

For one thing, the question remains: "So what?" If Silver is a fraud, then he continues suckering gullible people out of their money. Who cares?

In a terribly contrived effort to raise the stakes, Cortes came up with a storyline in which Silver must be proven a fraud or ESP will be falsely be considered scientific fact. Please don't ask me to explain how that makes any goddamn sense, because it doesn't. I'd go into detail, but every single aspect of that storyline is so insulting to modern science that I'm on the verge of a stroke just thinking about it.

Then again, if Silver's powers are authentic, then that only serves to make our protagonist -- a doctor with years of experience in paranormal research -- look like a total idiot for spending the entire movie trying to prove otherwise. Moreover, Silver only seems to kill skeptics who insist on giving him a hard time, and that's assuming Silver ever meant to kill anyone at all. And here's Tom, going after Silver in a blind zealous rage, threatening his own life and those of his colleagues for no good reason without a battle plan of any kind. Guy's an idiot twice over.

What really hurts about this movie is that it wasn't beyond saving. When the plot really gets going, there are some genuinely tense scenes of paranoia and chilling moments of what-the-fuckery. Unfortunately, all of this is undone by the ending, which explains everything with a great big barrel of insults coated in 31 flavors of bullshit.

Admittedly, it was also rather satisfying to see Margaret work her magic. It was fun watching her brilliant mind and sharp wit demonstrate how certain happenings have perfectly mundane causes. That owes more to Sigourney Weaver's performance than anything else, but it's still kind of entertaining... until she unceremoniously leaves the film partway through.

Cillian Murphy also turns in a fine performance, though that's mostly because this intelligent, paranoid, fiercely determined character is like so many Murphy has played before. Tom totally fails as a rational and sympathetic human being, but only because Murphy was saddled with such a godawful script.

As for Robert DeNiro, I must admit that he's incredibly convincing as a total enigma. I had no idea what his motivations were, and I couldn't figure out how malicious he was. The guy was a totally charming non-entity. Finally, the perfect role for DeNiro at the point in his career when he can't even be bothered to type the numbers before phoning it in.

Elizabeth Olsen also appears as Sally Owen, a student of Tom and Margaret. She's pretty much there just to be a sounding board, and also to be a pseudo-love interest for Tom. I'd comment on Olsen's lack of sufficient chemistry with Murphy, or how the film totally glosses over the violation of student/teacher ethics, but it's such an insignificant part of the film that there's no point in bothering. More than anything, I'm disappointed that Olsen picked two godawful roles in a row, after picking such a great film for her debut. She's better than this and she deserves better.

(Side note: Another student is played by Craig Roberts, who looks and sounds so much like me that it's honestly quite terrifying.)

Visually, the movie leaves a lot to be desired. The red lights make a neat motif, but the film is otherwise every bit as drab and sparsely colored as Ryan Reynolds' coffin. Still, it bears repeating that the screenplay is this movie's prime failing. Not only does the ending make Tom completely despicable in retrospect, but absolutely no one in this film talks or acts in a rational way at any time. This much is made clear in the very first lines of the movie, when Tom wakes Margaret up just to say that she needs more sleep. Honest to God.

Looking back, I can't help but be reminded of The Last Exorcism. There was another movie that dealt with crises in faith, logic, and our need to find comfort in beliefs. But that film was actually scary, it held some amount of drama, there were clear stakes at all times, and the characters were sympathetic. It had a fuck-you ending as well, but what found footage horror film doesn't?

I really don't know what happened with Red Lights. The cast was solid (even Robert DeNiro was better than his more recent output), and the premise had so much potential, yet the end result went from boring to insulting. The problems lie entirely in the writing and direction, but Cortes should've been so much better than this. I'm extremely disappointed in him, especially after such a bold and creative film as Buried.

So I avoided a bad film only to see another bad film. Today's just not my day, I guess.

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