24 Lies a Second: Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back in the Parapsychology Lab. . .

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Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back in the Parapsychology Lab...

It occurs to me that it is a little-commented-upon fact that Sigourney Weaver has carved out a rather good career for herself despite the fact she is, to some extent, typecast. By this I mean that I would be willing to bet a modest sum that, if I were to ask someone to name one of her movies, they would come out with something which featured somewhere along the SF/fantasy/horror axis – quite apart from the obvious, there's Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest, and Avatar. A couple of recent high-impact cameos in genre movies such as Paul and The Cabin in the Woods only adds to this impression. Weaver doesn't seem bothered by it, but it does feel like a while since she's had a properly meaty leading role in a movie.

Well, she sort of gets one in Rodrigo Cortes' Red Lights, a thriller with paranormal elements which is currently doing the rounds. On paper, this is a film with a considerable amount going for it – but in the brave new world of 2012, films are made digitally, not on paper. Certainly, this week I had the choice of taking a gamble on seeing a movie which has had mixed reviews, or seeing the reissue of Jaws (a film I've already watched umpteen times, including once on the big screen for its twentieth anniversary back in 1995 – and, yes, that does make me feel terribly old). Now I ask myself – was it worth passing on Spielberg's undoubted classic in favour of something new and possibly surprising? I can only answer 'Mmmm, well...'

It's not really fair to compare Red Lights to Jaws, anyway, as the films are really quite different. (The title Red Lights, should you be a-wonderin', is only alluded to in passing in the film itself – but wondering about the title is only one of the many points for rumination you will be left with if you actually see it.) Sigourney Weaver plays Margaret Matheson, a psychologist who specialises in debunking paranormal phenomena of various kinds. In this she is assisted by her physicist sidekick Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), and – a newcomer to the team – research assistant Sally (Elizabeth Olsen, who's showing signs of getting lodged in the horror-thriller ghetto herself). Decades of research have uncovered not one iota of evidence for the existence of supernatural forces.

However, the media is suddenly filled with news of the re-emergence of Simon Silver (Robert de Niro), a celebrity psychic from years gone by. (You can have fun spotting the references to the supposed real-life psychics that Silver appears to be based on – most obviously, Uri Geller, but also, for example, Ted Serios.) Tom is keen to investigate Silver, but Margaret is more cautious, knowing what a slippery and manipulative customer the man can be. Given his wealth and popularity with the public, it could be dangerous to expose him as a charlatan. The fact that it could be even more dangerous to antagonise him, should he truly have paranormal abilities, is left unspoken...

I have to say that my overriding reaction throughout the early sections of Red Lights consisted of that mildly inexplicable phenomenon, deja vu. I do seem to have watched a few of these paranormal thrillers over the years, and the fact they exist close to a very porous border with full-on horror movies doesn't help much. I probably shouldn't have been sitting there going 'This bit's like The Awakening... this bit's like Mothman Prophecies... this part is a bit Sixth Sense...' but unfortunately I was. Now, this is not to say that Red Lights is a bad movie because it feels derivative, but I do think it should perhaps have worked a bit harder to do something new and original with its premise. You know that this kind of film is going to open with a spooky event which the characters cheerily debunk, following which we will get to know them better and become party to the personal issues and tragedies which have led them to become involved in this particular area (no-one ever becomes a psychic researcher in movies just because they're intellectually stimulated by psychic research, they've all had a sister abducted by aliens, or lost a loved one to a war and become obsessed with proving consciousness persists after death, or [spoilers deleted]). Less driven characters will openly question the value of their fixation, pointing out the very real sense of comfort people draw from visiting a medium or astrologer. Events will demand the protagonists reassess their materialistic world view. (As I said when reviewing The Awakening, the thing about ghost stories is that they do tend to have ghosts in them.) And so on, and so on.

Red Lights sticks to this pattern quite faithfully, but – despite not having anything new to add – manages to do so with intelligence and gravitas. It doesn't look or sound sensationalistic and it's aided considerably by the performances of Weaver and Murphy, both of whom are reliably watchable and continue to be so here. Elizabeth Olsen, alas, doesn't really get the material she deserves. On the other hand, de Niro does not take an axe to his own reputation with the vigour he's shown in other recent movies, but nevertheless there is little here to mark him out as an especially noteworthy performer. This whole opening section is psychologically thoughtful and contains a lot of interesting nuts-and-bolts detail about psychic research, which I found rather absorbing to watch despite the tone of the thing being so familiar.

Then, about halfway through, an Unfortunate Event occurs and the film goes into a bit of a tizzy. It becomes much more of a supernatural thriller as the protagonists attempt to figure out if Silver really does have special gifts, and if he's using them in an inappropriately malevolent fashion. It all gets a bit overwrought, if you ask me, with quite a heavy reliance on 'jump' scares and explicit weirdness. The plot unravels into a series of strange events and the characters' reactions to them, and it becomes much more Murphy's movie. While he's as good as ever, I did miss Weaver and Olsen.

And, subliminally, one gets an irresistible sense of a Twist Ending heading one's way. (It may be that even revealing that Red Lights has a Twist Ending counts as a spoiler, but given that comparisons between it and The Sixth Sense are plastered all over the publicity, I don't think I can really be taken to task over this.) Well, as twists go, the one in Red Lights is about a B- : it doesn't feel like something completely new and unexpected that's been shoehorned in just to pep up the finale, having been carefully seeded throughout the movie, but on the other hand neither did I go 'What a brilliant idea! How stupid I was not to have figured it out!', which is the mark of something special. To be honest I was more relieved than anything else when the twist was revealed, because up to that point the film was showing severe signs of not knowing how to finish and collapsing into an incoherent mess. The twist just about holds the main plot together, but doesn't help with lots of other irksome little questions and story points the film never really gets back to.

A strong cast, mostly working well, and a sober and thoughtful atmosphere are the main things that Red Lights has to commend it. It doesn't really do anything new, and certainly doesn't appear to have anything interesting or really original to say on the subject of why people believe or disbelieve in paranormal phenomena. The story doesn't completely hang together – lots of major and minor events basically go unexplained as the closing credits roll – but it passes the time reasonably enough. A fairly average movie, but that's the fault of the script rather than the cast.

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