From the time of ancient Greece to the present day, philosophers and scholars have argued man is essentially rational. I don't happen to agree. If one observes and studies another person without having first studied oneself, how do we know whether our instruments are appropriately set? How do we know we are reliable? We have no proof.
Take a paradigm Psychological Thriller
, add some Paranormal Tropes
, make the relation between main characters sufficiently complicated not to qualify as romantic, give them some epistemological problems to deal with in the middle of an unfriendly academy - or, better, let the man who made Buried
do it - and you will have Red Lights
: yes, yet another film about whether the supernatural exists, but this time additionally addressing the problem of human motivations lurking behind seemingly rational decisions and rationality itself.
The two main characters are Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver
), a middle-aged "professional skeptic" whose academic work concentrates on debunking the alleged cases of paranormal phenomena, and her assistant, brilliant physicist Dr. Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy
). They work as a team, running classes about scientific explanations of the paranormal and occasionally answering the calls
of persons who have problems with what they think belongs to the area of parapsychology. One day a particularly impressive Monster of the Week
, the famous blind psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro
), comes onto the stage. Buckley is determined to investigate him and find out the secret behind his performances, but Matheson, whose attempt to debunk Silver's alleged powers a long time ago ended in failure, is not willing to face him again, warning Buckley to stay away, that he's dangerous. Of course,
Tom starts the investigation - and, from the very beginning, strange things (like being hit with a glass shard mysteriously detached from the ceiling in the middle of the phone conversations with unidentified interlocutors
) begin to happen around him and Margaret. As usual, the truth is out there
Numerous allusions to particular tropes and cliches
associated with the paranormal, often averting
them, are to be found in the movie. In spite of its gloomy atmosphere, the film (especially its first half) displays a subtle sense of humour, which, if it were not for an overall gravity of the problems faced by the characters, would signify Affectionate Parody
This film provides examples of:
- Accidental Truth: Buckley's sarcastic "I'm a psychic".
- Actually That's My Assistant: In one of the first scenes, Tom is mistaken for Margaret.
- Agent Mulder: Dr. Shackleton, a rare negative example, though he means well and is willing to admit he could be wrong.
- Agent Scully: Matheson and Buckley. Buckley takes it Up to Eleven towards the end.
- Alliterative Name: Margaret Matheson and Simon Silver.
- Anyone Can Die: Margaret Matheson.
- Arbitrary Skepticism: Matheson from the beginning, and Buckley becomes the same when she dies.
- Armor-Piercing Question: Margaret storms out of the room after the interviewer probes her religious convictions.
- Blind Seer: Silver, the famous psychic, is able to awe his audiences by describing things he shouldn't know because he is blind. It turns out he can still see.
- Blood-Splattered Warrior: Buckley, during the final confrontation with Silver.
- Chiaroscuro: A big part of the movie.
- The Confidant: Tom to Margaret.
- Creepy Monotone: A false medium at the beginning of the film does this.
- Crisis of Faith: Happened to Margaret when her son fell into a coma at the age of 4.
- Deadpan Snarkers: both Buckley and Matheson, but Silver also has his moments.
- Dead Partner: Margaret dies about halfway into the film.
- Decoy Protagonist: Margaret sure looks like the heroine of the film...until she kicks the bucket halfway through and the rest of the movie focuses on Buckley hell-bent on bringing down Silver to reinstate Margaret's reputation.
- Description Cut: Ben reassures Sally that "Tom's perfectly alright." Cut to the No-Holds-Barred Beatdown.
- The Determinator: Buckley goes to great lengths to expose Silver, despite the paranormal events causing constant danger to him.
- Doting Parents: The parents of an "automatic painting" boy fall victim to the deception involving the paranormal because of their total admiration for their son.
- Dramatic Shattering: Tom does it when feeling helpless.
- Dreaming The Truth: Happens to Tom.
- Enhance Button: Averted, but with lampshading by Ben.
"Sure, I can amplify a single pixel, click it up by magic and make it so bright and shiny you'll need sunglasses to look at it. This isn't a movie, Sally."
- They opt to use another camera angle instead.
- Evil Phone: Phones and phone calls never appear in positive contexts since they trigger violent paranormal events.
- For Science!: Apparently the motivation of Silver and Shackleton though since Silver turns out to be a fake, it's likely just to further his career.
- Gave Up Too Soon: If Buckley did not leave the search for evidence to Ben, he would probably know Silver's secret much earlier.
- Gut Feeling
- Hair-Trigger Temper: Tom. Even more so after his Sanity Slippage.
- Hidden Depths
- Hollywood Atheist: Apparently the case of Dr. Matheson, complete with a dead little sister.
- Hollywood Law: It's quite unlikely Leonardo would get arrested when his act is exposed as fake, let alone imprisoned. The scene is obviously based on the debunking of faith healer Peter Popoff by James Randi (see Shout-Out below), and not only was Popoff not prosecuted, his followers were outraged with Randi for exposing him (Popoff is still going strong to this day). In the same way, if the people hoodwinked were unwilling to press charges (very likely) he obviously wouldn't go to jail. These cases are notoriously hard to prosecute in Real Life, though Randi offers to testify for the prosecution if they do, and has done so before.
- Hot Scientist: Tom.
- Kuudere: Margaret.
- Large Ham: Leonardo, the first stage psychic they take down.
- Loved I Not Honor More: Tom towards Sally.
- Mind over Matter: These exact words appear in Shackleton's speech.
- Mr. Fixit: Tom.
- Not So Stoic: Margaret, during the interview.
- Obfuscating Disability: Silver.
- Occam's Razor: Mentioned by Matheson- she believes that alleged paranormal phenomena have mundane, natural explanations.
"When I hear hooves, I think horses, not unicorns."
- Occult Detectives
- Paranormal Investigation
- Phony Psychic: Margaret and Tom work on exposing these, so much of the film's plot involves whether or not Silver is also one, or if he's the genuine article. He's a phony, but Buckley's real.
- Poltergeist: Alleged.
- Properly Paranoid: Tom.
- Psychic Children: Subverted in the first case they investigate. Children indeed turn out to be the cause of the disturbing phenomena, but they do not use any supernatural powers. They fake a poltergeist haunting by pushing a closet against a wall.
- Psychic Powers:
- Psychic Radar
- Pull a Rabbit out of My Hat: Jokingly mentioned by Buckley, when he explains to Sally his magical tricks.
- Real After All: When he exposes Silver as a fake, it turns out that Buckley has telekinetic power.
- Redemption in the Rain Buckley.
- Reflective Eyes: Shackleton's glasses.
- The Reveal: Partial, in the end.
- Rewind, Replay, Repeat: Buckley does this exhaustively to Silver's experiment footage.
- Sarcastic Devotee: Buckley to Matheson.
- Science Heroes: Both Buckley and Matheson.
- Scully Syndrome: Buckley, though it is a very non-typical example, as it is more about himself and not external phenomena.
- Satellite Love Interest: Sally, for the most part of the movie. Subverted a bit at the end, when she comes in to help Ben and play a key part in discovering Silver's secret.
- Shout Outs: Many of them, especially to The X-Files - Margaret shares the surname of Senator Matheson from the series, the TV-presenter's name is Dana, and in Buckley's room there is a poster identical to that in Mulder's office but with 'I want to believe' replaced by 'I want to understand'. Also to many famous (or infamous) Real Life events/arguments in the paranormal debate: the debunking of Leonardo is done the same way as faith healer Peter Popoff was exposed by the skeptical magician James Randi, the arguments of Buckley/Matheson are common, along with the paranormal tests, Simon Silver resembles the real Uri Geller, the identical horoscopes is a technique used to expose confirmation bias, the initials SPRC (Scientific Paranormal Research Center) are close to that of the actual 130-year old SPR (Society for Psychical Research), etc.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Changes with the events.
- The Spark of Genius: Happens to almost everyone.
- Stage Magician: Silver. Buckley knows many of their tricks himself.
- Sugar and Ice Personality: Margaret.
- Sugary Malice: Silver.
- Tall, Dark and Handsome / Tall, Dark and Snarky: Buckley.
- Talking to the Dead: Played with and averted. Margaret writes to her comatose son David because she knows he can't hear her and in the end, Tom does the same to Margaret.
- Teacher/Student Romance: Buckley and Sally.
- Throw the Book at Them: Buckley, in a rage, throws a student's books at Shackelton.
- Tomato in the Mirror: Depending on your interpretation of Buckley. Either he knew long before the plot and joined Matheson to try and discover others like himself, or during the course of his work in trying to expose Silver he discovered that the phenomena occurring to him were his powers manifesting, not Silver's. It's not clear if he's sure himself which is the case.
- Tone Shift: Darker and Edgier
- Undying Loyalty: Buckley to Margaret.
- The Un-Reveal: With the elements of The Reveal, but still.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: The film has many plot threads left dangling. Did Buckley call himself all those times with his powers and not know it? Was he responsible for the strange things going on at Silver's office, and were the apparently possessed people there stooges, or did he unconsciously influence them? Additionally, while Silver's supposed "thought transference" was explained, they never said anything about the "thought photographs" which he produced that Shackleton said had "no scientific explanation." Of course that might have been faked too-we don't see how though.
- Willing Channeler: The (alleged) medium at the beginning of the film.