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Film / Red Lights

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"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."

Red Lights is a 2012 Spanish-American horror-mystery film written and directed by Rodrigo Cortés (Buried) and starring Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro, Toby Jones, Elizabeth Olsen and Joely Richardson.

The two main characters are Dr. Margaret Matheson (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 (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 (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.

This film provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Past: According to the SPRC evaluation title card, the film takes place in October/November 2011.
  • Accidental Truth: Buckley's sarcastic "I'm a psychic".
  • Actually, That's My Assistant: In one of the first scenes, Tom, Margaret's assistant, is mistaken for Margaret.
  • Agent Mulder: Dr. Shackleton is a believer in paranormal phenomena, portrayed as a rare negative example, though he means well and is willing to admit he could be wrong.
  • Agent Scully: Matheson and Buckley specialize in debunking supernatural phenomena. Buckley takes it up to eleven after Matheson's death.
  • Alliterative Name: Margaret Matheson and Simon Silver.
  • Anyone Can Die: Matheson dies about halfway into the film.
  • 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, courtesy of the beating by Leonardo.
  • Creepy Monotone: A false medium at the beginning of the film basically drones to heighten his creepy image.
  • Crisis of Faith: It happened to Margaret when her son fell into a coma at the age of 4.
  • Cynicism Catalyst: Both Margaret and Tom have these as motivations to debunk paranormal claims. Margaret's son is in a coma, which apparently caused a loss of faith and firm disbelief in all things supernatural or paranormal. Tom's mother died due to trusting in a faith healer rather than medicine, with the same results. Although the latter is actually subverted when Tom mentions that he's going to call his mother later.
  • Dead Partner: Margaret and Tom were partners in debunking supernatural phenomena, until 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 Tom receiving a beatdown in a bathroom.
  • Determinator: Buckley goes to great lengths to expose Silver, despite the paranormal events causing constant danger to him.
  • Doting Parent: The parents of an "automatic painting" boy fall victim to the deception involving the paranormal because of their total admiration for their son.
  • Enhance Button: Averted, but with lampshading by Ben.
    Ben: [to Sally] 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.
  • Evil Phone: Phones and phone calls never appear in positive contexts since they trigger violent paranormal events.
  • Fake Faith Healer: A fake faith healer named Leonardo is debunked in a scene which closely follows the real-life debunking of faith healer Peter Popoff by stage magician and skeptic James Randi.
  • Flat-Earth Atheist: Buckley becomes this near the end of the film.
  • 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.
  • Gilligan Cut: Ben tells Sally that Tom is with Silver at the theater and is "perfectly alright". Cut to Leonardo attempting to kill him in the bathroom.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Tom. Even more so after his Sanity Slippage.
  • Huge Girl, Tiny Guy: Margaret is about a head taller than Tom, often emphasized by her wearing heels.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Apparently the case of Dr. Matheson, complete with having a Cynicism Catalyst in the form of a comatose son.
  • 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.
  • Mind over Matter: These exact words appear in Shackleton's speech to the reporters before Silver's test.
    "We're scientists, and for the first time we could just obtain conclusive results about the reality of extrasensory perception, the power of the mind over matter."
  • Not So Stoic: Margaret, while telling Tom about her interview with Silver, breaks down when she brings up the fact that he used her son against her.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Silver, who is revealed not to be blind when Sally and Ben review the footage and note that Silver's watch is lined up with his assistant's in a code that would've been extremely difficult for a truly blind person to hide..
  • Occam's Razor: Mentioned by Matheson — she believes that alleged paranormal phenomena have mundane, natural explanations.
    Matheson: When I hear hooves, I think horses, not unicorns.
  • 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: One of the cases Margaret and Tom investigate is of children who fake a poltergeist haunting by pushing a closet against a wall.
  • Psychic Children: Subverted in the first case Margaret and Tom 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.
  • Real After All: When he exposes Silver as a fake, it turns out that Buckley has telekinetic power.
  • 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, isn't involved in importance with the film's plot. Subverted a bit at the end, when she comes in to help Ben and plays a key part in discovering Silver's secret.
  • Shout-Out:
    • 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), Leonardo has the same last name as famous fraud medium Eusapia Palladino, Shackleton shares one with Basil Shackleton, a star of the Soal-Goldney experiments of the 1940s that were later found to rely on faked data, etc.
  • 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, although he's technically the teacher's assistant.
  • Throw the Book at Them: Buckley, in a rage, throws a student's books at Shackleton.
  • Title Drop: Matheson uses red lights as one example of things you look for that are "off" when investigating an alleged paranormal phenomena (i.e. signs of fraud).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Wham Line: Two, in rapid succession.
    Silver: How did you [Tom] do that?
    Tom: Phony.
  • Wham Shot: Tom opening the non-electric doors with his mind.
  • Willing Channeler: The (alleged) medium at the beginning of the film.