Saturday afternoon found me finally getting the chance to see the latest psychic thriller, “Red Lights.” While I have huge reservations about the final outcome of this trendy look at people who claim to be psychic and those of us who go after them, I will review it here without spoilers. I ultimately must recommend this film for skeptical minded individuals for reasons that are totally unintentional by the film’s writers, director and producers.
First off, I have wanted to see DeNiro play this role for quite some time. The trailer was pretty good and the chance to see De Niro say, “…Are you challenging ME?” taking us back to “Taxi Driver’s “...Are you talking to ME?’ (only louder this time) was just too much for me to pass up. As Simon Silver the super psychic, he has a few scenes that are really outstanding despite the films problems. De Niro is crafty, sinister and menacing as every bad psychic should be and yet there are moments of bizarre sensitivity he evokes in one or two scenes where he acts tired, drained and human. Contradictions abound but as usual, Robert De Niro remains remarkable despite the sometimes horrible writing.
Sigourney Weaver also has one or two scenes that really capture the grief and anguish that drives people to believe that mediums can reach their loved ones – if only for a split second. And she lets us know that split second can be a deadly one. The concept of what “red lights” is all about was news to me, but I liked the idea and the overall skeptical content of the film is decent largely because the writers, although verbose, have certainly done their homework. In fact, they have managed to rip off so many paranormal events from the past history of parapsychology it’s almost like a crash course in skepticism, but without credit for all those who did the heavy lifting. We get the dubious pleasure of seeing Randi’s exposure of Peter Popoff “appropriated” (I think that’s the kind word for it) in several well shot scenes and I was surprised to see Ray Hyman’s groundbreaking astrology tests he gave to his students (with all the same readings) shown as a part of the university course scenes. The screen writers even managed to squeeze in a tribute to everybody’s favorite “thoughtographer” Ted Serios in a sequence featuring De Niro and the famous “gizmo” Ted used (see “lab” photo). If you watch closely in the shots where they rapidly show the “evidence” from that test, it looked like a fuzzy image of Randi himself flashed by on the screen. We also get De Niro doing psychic surgery, the obligatory spoon bending and even some shots of those pesky Russian psychics telekinetically moving things around in some mock stock footage. The film is packed with psychic investigator speak: Occam’s Razor gets it’s standard delivery and Dr. Dean Edell’s oft quoted line about hearing horses rather than zebras when he hears hoof-beats gets a slightly abridged translation into unicorns instead of zebras. It goes on like this throughout the film. As a skeptical activist, I can’t help but think we must be doing something right. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between and as a skeptic I left the theater feeling, well, ..a bit used.
I’m sure Randi feels even worse. But beggars can’t be choosers and we will take what credit we can for the long run.
When we arrive at the ending. which has come in for some mighty big slamming, let’s just say they had a chance to quit while the quitting was good and instead went for the box office boffo, which I doubt will be a big one. All the skeptical thinking they worked so hard to build up (and somewhat succeeded) gets kicked to the curb in another Hollywood religious metaphor. Too bad. There are so many plot holes left unplugged, I guess we are supposed to simply chalk it all up to something deeply metaphysical or vaguely Shamalanian.
One scene in particular had me laughing out loud. When the time draws near for the “final test to decide whether or not psychic powers truly exist..” or some such grandiose set-up; the cameras zoom in to what is supposed to be a university laboratory. The film’s producers obviously spent the lion’s share of the budget here, with no end of stainless steel equipment, flashing lights and massive switchboards reminiscent of “The Time Tunnel” with serious looking people in white lab coats scurrying about with clipboards. This is all showcased in a huge cement bunker arrangement that looks more like a Ken Adam set from a James Bond villain than a real world university classroom. Hilarious stuff and nonsense. As the cameras glide in and out between huge banks of rock and roll style arena racked lighting and the heroic music swells to underscore all the solemnity of the occasion, De Niro smugly arrives to once and for all prove his powers are the real deal and to claim his sought after signed and documented university endorsement that will change physics forever. What a moment for humanity!
What transpires for the next ten minutes is not so much an overblown bombast as a direct contrast to the bare-bones reality of what we at IIG deal with in our meager “lab” test set-ups – which are usually put together with sweat, tears and a healthy roll of gaffer’s tape. And forget about mutual protocol in this movie, it’s all black and white – good guy versus bad guy. We don’t have any flashing light boards, rack lighting or music at IIG – and I’m going to ask for some the next time we do a test.
So why did I plunk down $13.75 to see this charade? I had a personal stake in seeing this film. Back in the 80′s I wrote a treatment for the producer’s of the “Poltergeist” franchise at Paramount that unfortunately never got off the ground. My story concerned what it would be like to actually have the powers psychics all claim to so easily possess. What would you do? How could you exist? How could you tie your shoes, do your laundry each day or eat knowing you could do such things? Would it even be controllable or would it control you? How would society treat such a person? Other films have since come along that lightly touched on this premise such as Brian De Palma’s “The Fury” (1978), John Travolta in “Phenomenon”(1996) and Clint Eastwood’s “Afterlife” (2010). Each of these films gave me some hope that one day my concept for what a real world no-bullshit psychics’ predicament would be if the true story was told correctly kept me hoping, but “Red Lights” missed the boat again. Hollywood just can’t resist overdoing it and going for the blood and fireworks.
I suppose my yearning for some harsher reality is an attempt at parity that started back in the early 60′s when I saw Burgess Meredith as Luther Dingle and Dick York as Hector B. Poole in unforgettable episodes of “The Twilight Zone,”" “Mr Dingle the Strong” (1961) and “A Penny for Your Thoughts” (1961). And who could forget Buddy Ebsen controlling the dice at the gambling tables in “The Prime Mover” (1961) Later, slightly more sinister and violent versions of this “power for a day” dilemma and what it might entail surfaced with Donald Pleasence as mild mannered Harold Finley in The Outer Limits episode, “The Man with the Power.” These dramas were generally good clean fun with a moral underpinning to help buoy them up from being merely gratuitous. The writers asked the question “what if” such a thing happened and what would an average he or she do with psychic or super powers? This was fine, but I wanted more. I still do. In dramatic fictionalized television or cinema, such folly doesn’t demand any scientific critical thinking to accept such crazy things as real and it’s easy to just sit back and enjoy them for what they are: pure fiction.
Now, for me anyway that’s not enough. Real people are getting real hurt. I still hold out some hope that some day, somewhere, somebody will have the skeptical guts to portray what it really would be like to read minds, predict future events and talk to dead people. It would have to be one of the most horrifying films ever made. Any takers?
If there’s any good news to come out of such hyped-up fictional writing and producing, “Red Lights” shows a tiny indication we may have reached a tipping point. It’s the tip of the iceberg, but there is actually some skeptical content there for anyone who takes a hard look at the underlying subplot: Psychics control us through manipulation of our emotions, buyer beware.
The rest is garbage.
For some well thought out answers to the “what if” question, I suggest reading H.G. Wells “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” or watch the movie of the same name featuring Roland Young as another reluctant receiver of ultimate power. The reality of this situation, if done successfully in contemporary cinematic terms, would be a real shot in the arm for skepticism.
” Deep beyond the kindest, gentlest soul may lurk violent thoughts, deadly wishes. Someday Man will learn to cope with the monsters of the mind. Then, and only then, when the human mind is truly in control of itself, can we begin to utilize the great and hidden powers of the universe.”
- The Control Voice epilogue from The Outer Limits episode “The Man with the Power”