Buried, the movie with Ryan Reynolds being buried alive in a coffin, got strong reviews (you can check out Alex’s video review here), but it absolutely died — no pun intended — in theaters. Director Rodrigo Cortés cited Alfred Hitchcock as his main inspiration for the film, and he did an admirable job of following in Hitchcock’s footsteps with Buried. The film deserved to perform better.
After such a unique thriller, I hoped Cortés would continue in that direction. But like Cortés aped Hitchcock in Buried, he apes Christopher Nolan with Red Lights. And while Cortés is a talented director, he’s not Nolan.
Red Lights opens with Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Dr. Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) at work investigating a possibly haunted house, much like the opening scene in Ghostbusters in the New York Public Library (and whether it was Cortés’ intention or not, I certainly enjoyed seeing Ghostbusters‘ Sigourney Weaver as a paranormal researcher). After a freaky seance scene we switch to Matheson and Buckley at their day jobs, which is a university that studies paranormal activity. Matheson has built her career on debunking the unexplainable by explaining it with legitimate science or good old-fashioned trickery. However, when world-famous psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) comes out of retirement to again wow audiences and prove that his extraordinary powers are legitimate, Buckley recruits Matheson’s student/his new girlfriend Sally Owen (Elizabeth Olsen) to find out if Silver’s convincing act is the real deal.
First things first, Red Lights is loud. I mean, really, really LOUD. Are you the type who is frightened by loud noises? Then Red Lights will scare you out of the theaters. There is loud pounding like you wouldn’t believe in this movie, and since it isn’t followed up with any fear-inducing impressive visuals it gets to be annoying, like when a toddler discovers mom’s pots and pans make an excellent set of drums. I’m not sure if composer Victor Reyes deserves praise or ridicule for his soundtrack, because it hurts the film almost as much as it helps it. And the actors SHOUT to be heard over the din, so much so that I began to imagine Anchorman‘s Brick entering the scenes and shouting “LOUD NOISES!”
And that’s the essential problem with Red Lights — like an M80, it makes a lot of noise but doesn’t provide much flash. It’s supernatural and puzzling quality evokes Nolan’s Inception and The Prestige, but it isn’t in either’s league. Murphy is a great actor but is in the wrong place as a likable leading man, and he can’t carry a film that is short on story stretched to nearly two hours. It raises a few interesting ideas but plods along so slowly that I lost interest about the third time Murphy’s character was screaming (and that’s not too far into the film).
DeNiro, however, is surprisingly a highlight. Uunlike many recent roles that De Niro seems to sleepwalk through, he’s doing something interesting here in his role as a blind man and brings a lot of emotion to it. It’s not a return to form, but it’s a glimpse of De Niro’s greatness. The same can’t be said about Eugenio Mira, an actor who plays the younger version of De Niro’s character in a brief scene with more camera-mugging then when Colin Quinn played DeNiro on SNL. It’s laugh-inducing, and not in a good way. Likewise, Craig Roberts, who was so impressive in Submarine, overdoes it as a nerdy student, similar to how Toby Jones pops up as a nebbish scientist, which is perhaps the most Toby Jones role there is.
But the most wasted here is Elizabeth Olsen. I like Olsen, and I think she has a big future in this business, but here she takes the Ariadne role. What’s that term mean? As great as Inception is as a movie, it’s obvious that Ellen Page‘s Ariadne is an audience surrogate — that is, whenever something in the film’s complicated plot needed to be explained to the audience the characters stopped and explained it to Ariadne. It’s a fairly common plot device — Watson is such an essential part of Sherlock Holmes stories because Holmes has someone in-story to explain what his brilliant mind is deducing. Unlike Page’s Ariadne, Cortés doesn’t even attempt to have Olsen’s character become anything more than a sounding board, and Buckley even shuffles her off for a lengthy portion of the movie in one of those “it’s too dangerous / I have to do this alone” moments. It’s a waste of Olsen, since at least characters like Ariadne and Watson played significant roles in the plots of their stories.
As a result, it’s really hard to recommend Red Lights. Cortés obviously is a skilled filmmaker, but this film seemed like a cocktail of Inception and The Prestige. He’s so much better than a low-rent Christopher Nolan, and I really hope that with his next film he finds his own voice.
Rating: Though there are some intriguing moments, its like a Christopher Nolan movie played at full volume and half speed (5/10).