Writer-director Rodrigo Cortés delves so deeply into "X Files" territory with his new feature, the paranormal thriller "Red Lights," that he can't resist including a huge wink to fans Chris Carter's sharp, stylish TV show from the 1990s--the very same UFO posted that once graced Fox Mulder's office in the basement of the FBI now hangs from a wall in the university office of Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver), a researcher who debunks so-called supernatural phenomena of all sorts. (One difference: The slogan "I Want to Believe" is here replaced with "I Want to Understand." Those who get the joke will scoff; why not just go all the way?)
The comparison between "Red Lights" and "The X Files" is more than apt. The movie practically begs us to weigh the two against one another (though not as brazenly as 2004's "The Forgotten," the Joseph Ruben project that not only borrowed Carter's blend of fairy tale and paranoia, but ripped off "The X Files" for several of its salient plot points). Like Mulder's tough, skeptical partner, Dana Scully, Margaret is devoted to science and a rational world view. She lives by Occam's Razor, the axiom that tells us the simplest explanation is probably the correct one; "When I hear the drumming of hooves," Margaret declares at one point, "I don't think unicorns. I think horses."
Margaret, like Mulder, has a partner for her investigations. His name is Tom, and he's played with jangled edginess by Cillian Murphy. Tom is equally skeptical, but where Margaret is methodical and a bit stodgy, Tom is a firebrand. When a long-retired psychic named Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) comes out of retirement for a major tour, Tom is keen to face him down and prove him to be a fraud. Margaret resists the idea; it takes some time, and some needling, but finally Tom gets to the bottom of her objections. Silver and Margaret did face off once, long ago, and the encounter has left her with psychic scars (so to speak).
It takes some time for the movie to find its footing and its focus. For a while, it's one mini-adventure after another for Margaret and Tom, as they gallivant around exposing charlatans and fake hauntings. It's never quite clear just what department they head up at the Illinois university where they work; when they teach, they teach methods of critical thinking that go beyond the general and deal quite specifically with pseudo-sciences of every stripe. (At one point, Tom passes out horoscope charts and asks the class how many of them feel that the charts accurately reflect them. Three-quarters of the students raise their hands.
Then comes the kicker: The "charts" are not at all personalized. They are all the same. It's a lesson in the way the brain is wired to find narratives and correlations where none actually exist, but the moment, and the lesson, are quickly swallowed by a sudden turn of events.) From the opening credits on, there's a sense of the scattershot; one senses that this would make for good television, if it didn't need to be shoehorned into a two-hour running time.
Alas, this is a movie and not a series, and as such it wants to be big (with a capital B) rather than intense in the gradual, "let's ratchet things up until you want to scream" way that the best TV shows can be. Once Tom decides to pursue Silver, the film shifts into more familiar tropes, with chases, and creepy homeless people, and phone calls that offer menacing silence, and the jolt of birds plunging themselves into windows at the mention of Silver's name. The scattershot sensibility persists, though, because the movie's tone fluctuates wildly (even as the plot and the dialogue follow a relentless, downward trajectory).
What are we to make of all this? Is Cortés trying to coax us off the ledge of superstition and back onto the terra firma of critical thought and fact-based decision-making before we lumber right over the edge, still clutching our crystals and homeopathic remedies? Or has he simply decided to go for some sort of fanboy pastiche made from snippets of the stuff that drives movies of this genre? (In addition to "The X Files" influence, there are dabs and daubs of everything from "The Exorcist" to "The Sixth Sense.")
There's entertainment value here, and even moments of suspense, but "Red Lights" misses the mark. What starts off looking like an intriguing, well-produced pilot for Fox or one of the bolder cable channels never quite reaches a real A-list feature film level. What's more, this movie turns out to be less an essay on "mind over matter" than an exercise of style over substance, showing a willingness to flirt with (and then sidestep) the latter while having a merely tenuous grasp of the former.