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Red Lights celebrating Sciences ... Or Not!

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For a science editor, words such as “supernatural” or “paranormal” make no sense at all. For me, as well as many skeptics, everything that is happening around us has to have a scientific and logical explanation that conforms to well-proved facts. Recently, I have had the chance to watch Red Lights, a 2012 Spanish/American thriller, starring Cillian Murphy, Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver.

At the beginning, Red Lights depicts the endeavors of physicists Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her assistant Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) and how they are constantly working on exposing several frauds who are either self-proclaimed prophets with healing powers or even amateur psychic wannabes. On the other hand, we are introduced to Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), a highly celebrated psychic who decided to make a comeback after more than a controversial three-decade retirement connected to the mysterious and sudden death of one of his biggest critics and skeptics. Silver returns back from the ashes as the long-awaited Houdini with major media propaganda and big theatrical shows attended by masses of people who blindly believe in his powers.

Obviously, the movie presents a direct juxtaposition between science represented by Dr. Matheson and her assistant on the one hand, and supernatural powers represented by Simon Silver on the other hand. Along the way, we get some insights regarding Matheson’s and Murphy’s personal interests to pursue such endeavors which are not gaining much support either from the public or at least their educational institution. On the one hand, Cillian Murphy talks vaguely at the beginning of the movie about a mother who has a stomach ache but based on a psychic’s advice, she does not consult a doctor until very late when she discovers she has cancer. We, the audience, get the impression that the woman in Murphy’s story is his own mother, and thus believe that this is the main motive that drives him to pursue such a career.

Along the way, we witness the fall of some frauds such as Leonardo Palladino who uses informative tips given to him by his assistants through earpieces allowing him to act as if he knows personal details and insights about the audiences who attend his shows. Thus, people would fall for his act thinking that he actually has superpowers. Palladino’s character is believed to be inspired by Reverend Peter Popoff, a real psychic who got exposed once during the 1980s. However, in Red Lights, we see a perfect ending for a shrewd hustler as Palladino, whereas in real life, Popoff is still widely revered and celebrated by millions of people.

Such juxtaposition between eternally opposing beliefs seems to peek with Murphy’s persistence on exposing Silver. Despite Matheson’s strong objection to her assistant’s wishes due to her previous infamous encounter with Silver, Murphy becomes more determined even after the sudden death of Matheson. We witness a lot of misfortunes happening to the young physicist, yet we are not quite sure that Silver and his gang are responsible for such acts until the very end when Murphy’s assistants succeed at pinpointing loopholes in Silver’s hoaxes.

Just when we are about to finally feel relieved by the scientific victory through the exposure of the “legendary” Silver, we are struck by Murphy’s confession that he has supernatural powers himself, and that is why he has taken the responsibility of showing hustlers in their true colors. With such a striking end, I was left disappointed with a vague message that the film has, unfortunately, tried to convey. After almost two hours of thrilling and somewhat spooky events leading us to raise our belief in Science, we get this twist in events that would shake all our perceptions and expectations.

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SCIplanet is a bilingual edutainment science magazine published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Planetarium Science Center and developed by the Cultural Outreach Publications Unit ...
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