The X-Files: I Want to Believe (U.S., 2008) * * *
D: Chris Carter
What if, in the middle of a summer of expensive, special effects-driven superhero blockbusters, they released a modest, intelligent, adult thriller based on the cult TV series The X-Files? What if it had almost no special effects, no extraterrestrials, no "government conspiracy"--and went in the exact opposite direction of its previous big-screen outing of ten years before (1998's The X-Files, aka The X-Files: Fight the Future)? What if, instead of delivering on what fans and non-fans would expect, they actually answered the criticisms leveled at the first film (and at the series' later, less-valued years)? The answer, I'm afraid, might be the death of the whole enterprise. And it's a shame, because in doing all these things they've actually delivered a very good film.
As every X-Phile knows, there are two kinds of X-Files episodes: one from the formidable "mythology" arc--involving UFOs, alien abductions, and government cover-ups--and the more common "stand-alone" hour, which might be either a "monster of the week" installment or a thriller on a variety of paranormal topics. Contrary to what an outsider might think, most fans prefer the latter, and indeed, the best episodes of the series have been stand-alone episodes with nothing to do with "black oil" or Alex Krycek or little spikes to be jabbed in the back of the alien bounty hunter's neck. Early in The X-Files: I Want to Believe, an FBI agent tips off the viewer by referencing a handful of the stronger X-Files episodes ("Beyond the Sea," "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose"), all of them having to do with psychic phenomena. And that's exactly what you're getting here: a stronger stand-alone episode, stretched out to just under two hours. Expect anything else and you'll be greatly disappointed. Many of you will be.
It's a FBI-procedural mystery first and foremost, the kind you'd expect to see in a thriller starring Morgan Freeman and/or Ashley Judd. As the movie begins, FBI agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) is employing a psychic, Father Joe (Billy Connolly), to help track down a missing agent. Instead he finds a severed arm buried in the snow. She then brings in former agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), late of the X-Files and now a practicing doctor, in hopes that she can contact paranormal expert Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), who has been in hiding for years (the 2002 series finale left Mulder and Scully on the run from the shadow government lurking within the FBI). Mulder is now living in exile, having grown an Al Gore beard and working out of a cramped room layered with newspaper cutouts and the familiar "I Want to Believe" UFO poster, dozens of pencils stuck in the ceiling. It's pretty much how you'd expect the obsessive, eternally driven Mulder to be getting on. Distrusting the FBI, he thinks this is just a trap to bring him into the open; nevertheless, as another agent's life is at stake, he's persuaded to meet with Agent Whitney and the psychic Father Joe, who, we quickly learn, is a convicted pedophile, now castrated, and living in squalor while nursing an addiction to cigarettes. The man's visions are beyond his control, and very often lead nowhere. Scully is disgusted by his crimes and convinced he's a fraud, although when he tells her, apropos of nothing, "Don't give up," she can't help but wonder if it's a message from God, as she's locked in an ongoing battle to save the life of a young child afflicted with a terminal illness. She wants to put the child through an experimental and grueling stem cell therapy treatment, but another priest (Adam Godley), the "good" priest to Joe's "bad" priest, counsels the parents to have the boy taken out of the hospital, where he can die in peace. It's a completely unrelated subplot that regardless brings an emotional and philosophical weight to the film. Meanwhile, Mulder puts all his faith in the increasingly discredited Father Joe, and just as the investigation seems to be drying up, a sinister conspiracy of an altogether different sort begins to reveal itself. No, aliens are not involved. Stop thinking that.
While it's jarring to see how much Anderson and Duchovny have aged over the intervening years (a familiar face makes a cameo late in the film, and he looks uncannily, almost comfortingly the same), they slip so naturally into their old and best roles that it becomes easy to accept this as the latest chapter in their continuing relationship. Viewers unfamiliar with the last two seasons of the series (and, let's face it, that's 90% of the audience) will find it jarring to see the two agents romantically involved, the sexual tension of the first film long since dissolved as they hop into bed with each other early into this sequel. The more obvious path would have been to treat the agents like ex-lovers, with a frosty reception before finally rekindling their affection for one another--an overly-familiar arc that, I think, anyone else would have taken. But writer/director/series creator Chris Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz have chosen a braver path with this film, more respectful of the fans who want to see Mulder & Scully grow, but also respectful of adults who want a mystery-thriller that treats them like adults. The plot goes in genuinely unexpected directions. The moral dilemma each agent faces has a severe and real-world weightiness--particularly Scully's. Father Joe is a fascinating character, alternately creepy and sympathetic, sometimes at the same moment, and a concrete symbol of the moral gray areas with which the plot concerns itself. The film's biggest flaw is that the climax feels too muted--and when Mulder wields a wrench and groggily shouts, "Does anyone here speak English?", it's easily the most embarrassing scene in the film. The movie is also slow and talky, which is poison in the middle of the popcorn season. But I will also admit that when someone complains to me that a movie was "boring" and "nothing happened," I consider that an endorsement. (Would you rather Michael Bay direct this?) What you actually have here is not a "boring" movie, but one that will, I suspect, look a lot better when viewed outside of the bigger-is-better frenzy of The Dark Knight (which is great, but an altogether different beast), Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, etc. It will seem considerably more appealing when viewed on DVD in the fall. It will also age well, as it doesn't tie itself up in knots trying to connect itself to the series' convoluted plotline.
But in making all these risky choices, Carter and Spotnitz may very well have killed off the franchise. Good grief, I thought as I left the theater: who knew that they would make such a modest movie? And release it in July? What were they thinking? But if you sit through the credits you'll get a clue that they knew the risk they were taking, in a cute, unexpected farewell shot of Mulder and Scully which might be--they know very well--the last time we glimpse the two characters. It's a sweet, whimsical wave goodbye. I would rather hope that they get to make at least one more.