Mulder and Scully return in a blood-soaked mystery of faith.
Maybe the greatest thing about the annual summer onslaught of sequels and franchise films is the chance to see old fictitious friends again. Hollywood clearly relies on our yen for the familiar and exploits it accordingly, dredging up any concept with a reasonably certain chance of success (no matter how undeserving). This summer has obviously seen its share of glorious hits (Iron Man, The Dark Knight) and conspicuous misses (Hellboy II, Prince Caspian), and as the season winds down it’s both refreshing and reassuring to have Fox Mulder and Dana Scully back in form with The X-Files: I Want to Believe.
This second film version of the cult television series finds our heroes (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) called out of exile to locate a missing F.B.I. agent, albeit with the help of a disgraced ex-priest (Billy Connolly) who may or may not have psychic powers. Writer/director/series creator Chris Carter wisely eschews the density of the show’s “mythology” episodes, essentially creating a big-budget “monster of the week” episode accessible to even the most uninitiated viewer. Yet unlike some of the show’s most famous and popular episodes, which sometimes bordered on straight comedy, I Want to Believe is an intensely dark and unsettling film that’s not for the squeamish. It’s no surprise then that the film plays very much like a television episode, with its frequent use and reuse of the same three or four locations. The plot is also hopelessly stuck in primetime narrative structure, as one can easily pinpoint where the commercial breaks should occur.
Most thought-provoking is Carter’s retooling of the show’s conspiracy theory premise. Underneath the basic horror movie topes, the film is essentially a search for meaning and divine benevolence in a brutal and seemingly arbitrary existence. This time institutionalized religion replaces monolithic government as the bogeyman that suppresses truth in order to control the masses. (Luckily though, this time around God does not take the form of Burt Reynolds, as in the aptly titled “Improbable”, which has to be the series’ Worst. Episode. Ever.)
Yet in focusing on the most important question of all, Carter ironically manages to lose relevance. In its day, the series was famous for harnessing the power of paranoia to challenge the smugness of corrupt authority, and the verfremdungseffekt of the supernatural setting provided an audience-friendly platform for criticism. So if ever there was a franchise tailor-made to assault the politics of BushCo, it must be The X-Files. But aside from one admittedly hilarious gag, the film completely avoids any commentary on post-9/11 abuses of power. It’s certainly good taste to not exploit a national tragedy (Mr. Bush should be so considerate himself), but it may also be irresponsible to avoid the opportunity to legitimately champion the need for reform via such a popular vehicle.
All fringe theories about shadow governments and the paranormal aside, the franchise owes it longevity to the undeniable chemistry and muted love affair between Mulder and Scully. Carter obviously realizes this fact – why else would precious few details be given out before the film’s release if the characters weren’t the main attraction? A considerable amount of I Want to Believe is therefore devoted to the still evolving dynamic between the former agents, and this emphasis on characterization more than makes up for any structural defects. And rather than simply go through the motions of a tired reunion, the stars bring their A-game: Anderson, woefully underrated as an actor (and getting better looking with age), delivers another restrained portrait of conflicted integrity; and even Duchovny is noticeably less wooden and more vibrant than, well, probably ever. And there are also plenty of subtle Easter eggs for the show’s devotees, and the appearance of a familiar face in the final act is also most welcome.
With its dismal $10 million opening weekend box office take however, I Want to Believe may be the series’ last hurrah. That makes it all the more important to stay through the closing credits to see our heroes get the happy ending they deserve. Still, despite this latest film’s flaws it’s enough to simply see our friends again, and I personally want to believe that we haven’t seen the last of them.
- Steve Kabel