The X-Files: I Want to Believe
Written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz
Directed by Chris Carter
Fox, July 2008
Rated PG-13 for sex and violence
This is The X-Files I fell in love with in 1993. Chris Carter’s feature directing debut, “The X-Files: I Want to Believe”, takes us back to basics while never letting go of the hard-won developments in the X-Files universe that nine years of television bequeathed us. On the one hand, we have the bare-bones, standalone “episode”–Mulder and Scully re-team after six years to investigate a case that may or may not have paranormal aspects. On the other hand, we have nine years of character and relationship development packed into two hours. All the years of unresolved sexual tension, all the humor and the camaraderie, some of the conflict and all of the trust between these two iconic characters is preserved and, to some extent, resolved, in a wholly natural and believable way.
And writing the words “wholly natural” and “believable” in conjunction with The X-Files is a weird experience, let me tell you.
The adjective best used to describe this incarnation of Carter’s vision is “mellow”. Without compromising his bleak, sharp-witted and often irreverent vision, this story is clearly one about people who have aged–gracefully–into a middle age less frenetic, less anxious than the young agents we met in 1993. At the same time, there is nothing mellow about the truly horrific story behind the movie, a case scary enough to give me, for the first time in years, that icy trickle of fear that glued me to the screen in the first place.
Unlike the previous attempt at an X-Files film, this one makes little or no reference to the overcomplicated mythology of the series. There are no ETs, no mysterious conspirators in smoky rooms, and only a few references to former cases. The sole intrusions from the past are the mentions of Mulder’s search for his sister Samantha–a search which is quietly explained without the usual heavy-handed exposition–and a passing mention of William. Both of these stories are invoked to lend depth to the Mulder/Scully relationship, but do not bear at all on the plot, so viewers unfamiliar with the series will not be left clueless as the story draws to its climax.
The finest thing about this movie is Gillian Anderson’s performance. She was always good, but in this movie she is downright brilliant. She gives us all of Scully’s strength and integrity, all of her grace and compassion, but this time throws in a little sexiness, a lot of righteous anger, a heavy dose of self-doubt and a good solid foundation of love. She is finally allowed to show us Scully’s deep love for Fox Mulder, not in any mawkish or sentimental way, but in a fully adult (as in grown-up, not pornographic) manner. Six years after leaving the FBI, Dr. Dana Scully is a pediatric physician/surgeon in a Catholic hospital. Although she still wears a cross around her neck every day, she has come to curse God, after being immersed every day in the tragedies visited on her small patients. Her unyielding advocacy on their behalf, her sweet bedside manner with them, and her obvious desire to comfort and heal put a real halo on Dana Scully. Anderson delivers all this with panache, maintaining Scully’s trademark cool reserve while also showing us a warm and personable woman within. This is a stellar performance. Dare I mention an Oscar nomination? If it were up to me, it would be a lock.
David Duchovny generously allows Anderson’s performance to take center stage. He holds his own well against her Scully–Mulder is still as obsessive as ever, but has acquired a few human traits. The twinkle in the eye is still there, but there are fewer wisecracks. His laconic delivery still defines Mulder’s half-amused, half-angry take on the universe. Mulder is still trying to fix a broken world, still trying to get justice for those swept under the rug or out of sight. He’s still a crusader, although these days he looks more like Don Quixote than Richard the Lion-Hearted. Nearing fifty, he still has the spirit needed for those famous chases in the dark, as well as the body needed for some lovely bedroom time with Scully. I can even forgive a thankfully short-lived pirate beard.
Carter has not forgotten his faithful X-Philes and our compulsive trivia-gathering. There are in-jokes a-plenty in the movie, some of which garnered “oos” and “ahs” at their appearance. The sunflower seeds are back. The pencils in the ceiling are back. The arguments over the car are back. Chris Carter’s home town of Bellflower gets a fleeting mention, and Mulder’s cell phone address book lists most of the writers and directors of the former series. Best of all, filming in Vancouver let Carter bring back some former guest stars, ranging from villains Callum Keith Rennie and Alex Diakun to former X-Files producer J. P. Finn. I counted at least six other former X-Guests, not to mention a returning character whose entrance in the final act drew a round of delighted applause from the audience. The technical credits list some familiar names that almost brought tears to my eyes–director of photography Bill Roe, former DP John Bartley, music maestro Mark Snow, former Lone Gunman and first AD Tom Braidwood, special effects mavens Mat Beck and David Gauthier.
Of course the main question is: is this a real X-File? You betcha. Abandoning the tangled mythology of the series, Carter has gone back to the spooky archives of the original premise. The FBI asks Scully to call in Mulder to help authenticate a psychic who claims to know something about a missing FBI agent. Mulder’s none too keen on returning to the agency that still holds a warrant for his arrest, but she persuades him to take it on for the sake of the missing agent. “Once, that might have been you or me.” As always, Scully’s advocacy for the victim wins past Mulder’s simmering anger, and the team is back at work. FBI Agents Amanda Peet (Studio 60) and Xibit (Gridiron Gang) reverse the Mulder/Scully dynamic–he’s a skeptic, she’s a believer–but lend the resources of the Bureau to the hunt. They introduce the pair to Father Joe (Billy Connolly, Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events), a convicted pedophile now living in “a vile box”–an apartment house reserved for sex offenders. He can see–or claims to see–something of the abduction, but not all of it. He has already led the team to a severed arm–which does not belong to the missing woman. Mulder wants to believe the man, but even he has his doubts. He’s a classic X-Files “witness”: suspicious, unreliable, flaky. Scully would like to drop him off a cliff, and wants off the investigation entirely. She’s already emotionally overcommitted: she has a dying patient on her hands that the indifferent hospital bureaucracy wants to offload to a hospice.
While it might seem at first that Scully’s hospital drama had no connection to the search for a missing FBI agent–and as the movie progresses, for other missing women–in fact there is a none too subtle tie between them. Scully flouts hospital policy to try radical and dangerous brain surgery on her patient, one which might kill him. Mulder tracks down a serial kidnapper who is supplying a modern day Dr. Frankenstein (played by the always scary Alex Diakun) with the parts for a kind of brain surgery not sanctioned by the AMA. When I finally realized what was going on in that grungy surgery, with the dogs barking in the background and the oddly colored patient on the gurney, I finally felt that frisson again, that chill down the spine that signals a truly scary X-File. The special effects are completely up to snuff here (no pun intended) and the pacing is as tight and breathless as anyone could wish.
Chris Carter retains some of the pacing of a television show–there were points where I kept expecting a commercial break–but for the most part, especially at the end, keeps the tension high and the energy humming. His and Frank Spotnitz’ script imbues the movie with a sense of nostalgia balanced with a mature reflection on the nature of faith. Veteran X-Files DPs Bill Roe and John Bartley, who practically invented the X-Files trademark look, render us once again those bleak landscapes of isolation, the cool and gloomy twilight of Spooky’s World. It’s a pleasure to be here again.
I cannot, of course, overlook what many will consider the main story of this movie: Mulder and Scully. Finally, after years of hints and smoldering looks and the occasional embrace, not to mention the birth and subsequent loss of a child, we get Mulder and Scully as lovers–long-established lovers. The bedroom scene between Mulder and Scully, which might have been shown on the Family Channel for all the skin it revealed, showed us a pair who are comfortable together, who share a bathroom and a history, whose lives are tied by a lost son and a shared history of pain and loss. At one point, Scully specifically denies being married to Mulder, but typically, Carter does not make it clear whether they are living together or whether Scully just has a toothbrush permanently parked in Mulder’s bathroom. In any case, while there are conflicts and cross-purposes between Mulder and Scully (they wouldn’t be them if there weren’t), there is also a warmth and empathy not reflected even in first season episodes. There are kisses. There is hand holding. There is hugging. And there is still humor: during the bedroom scene, Scully’s bedside book is about wasps having sex. Funny.
“Dark Knight” notwithstanding, this movie would never have been a summer blockbuster–it’s too cool, too removed, too involved for that–but it’s a good, solid movie in the tradition of the best X-Files standalone episodes. Those who came looking for a flashy, pull-out-the-stops special effects extravaganza may be disappointed, but those who came looking for that old time religion will sing “Hallelujah!”. I give it five out of five sunflower seeds.
PS Stay throughout the entire end credits. You will not be disappointed.
Copyright 2008 by Sarah Stegall