Monday, July 28, 2008
Still Wanting to Believe
I watched THE X-FILES on a pretty regular basis back in the day but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that the show was allowed to go on several years too long. I’m pretty sure I watched the final episode when it aired but don’t remember a single thing about it. I know I couldn’t explain the mythology of the conspiracy to you and I’m not sure anyone could. I’m not sure that people who actually worked on the show could. This has caused episodes that focused on the mythology to be pretty unwatchable in reruns while the standalones, whether they were the darker stories or some of the more lighthearted ones the show did more of as it went on, have usually played just great when I’ve flipped by them in the middle of the night. Not that I’ve done too much of that lately. I haven’t thought about the show much at all for a while and I still can’t quite remember exactly where the show left everything when it finally ended.
The solution THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE offers to this problem is to present the characters as having been active in their fictional universe but clearly focusing on other things. By ignoring the wide-ranging issues the movie almost seems to be saying that what Mulder and Scully were uncovering was never really as important as how what they uncovered affected them. This at least meant I didn’t have to go read up on things to refresh my memory before seeing the movie but it also is the somewhat surprising move in that the resulting film is much moodier and character oriented than you would expect from a big-studio franchise movie released in the middle of summer. The plot—Mulder and Scully, neither seeming very happy these days, are brought back in to the FBI fold to assist in a case involving missing women and a pedophiliac former priest who claims to have visions of what has been happening—feels surprisingly small-scale at times and even more serious than you’d probably expect. Along with the overly dark, downbeat nature of some of the plot (even, it should be said, for THE X-FILES), the film is set in what looks like the most immensely cold and snowy West Virginia winter possible (shot, of course, in Vancouver) and it’s hard not to feel like the film would have been more at home in theaters in, say, February than during a hot summer. It feels daring to make a summer movie which is more interested in characters discussing concepts of faith and belief than in wall-to-wall action, quite a surprise when compared to how THE X-FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE, ten years old this summer, hopped all over the map. At a certain point when a foot chase breaks out I was almost relieved at the opportunity to get some actual movement going and was a little sorry that the chase wasn’t better than it was (for a really good foot chase, go see TELL NO ONE. As a matter of fact, just go see TELL NO ONE anyway). Much of I WANT TO BELIEVE, directed by series creator Chris Carter and written by Carter and Frank Spotnitz, feels too murky in its plotting, maybe partly the result of a script going into production during the writers’ strike, and while this is at times frustrating, the film does become better and more involving as it goes along. Certain plot elements do begin to come together, with some of what occurs actually reminding me of Gordon Hessler’s cult classic SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (if you haven’t seen it, give it a try) and even that film ultimately feels more like a work of science fiction. But what works best in this return to THE X-FILES, and what the film ultimately seems most interested in, is how it presents the characters of Mulder and Scully and where they’ve gotten to in their journey by this point. Someone I know asked me, “Are they a couple now?” but that turns out not to be the issue at all. Their relationship is presented as being refreshingly, believably complicated on an adult level which makes the romance angle irrelevant. Of course they love each other, that much is very clear, but there’s still lots of messiness in their past and it’s something they still have to confront. It’s as if before fighting the greater threat of the conspiracy in any sequel (not that there’s much chance of that now with the box office figures coming in) they first have to settle the conflicts within themselves.
David Duchovny is the best thing here, giving the film the right amount of energy and making us believe this is Fox Mulder several years later. In contrast, you can feel the effort Gillian Anderson is making as Dana Scully a little too much and the less assured nature of her characterization gives the impression she’s having trouble figuring out how Scully may have changed. As some of the other FBI agents who figure into the story, Amanda Peet feels slightly let down by the thin role she’s given and Alvin “Xzhibit” Joiner is, it has to be said, flat-out bad with his role feeling truncated to allow for a late-in-the-game surprise appearance by a very familiar face. As the disgraced priest, Billy Connolly in what is really the main guest star role is excellent, with the scenes he has with Anderson being some of the best stuff in the film when Duchovny’s not around.
As already stated, the box office on THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE feels dead in the water so prospects of another sequel feel slim (never say never, of course). But while people may be turned off by the grim storyline here I suspect the film might pick up additional admirers down the line when they watch it at home and are able to go with how the film mainly focuses on the two iconic lead characters. It’s probably not what people want—hell, it may not be what I wanted—but at least it tried to be something more challenging than many such films these days would attempt. If this is going to be the last screen case for Mulder and Scully, at least it’s with a film where we get to be once again reminded of who they always were and who they will be, even if we won’t get to see it.
But is Scully really immortal? I guess we’ll never find out the answer to that one.