The X-Files: I Want To Believe – Review with Spoilers

As a pretty big fan of The X-Files (I even went to a convention once) back when it was on TV, I was definitely pleased when the news came out last year that a new feature film would be coming out this year. Certainly, my enthusiasm was particularly strong thanks to the fact that stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson would both be returning and that series creator Chris Carter would be writing and directing. The resultant film is surprisingly modest, but I also found it to be a spooky and compelling thriller that felt true to the characters and effectively reflected the tone of the series.

With it being 6 years since the series ended (and 10 years since the last feature film), Carter and his co-writer Frank Spotnitz (also a regular contributor to the series), wisely decided to go with a story that very easily stands on its own without substantially involving the complex, and sometimes kind of convoluted, conspiracy mythology that ended up generally dominating the later seasons of the series. The result actually has more of the look and feel of an episode from one of the earliest seasons, back when the main focus was on stand-alone plots about a crime with, often somewhat ambiguous, supernatural overtones. While I did enjoy the conspiracy aspects of the series, if nothing else for its pure complexity, I tended to prefer the more standalone episodes. Because of that, this movie largely fit with what I generally liked best about the series. I can understand pretty easily, though, why this film could feel disappointing to fans that preferred the conspiracy stories or who were hoping for a feature film that had grander ambitions.

It has been pretty widely reported that 20th Century Fox would only green-light another "X-Files" feature if Carter agreed to keep it to a very low-budget. Reportedly, the film ended up costing around $30 million, which is amazingly low for a major studio feature today, particularly one built around a known franchise. Fortunately, they came up with a story that fit the budget instead of trying to cut corners. The film is very dialog-driven and does not feature large special effects sequences or big set pieces. The film builds a fair amount of tension, and is even downright scary at times, and that is largely accomplished via fairly old-fashioned filmmaking techniques, including frequently relying on the viewer’s imagination to fill in what isn’t shown directly.  Score composer Mark Snow (who also scored the entire TV series and the previous film) again contributes greatly to the tension and overall mood of the film.

The scale of the film is small enough that I could see a pretty good argument being made that perhaps they should have done this as a TV movie instead of a theatrical release. They did largely ignore the conventional wisdom that a feature film requires a story that is much grander and larger in scope than the typical TV episodes. The longer running time of the film does provide room for more story development at a more leisurely pace. I suspect that will may find the film a bit slow as it doesn’t have the rapid cutting and frequent action sequences that are typical of most summer thrillers. The pacing of this film is actually quite a bit slower even in comparison to the first "X-Files" film.  The film does also benefit from some effective use of the full wide-screen frame, particularly during a few key sequences set in snow-covered fields as well as during one very well-shot foot chase.  I also think that the somewhat complex and dialog-driven nature of the movie was well served from the generally stronger focus given to a movie in a theater than with the usual distractions of a TV viewing.

A lot of effort was made to keep the plot of the film mostly under wraps. Having seen the film, I suspect that was done largely to mask the pretty low-key nature of the story, which doesn’t really try to expand the series mythology. The primary mystery involves a series of missing person cases that end up being connected to body-part (including the head) transplant experiments being done by a Russian doctor in an attempt to save the life of his gay lover (seriously…) Obviously, this is more than a little bit silly and the full details of what exactly they were doing isn’t even entirely clear by the end of the movie. This is obviously the film’s biggest weakness, but it actually isn’t as big a deal as it may seem. Even with the plot being somewhat nonsensical, it is depicted in such a way that a fairly strong tension is maintained and these weaknesses weren’t really strongly evident until I started thinking this through more after leaving the theater.  Most significantly, the details of the mystery are really a very secondary aspect of the film, which is much more focused on various moral decisions faced by the characters.

Very central to the film is an excellent performance by Billy Connolly (an under-appreciated character actor) as Father Joe, a priest who had been convicted of child molestation, but was now claiming to be experiencing psychic visions related to the missing persons case.  What I found exceptionally effective about this aspect of the film is that they wisely maintained a great deal of ambiguity about whether the psychic visions were genuine or if they were being faked either in an attempt to obtain some level of forgiveness or because Father Joe was a co-conspirator in the crimes.  Even at the end of the film, compelling evidence remained for each of these possibilities.  Some of the best episodes of the TV series left similar ambiguity about whether or not the supernatural elements of the story were true or not, although there seemed to be less of that during the later seasons.  I was pleased that the film took that approach.

Seeing Duchovny and Anderson back in the roles of Mulder and Scully felt a lot like visiting old friends, although with the natural progressions in life experience that are likely to be evident from a lengthy separation.  Although the series ended 6 years ago, the characterizations had kind of gone off the rails during the last couple seasons, to a large degree due to Duchovny significantly limiting his appearances during the second to last season and then only appearing in the series finale during the final season.  The series ended with Mulder a fugitive and both characters in hiding, something that the film didn’t ignore but also wisely dispensed with very quickly by having the FBI offer Mulder a complete dismissal of the charges (which had been faked anyway) in exchange for his help on this new case.  I appreciated that they didn’t just try to pretend the events at the end of the series hadn’t happened, but that they also didn’t dwell on it much, particularly since the film really needed to be accessible to newcomers and to the many fans that gave up on the show during those final seasons.

The other big development towards the end of the season was the transition of the Mulder/Scully relationship from a plutonic partnership to a romantic one.  This was continued in the film, with the characters depicted as now living together.  With this, I still felt that they found exactly the right tone for the relationship, basically showing it as a natural progression of the intimate professional connection that developed over most of the series.  The romance isn’t portrayed as overly passionate or at all mushy, but instead as a mixture of pretty much unwavering trust and a strong dependence on one another.  The romance is threatened (including a tentative break-up) over the course of the movie, but in a very believable and logical situation as Scully struggles with the potential of being pulled back into "the darkness" (as she describes it) as Mulder returns to the type of investigative work that she thought they had escaped.

The use of "I Want To Believe" as the film’s sub-title was a very eaappropriate one.  The phrase already had meaning to the fans as the slogan on a poster that was prominently displayed on the wall of Mulder’s office at the FBI (in this film, it was on the wall in a very similarly decorated home office), but it was also very much a running theme throughout the film.  The most obvious example was that Mulder wanted to believe that Father Joe was genuine, both as a validation of his life-long focus on the supernatural as well as out of a genuine hope of reaching a successful conclusion to the missing person case, particularly since the visions were giving hope that the victim might still be alive.  I did like that there was a running theme that Mulder was particularly determined to succeed because of his continued pain over his sister’s childhood abduction, another key element that carried over from the series. 

Scully’s actions in the film were also motivated  by a key event from the TV series, specifically the child that she gave up during the final season.  She showed a particularly strong revulsion to Father Joe’s past crimes and, thus, a very low willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt.  The film features a fairly substantial B-plot involving Scully, who had started practicing medicine full-time at a hospital (even in the series, she was a medical doctor) and was debating a radical treatment option for a child with a usually-terminal illness.  I’ve seen some complaints that this subplot was fairly superfluous, and the connections to the main storyline are very slight, but it really did play heavily into the overall theme of seeking the strength to choose belief over skepticism.  I particularly liked that Father Joe at one point planted the idea in her mind that she should go forward with the difficult treatment for her patient, despite her hesitance to believe him and uncertainty if that was even what he was talking about.  Finally, I thought that it was another interesting and effective choice to ultimately leave this subplot unresolved instead of explicitly telling if the treatment was successful or even fully completed.

Father Joe’s character very strongly fit into this theme of belief, both in his impact on Mulder and Scully (as described above) as well as on his own.  Although the authenticity of his visions is never fully determined, there is an overall theme that he still has hope that redemption, at least in the eyes of God, are still possible.  There is a significant religious theme throughout the film, obviously with Father Joe’s religious affiliation, but also with Scully working in a Catholic hospital and facing opposition from a well-meaning, but skeptical, priest as she pursues treatment for her patient.  Of course, the hope of retaining religious faith is certainly another possible interpretation of the film’s title.

The movie did have a couple other significant supporting performances.  Amanda Peet is quite good as one of the lead FBI agents on the case and the one responsible for bringing Mulder and Scully into it.  It was an effective choice making her character a skeptic who didn’t really believe Father Joe, but also an agent so thorough that she didn’t want to leave any possible angle unexplored.  The character’s death about 2/3 of the way into the film was a genuine surprise and added quite a bit to the overall tension.

Other than Duchovny and Anderson, the one other actor from the series that returned in the film was Mitch Pileggi as Assistant Director Skinner, Mulder and Scully’s boss in the TV series.  He wasn’t in the published cast listing for the film and his appearance in it was largely kept a secret, all the way to the point of Pileggi doing an interview or two where he complained about not being included.  His arrival very late in the film to play a key role in the climax was very welcome and extremely well received by the audience at the showing I attended.

Probably due to a combination of the time that has past since the series ended as well as the heavy competition from the bigger-than-expected success of The Dark Knight, the opening weekend for the movie is being reported as only around $10 million, which is something of a disappointment.  This could represent the end of the franchise, although with the film’s low budget it could still end up being profitable enough that Fox might consider another, particularly if the film gets a wider audience on video.  If this does turn out to be the end, I’m still glad to have had the chance to visit Mulder and Scully one last time.  I also really appreciate that Carter decided to include a final shot at the end of the credits of Mulder and Scully waving to the camera from a row-boat near some tropical island, which served both as a goodbye to the fans as well as a suggestion that just maybe they managed to find some peace and a happy ending.

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