Saturday, July 26, 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)

There are two ways for me to look at The X-Files: I Want to Believe. The first way is to look at it as what I am, a former completely committed, occasionally obsessed, fan of the series who watched it religiously from the latter part of its second season, caught up with it between its second and third seasons, watching every repeat Fox had, and continuing on from there, finally to become disillusioned, disappointed and disheartened by the deterioration of the entire enterprise at some point around the sixth season, staying with it more out of habit than anything else, and searching, fruitlessly, for a sense of closure. The second way is to just approach it as impartially as possible, if that is possible, and see it as a film apart from its television origins, looking at it through whatever its successes and failures as such are. Rather than write two wholly different reviews, I plan on shapeshifting like that American Indian fellow in a long-ago episode entitled Shapes, looking at the film in one light at one moment and then in the other light at another moment.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe is like a bantam version of something that naturally leans to the most expansive, what with its vast, (sadly convoluted, from about the fifth season onward) labyrinthine mythology revolving around aliens, government conspiracies and the like. But even when compared to many of the better stand-alone episodes, I Want to Believe falls short. The paranormal storyline is weak, thin and despite a mediocre effort on the part of writers Chris Carter (who also directed) and Frank Spotnitz, is only tangentially linked to the equally more grounded and successful relationship drama storyline that is the heart of the film, between the former FBI agents and partners, the crusading, "spooky" Fox Mulder (an initially bearded David Duchovny!) and the radiantly smart, grounded but persistent Dana Scully (the more outwardly emotionally generous of the two).

That paranormal storyline involves a presumably psychic disgraced and defrocked former pedophile priest (Billy Connolly) who, for reasons unexplained (this would never have passed in the early glory days of the show), has some psychic connection to the kidnapping of a female FBI agent. Soon Agent Mosley Drummy--Carter always had a thing for delineatively representative names--played by Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner, looks for Scully, who's now a practicing doctor like she always wanted to be, who, in turn, gets Mulder into the game after being convinced that Mulder could help them find the missing agent. Amanda Peet plays another FBI agent, Dakota Whitney, who seems to have eyes for Mulder.

Mulder and Scully are a real, living-together couple now, and an abruptly introduced scene with the two of them in bed together is a jarring experience. As such, it's probably the most paranormally chimerical scene in the entire film, for good and bad. By focusing more on the domestic relationship between the two--always the heart of the series, and as K. Bowen says at http://www.antidisartsandent.blogspot.com/, the on-again, off-again questions about whether they would or would not get together (fans of the show were usually divided along "Shipper" and "No Romo" lines, the former pining for an inevitable union, the latter wishing it would never happen) were largely irrelevant: in their dissimilar methods and beliefs (he, a man feeling burned by God due to the disappearance of his sister, a rebellious atheist, maybe agnostic at best, who nevertheless wants to believe in the paranormal and most especially in the existence of extraterrestrial life, most pointedly symbolized by the poster that used to hang in his basement office with a UFO and the words "I Want to Believe" on it; she, raised Catholic, gradually losing her connection to the Church, skeptical in matters Mulder desperately wanted to believe in, a brilliant medical mind who kept her partner in check), and particularly in their united quest for "the truth," whatever it entailed, even if Scully found herself rationalizing things that otherwise made no scientific reason and sense.

As a curious kid, and perhaps especially a boy, I naturally sided with Mulder. That was in large part due to the series siding with Mulder. Invariably there would be inexplicable phenomenon, and Scully's often weak rationales failed to win over people more content to let their eyes tell them what was believable and not. Even when I was ten years old, however, I wanted Scully to be right at least sometimes, and that wish was granted when matters pertaining to Christian "paranormal" activity, such as a boy experiencing stigmata in one memorable third season episode; Mulder's incapability to broaden his borderline credulousness to these kinds of cases cast him in the "duh, you don't get it!" light.

More now than then, however, I understand that whether or not Scully was right or wrong any given week was not the most important issue. Like the best of sci-fi and horror--The X-Files was always somewhere between, with many episodes being scary (Carter said the basis for the show was that there was a lack of any scary shows, and he wanted a series that could "scare the pants off people")--the supernatural element was based in dramatic storytelling. Encountering life more fully when you become a little older, you come to understand rather quickly that skepticism is a perfectly healthy thing in most matters. Understanding where Scully is coming from is, resolutely, more important than thinking something along the lines of, "Your explanation countering the idea that this guy can control lightning just doesn't wash. You're flatly wrong!" (One most commendable aspect of the series was that Carter almost never allowed Mulder to bask in his rightness and Scully's wrongness. There was hardly ever a crude "I told you so," moment.)

That's where I Want to Believe most definitively fails. The paranormal story of the priest able to see some details of the case on which Mulder and Scully work relates to the mindsets of the pair, but in a clunky, distracting way. Compare this to a classic X-Files episode, Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose (which is very briefly referred to in this film) which starred Peter Boyle as a life insurance salesman cursed with seeing the often grisly details of a murderer on the loose in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The best episodes engendered a natural dramatic linkage between the banter and philosophical tug-o'-war between the two and the case they were working on. (The case motivated this, of course, but it was a circular affair: by the end of the episode, the writers made it clear that the story's main consequence had to do with the experience Mulder and Scully endured.) Beyond being a very funny episode at times, it hit the duo hard on an emotional level that organically fit. I Want to Believe, by contrast, feels ungainly, especially since the paranormal story feels like a mini-episode in the middle of the movie, which is honestly much more interested in the fate of a boy Scully wants to see live at her hospital and the relationship between she and Mulder. The more Carter and Spotnitz try to reward their "base" audience with nods and homages to the long-running series, like a third act appearance of a well-known supporting character, dealt both a handful of lines of dialogue and the thankless role of sidekick, the less successful it becomes.

And yet I Want to Believe is not the disaster you probably have been led to believe it is. Certain things work. Anderson and Duchovny (as it ought to be stated--she's the lead here) deliver the goods with their repartee, their emotional honesty and the comforting presence that they combine to create when they're placed together. The moment we old fans see she and he, talking with one another, all objectivity sort of goes out the window. We're just glad to see our two friends back, and we're pleased that, if they had to fall in love in the conventional sense, they did so, as one of them explains, because they fell in love with the other's stubbornness and intellectual prowess. One of the best attributes of the series, even when it was in desultory, depressing descent, was that you ultimately bought the relationship at its core. Yes, the series became, at best, a shell of its former self, and I would lie if I said I didn't feel betrayed by it. But sometimes what matters most, even in the most tumultuous and fatiguing of relationships, experiences and affiliations is last impressions. So long as that brightens our perspective, despite the flaws and missed opportunities, the troubling scenes and production limitations (it's a small, insular film, lacking the sprawl many will be expecting, and after seeing the film one wonders a little why it cost as much as thirty-five million dollars), it goes down as a win. Of course, that last bit is the X-Phile fan-boy geek writing. You're just going to have to accept it. However, even an objective reading of the film with its problems is a solidly favorable one. Don't expect to be wowed by this, because you surely won't be. If you're approaching it as a non-fan, just know you will be watching a character-based drama first and foremost. On that level, the film is different from just about anything out there. You will have to decide whether or not you believe in it.

20 comments:

nick plowman said...

And as a non-fan, the character based drama and romance between Mulder and Scully were what I liked most about the film. Okay, those were the only things I liked. It was not God-awful, but not for me in any way. I do hope it pleases fans though.

Alexander Coleman said...

Very much understood, Nick. I knew you were at best lukewarm towards it and I can completely understand at least a great deal of the apathy and even negativity regarding the film.

I think in some ways it was like a late-season episode and, say, a weak Season 1 episode, put together. Admittedly, a lot of the sticky Mulder-Scully melodrama from about the fifth season on didn't work for me, much, and I resented Carter continually teasing the "will they or won't they?" aspect of the show, but now with a six-year rest from it all, I was much more accepting of it.

There's no way around it, though, the stand-alone mystery is frustratingly lame.

K. Bowen said...

Very good review, AC. I was wondering what it would look like to you. I think I'm coming to roughly the same point that you are.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, KB.

It's a problematic film, but it has something. It makes you think, even if it doesn't do it in a particularly innovative or impressive way. Yet it's distinctive, too.

I'm inclined to at least partially agree with your point at your blog: it probably would have been more honest to simply jettison the paranormal "crime case" and just make the subdued relationship drama that when boiled down it truly was.

Craig Kennedy said...

Sounds like were all about in the same boat to varying degrees.

As I said at Nick's, it was fun seeing Mulder and Scully back at it. I just wish they'd been given something more interesting to do.

Alexander Coleman said...

Definitely a more-than-fair point, Craig.

I just watched the '98 movie again this afternoon and you could see the budget all over the place, and Mulder and Scully were given a great deal to do.

One of the biggest accomplishments of this new movie when I think about it is that Xzibit played a guy who should have been almost detestable but I couldn't dislike him because he had good screen presence.

Alexander Coleman said...

Ironically, The X-Files went full circle as many TV critics correctly noted how cinematic it was, and in this movie all I could think at times was, "This feels like it belongs on the tube." Where was Rob Bowman?

K. Bowen said...

That's totally true Alexander.

By the way, until this weekend, I didn't realize that Mulder and Scully consummated their relationship during the run of the show. You need to keep me better up to date. :)

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, KB, I had tried to mentally repress all of that.

True story: I discovered that myself one night when I couldn't sleep at all about four years ago or so, when I turned on the TV and flipped through the channels (which is something I do about twice a decade; I'm just not a channel-surfer). So I end up on TNT because they're showing The X-Files. And they're showing about six episodes in a row.

In the end, even though I didn't want to or plan to, I watched all of them. And they were "All Things," and "William," where we learn that Mulder and Scully had consummated their relationship and then there's this kid, etceteras.

I have to admit, I wasn't a fan of these episodes. The writing had become quite heavy-handed when it came to their relationship, and it made me further resent the show for what I thought was its mishandling of it all.

Oh well, it's all water under the bridge now. Like I say in my review, the six-year break was enough time for me to look at them as a couple anew, and not be bugged by it because it felt all right.

As you may have guessed, I was more or less a "No Romo." Mainly because I thought a consummated relationship between the two would ruin the series. For a long time, though, Carter just milked the idea, along with some other lame ones, for all they were or were not worth.

I'll try to keep you updated in the future, aha. :)

K. Bowen said...

Watching the YouTube clips, it worked for me. Although I'm not sure what to think about it in the greater context of the series, and it really doesn't matter at this point. But in the coming weeks, I'm going to try to check out at least some of what I missed. I always felt a little bad about giving up on it.

Alexander Coleman said...

I think removed from the weekly grind of enduring the show's decline, a lot of it looks much better now, KB, but that just may be me.

By the way, did you see any of the episodes from the Doggett era? I was still watching, and although many of the episodes were pretty bad (with one particularly offensive one that found Scully the victim of a small-town cult who worshipped some kind of huge slug--it felt like the writers saw some David Lynch while high and came up with it), I thought Robert Patrick brought exactly the right things the role, and I found it a shame that he was "the man in the middle," never able to truly fill the shoes of Duchovny, and Mulder, but bringing something fresh and different.

Fans who felt that the show was just peachy until Duchovny exited were deluding themselves: it had been in decline for a long time before then, and in some ways the Patrick-Anderson teaming added some spice to an otherwise moribund series.

K. Bowen said...

Never saw one of the Doggett years. Not sure I care to. Patrick's a very good actor,though.

K. Bowen said...

Never saw one of the Doggett years. Not sure I care to. Patrick's a very good actor,though.

Alexander Coleman said...

It became a completely different show, in that Scully suddenly became the believer and Doggett the skeptic. A cute little change, but ultimately the series didn't have the fuel to keep it compelling. (Scully became a believer after the Season 7 finale, in which Mulder was abducted--signalling Duchovny's exit from the show for a good while--and she became pregnant. The Smoking Man also had a bad day thanks to Alex K. The stuff I remember...)

K. Bowen said...

Alex, read the X-FIle review at this site .... I think you will be interested.

http://reflectionsonfilmandtelevision.blogspot.com/

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, KB.

That was quite the read. It makes me appreciate the film even more.

One problem I had, though, was the "Don't give up" bit does still feel like something of an empty platitude to me, and its application to the Scully drama felt surprisingly forced (surprisingly so because the show used to seamlessly weave these elements together on a weekly basis back in its heyday). Nevertheless, he's really got something there, and thank you again for pointing that out here.

K. Bowen said...

Hey Alex,
I caught the boat thing tonight after a screening. When you hear the theories about it, you can believe that it is possibly a helicopter coming to get them for a mission. When you see it, it clearly, if not definitely, looks like a farewell. And you know what? It's a great way to end it. It made me smile.

I caught about the last five to ten minutes at well. Whatever the problems with the plot, etc., from the kiss scene to the last shot, that's a really strong ending.

K. Bowen said...

And yes, assuming that's Gillian, she looks great in the bikini.

A lovely way to end it.

Alexander Coleman said...

I agree, the whole epilogue with Mulder and Scully leading to that kiss, and then going into that final scene (and then to the boat) was a splendid way to end the film, and probably, end the entire saga. It reminded me why fell in love with the show in the first place.

And, yes, that departing shot of Anderson in a bikini will certainly stay with me. If only they had changed the location of the film to Hawaii and had more of that, the box office numbers would have been stronger, methinks.

It's interesting to read the theories, though, about the helicopter coming to get them for a mission of some kind. It could just be an homage to the "mythology" that Carter and co. didn't want to otherwise tackle, with the helicopter silhouette.

Glad you caught it after a screening, KB. Lovely way to end it indeed.

Alexander Coleman said...

I just watched The House of Mirth again last night. Jeez, I knew Gillian Anderson was excellent in it, but she's even better than I thought. It's kind of too bad she seems as satisfied as she appears to be working on the stage in London, because like you've said, KB, she should be having a fairly solid movie career. As we said over at your blog, The Last King of Scotland definitely could have used more of her (and her character was wasted besides).