Thursday, August 7, 2008

Flex Your X-Files Muscle

Thinking about The X-Files: I Want to Believe some more, I wanted to expand on some of the thoughts in my recent review while going beyond the box office-murdered film to open up a discussion about the television series if there are people interested.

Firstly, the TV show.

Back when the series was running on all cylinders and still attracting a larger and larger audience, it could be viewed through several different prisms. Classified most broadly as a "drama," the series was indeed a dramatic television show with well-written stories, interesting characters and high production values. Many of the original viewers were sci-fi fans who enjoyed the specific interests of Chris Carter; the "I Want to Believe" slogan on Fox Mulder's office poster representing an intellectual call to those of a similar disposition, yearning for answers to questions both within and without. (Carter brilliantly created a two-pronged a priori, giving Mulder the deep-seated motivation to search for the truth after his sister was taken from him by beings he believed to be extraterrestrial, a crucial back-story plot point that could be periodically utilized to further sustain and enhance the "mythology" of the series.) Some just enjoyed the cool scares; looking at the series now I'm rarely ever even unsettled, though certain episodes (Season 3's remarkably dark Grotesque and the early Season 4 chiller Home for starters) do still linger quite menacingly.

For many, however, the series was truly anchored by the relationship between Mulder and Dana Scully. Watching their meeting in Pilot, one can sense an immediate uneasiness (she is, after all, as he suspects, given her assignment to be his partner to undermine him and spy on him), and yet Mulder's openness is heartfelt. For a man whose outward patina would strike many as positively paranoid, he's actually tremendously trusting. As the episodes and then seasons continued, the relationship steadily became one of greater and greater closeness and affinity. By the second season finale, for instance, Scully actually shoots Mulder in the shoulder in order to prevent him from implicating himself in a crime. By that point such an act is treated with subsequent understanding by her partner. Astonishing? Yes, but the context of the story itself is important. More important, however, is that Mulder has for a long time by this point realized that she's the only person he can trust. More seasons went by, and as the series attained a vast audience, many viewers seemed to be desirous of an eventual romantic relationship between the two FBI agents. The platonic relationship, however, was so beautifully rendered, and so effortlessly touching, that as others have observed, whether or not they ever went out on a date or kissed was more or less irrelevant. They were tied together in a way very few people can be.

Back to the new film. The X-Files: I Want to Believe is most assuredly about this relationship, and the depths of these confreres. When The X-Files launched it seemed to be the Mulder character on whom the series constructed itself: it was his beliefs, his passion and his ethical sense of right and wrong, most prominently displayed in his efforts to uncover "the truth" the nefarious shadowy government forces were determined to keep buried, that seemed to turn the ignition key. As the years passed, however, and Carter bungled the execution of resolving the quintessential back-story element (Mulder's sister's abduction) along with a plethora of other "mythology" plotlines, and as David Duchovny wished to have the seasons shortened and eventually leave the series for an indefinite period of time, the emphasis found itself on Scully. When Mulder was absent from the series, it was Scully longtime viewers naturally clung to, she being the ecumenical force remaining. More intellectually challenging and interesting than Mulder's undying quest for the truth, Scully's upbringing as a Roman Catholic finding herself drifting away from her church through the years and upholding the near inviolability of science as a doctor truthfully was one of the show's most intriguing ingredients.

Carter evidently believed this to be the case as he wrote and directed the new film. There's a certain depressing, almost asphyxiating component to the new film that has occupied my thoughts. Six years removed from the events of the TV show, Mulder, that apparently endlessly noble, heroically determined man, is something of a shell of his former self. No longer looking for much of anything anywhere but cutting out newspaper clippings he finds interesting for one reason or another and bitterly ranting about things like a German school of psychological study. It's a sad sight. Compared to Scully, braving the traumas of a hospital--something that feels deeply real, rather than a sci-fi fabrication--Mulder's been slacking off and is stuck in a fairly monotonous rut. If you're a longtime fan of the series, you must ask: Is this the endgame? Is this the graveyard of crusaders of all kinds--becoming lonely hermits who stare into the abyss of self-imposed solitude, an almost pathetic wreck compared to the dashing bright light at the Bureau one can take a look at in the first couple of years of The X-Files?

In my review, I complained about the supposed main story involving the abduction of an FBI agent and later another woman. The first problem is that it honestly isn't the main story: that is indeed Carter's updating all of us to the status of Mulder and Scully, and their now-joined state. Many films made by smart, sneaky people use the plot as simply the window-dressing for their actual thematic message. The X-Files: I Want to Believe makes the unfortunate and regrettable mistake of being too overt in this clear reality. Nevertheless, it has something to it, and that something is markedly different and more than a little brave.


Sam Juliano said...

The convolutions and distancing apparent throughout THE X FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE were nearly as acute as what we saw in the first film. I completly agree with you, Alexander, that the series was anchored by those two protagonists, and that any real resonance the shows had were as always through our emotional connection to them.
Incidentally, my absolute favorite episode of the show is HOME, followed by the likes of CLYDE BRUCKMAN'S FINAL RESPOSE, JOSE CHUNG, PAPER HEARTS, THE HOST, MEMENTO MORI and a number of others. This was one of the most imaginative shows ever aired on television, a fact that has been obscured by these unsatisfactory films.

Alexander Coleman said...

Those are all some splendid episodes, Sam. I love all of those episodes.

Talitha Cumi was quite a bit of fun. The philosophical debate between the Smoking Man and Smith alone is some rather excellent material.

K. Bowen said...

As AC and I have been discussing, this is a film that's lingered with me. I've decided it's practically impossible to come to a conclusion about it. I agree with almost everything positive I read about it, and almost everything intelligently negative. But I keep thinking about it, because it has something there.

I admire its quiet thematic development, its careful mirroring setup, and I always enjoy well-done mature romance, where the couple knows each other so well that they have their own ways of communicating.

Still, if I had to choose between recommending this film or the best episodes of the TV series, I would be hard-pressed to recommend the film.

As you say, I think Carter eventually was less interested in Mulder's quest and more interested in Scully's internal conflict, and itseems like that interest hsa become more pronounced in the years since the show's conclusion.

One last thing ... I think I've finally reached the distance where I can confidently say that Gillian Anderson is terrific in this film, and I feel like that's the opinion of the critic and not the fanboy.

Alexander Coleman said...

I agree, KB. Somehow, also, the "good" is outweighing the "bad" the more removed I become from the film. That is a good sign.

Gillian Anderson is actually rather terrific in the film. I watched her on Jay Leno's show a few evenings before I saw the film, and she actually talked about how her memory of the series--especially the latter seasons--is so foggy, she can barely remember anything about it. She said she couldn't remember that she had given birth to a child in the series and that it was a monumental plot point. I think that makes her already estimable performance greater; she obviously lost her connection to the character, perhaps wholly, and yet she was able to reproduce all of the fundamental, central aspects of the character and Scully's subtleties. That's quite a feat, or at least I would think it would be.

In the end, though, I think you nailed it first, KB, which is that it's too bad they couldn't have completely scaled it down and just made it "The Scully & Mulder Story," or something, and perhaps even drop the term "X-Files" from the title. Of course, that would mean they would have to trim the budget to almost nothing, but it would have been truer to what Carter was pursuing. The paranormal case was the most dissatisfying aspect of the film's constitution... Though I'm beginning to wonder if I might find it improve some, too, on a second viewing.

Sadly, the film just left my area on Wednesday. Suppose I'll wait for the DVD, which should be released in 3, 2, 1...

K. Bowen said...

Beyond the fact that she projects intelligence well, the thing I like about GA's performance is that there are a lot of moments where she has to be aggressive while simultaneously suggesting vulnerability. That's not an easy combination, and she always made me feel that push-pull. The other thing is that she and Scully seem to have such opposite personalities, yet she nails it.

As I think we're trying to say, the plot needed to be thicker, or it needed to be thinner. While I've come to appreciate the intellectual design of the story in retrospect, you end up spending too much time trying to solve a mystery that just isn't that viscerally interesting, and far less interesting than the best shows of the series.

I'll see it again, but I'll wait til it's in the dollar theater. I'd rather spend my X-Files money on DVDs for the seasons that I missed.