The second X-Files movie is much better than its reputation suggests

The second X-Files movie is much better than its reputation suggests

It was the summer of 2008, and the second movie of a beloved series neared release. Advertising was prevalent and expectations were high. And when the film finally hit theaters it was treated, by most, as a bona fide new classic. I’m speaking, of course, of Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film, The Dark Knight, which opened on July 18, 2008 to massive box office and numerous critical plaudits.

A week later, on July 25, 2008, another “second movie” premiered: The X-Files: I Want To Believe, the follow-up to both the nine-season sci-fi series that aired on the Fox network from 1993 to 2002, and to the 1998 feature, The X-Files: Fight The Future, which bridged the show’s fifth and sixth seasons. It was, by most metrics, not a success, earning a shade under $21 million domestically on a $30 million budget and receiving mostly tepid to negative reviews from fans and critics alike. Future adventures featuring Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson)—FBI Special Agents who specialize in investigating paranormal and extraterrestrial phenomena—seemed a decided impossibility.

But the impossible became possible in the spring of 2015 when a limited-run X-Files mini was commissioned by Fox, reuniting Duchovny and Anderson with the show’s creator, Chris Carter, as well as several of the best writers (Glen Morgan, Darin Morgan, and James Wong) the series ever had. The first of six new episodes premieres this Sunday, January 24, so the time seems right to revisit the second movie, to try and determine where exactly it fits into the strange, beguiling, and now still ongoing story of Mulder and Scully.

Note that I say “revisit” and not “reappraise.” It was never this writer’s opinion that I Want To Believe (directed by Carter, and also co-written by him and his righthand man Frank Spotnitz) was some worthless addition to X-Files canon. On first view, it seemed a very consciously low-key study of the Mulder/Scully dynamic, filtered, as per usual, through the prism of the latest mystery the agents were called in to solve. If Fight The Future, which dealt in grandiose fashion with the series’ convoluted alien myth arc, was The X-Files in summer blockbuster mode, I Want To Believe was its attempt at an intimate chamber drama—more Ingmar Bergman than Michael Bay.

There were certainly some issues, most of them having to do with some thin characterizations and several aesthetic choices (especially in the editing) that seemed more shaped by televisual than cinematic sensibility. But the film still benefited from the sense that Carter, several years removed from his creation, was taking stock of its legacy, looking back at the series—as well as the characters at its fore—and pondering where, exactly, they would go from here.

This is a movie that takes place in a kind of wintry limbo, which is appropriate given where Mulder and Scully were left at the end of the series: Excommunicated from the FBI, on the run, and with only their belief in, and love for, each other to sustain them. Things have settled down somewhat in the intervening six years. Scully is now a doctor at the Catholic hospital Our Lady Of Sorrows (the character’s faith in God was always a fascinating wrinkle in her scientifically skeptical persona). And Mulder is a bearded recluse who has turned a room in the isolated home he and Scully share into a unkempt facsimile of their former basement office at the FBI. On one wall hangs the ever-present “I Want to Believe” poster (wrinkled and tattered), on another is pinned a picture of his long-dead alien abductee sister Samantha. (Even though the mystery of Samantha’s disappearance was solved in the series, Mulder still holds onto fragments of his grief as if they were a motivational charm.)

“I worry about you, and the effects of long-term isolation,” says Scully when she comes to tell Mulder that the FBI is willing to forgive all his transgressions if he’ll help find a missing agent, Monica Bannan (Xantha Radley). It doesn’t take too much convincing for Mulder to say “yes” to the proposal, not because he has any lasting love for the FBI, but because work—his Sisyphean quest to pursue answers to impossible questions—is his true love. But of course he insists that his other love, Scully, must be by his side.

The duo’s arrival at the FBI offices only emphasizes how out of time they are: Told to wait in a hallway by the seething Agent Drummy (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner), Mulder and Scully glance at a wall on which hangs a grinning photo of then-president George W. Bush. Composer Mark Snow’s iconic six-note threnody whistles on the soundtrack (big laugh). Then the camera pans to reveal a no-less-disquieting photograph, dangling nearby, of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. It’s a far cry from the agents’ ’90s heyday when the pictures decorating the halls of power were of Bill Clinton and Janet Reno. Or maybe—as implied by Mulder and Scully’s quizzical glance at each other—all these figureheads are two sides of the same coin?

Regardless, there’s a case to solve, and Mulder is quickly brought up to speed by Amanda Peet’s welcoming, if still by-the-book ASAC Dakota Whitney. (Never underestimate Chris Carter’s strange obsession with character names equally suited to pulp and porn). Turns out Agent Bannan’s severed arm was found in a remote ice field by a former priest named Joseph Crissman (Billy Connolly), who—much to the disbelief of the people he’s working for—claims to be psychic. “I’d be on the guy 24/7. I’d be in bed with him kissing his holy ass,” says Mulder in response to the skeptical tenor of the room. Whitney then tells him Crissman is a convicted pedophile. “Maybe I’d stay out of bed with him,” Mulder quips, a quintessentially dry, very Duchovnian line reading.

It’s clear by this point that Carter is approaching the story in his usual fashion: Take the in-vogue issues of the moment, pulp in a blender, and simmer into a hot-button stew. Pedophilia in places of worship, the rising tide of gay marriage and the controversy of stem-cell research are all touched on by I Want To Believe, with varying degrees of success. Certainly it takes talent to make a sympathetic figure out of a child rapist, and Connolly is superb as Crissman—righteous in certain moments, tortured in others, and about as far a cry from the actor’s typically comic-tinged persona as you can get. He’s especially good as a foil to Scully, who must reconcile the facts of this fallen man of the cloth with his cryptic need to assist in the ongoing investigation. (Crissman’s key line of dialogue to Scully, “Don’t give up,” is also something of a plot point in the new miniseries.)

Where the film is on shakier ground is in its portrayal of the main male antagonists, Janke Dacyshyn (Callum Keith Rennie) and Franz Tomczeszyn (Fagin Woodcock), who are behind the abduction of Bannan and several other women for initially mysterious reasons. What slowly comes to light is that Dacyshyn, an organ transporter by trade, and Tomczeszyn, who is dying of a fatal disease, are married (in Massachusetts, of course—2008 and all). The kidnapped women, one of whom (Nicki Aycox) we spend a great deal of time with while she’s locked up in a claustrophobic metallic cage, are possible transplant bodies onto which Tomczeszyn’s head will be grafted. And the psychic connection Crissman has to the case is a result of Tomczeszyn being one of former priest’s altar boy victims.

You could call that plot provocative, or you could call it (as a number of critics and viewers did at the time, and still do) wrongheaded and offensive. The truth is it’s a bit of both, mainly because Carter doesn’t strike the right balance between Dacyshyn and Tomczeszyn’s shadowy iniquities and their desperate motivations. Rennie, in particular, is filmed like a glowering villain for most of the film. By the time he and Woodcock get an intimate moment, it feels like a too-little, too-late attempt to deepen their characters. In an alternate universe, I picture a version of the movie with a climactic scene between Scully and Dacyshyn in which they discuss his love for Tomczeszyn. As is, the antagonists’ relationship is meant to be a kind of dark mirror image of Mulder and Scully’s complex rapport. But though Carter’s intention is clear, his execution on this point is lacking.

It nonetheless is the Mulder-Scully relationship that gives I Want To Believe its heart, and compensates for many of its failings. For much of the television series, the duo were in a tentative but charged courtship. So it’s a thrill to see them comfortably canoodling in bed, making wistful pillow-talk about their son William (whom Scully gave up for adoption in the final season), and generally acting—in that way that only two people in love can do—like they’re the sole stars in the sky. Jumping back into a case with paranormal overtones may be good for Mulder, but it puts a strain on Scully. “I’m done chasing monsters in the dark,” she says early on, and her actions through the rest of the movie, as well as a poignant, beautifully performed scene in which Scully and Mulder have a stern heart-to-heart about where their relationship stands, suggest that this is the first step toward a likely breakup—an angle the new miniseries explores.

“I think maybe the darkness finds you and me,” Mulder says late in the film, emphasizing the role that an unseen hand tends to play in his and Scully’s adventures. Carter has often remarked that one of The X-Files’ primary themes is “the search for God,” and it’s Scully’s grapplings with faith that have provided the series with some of its most potent storylines. One of the most unfairly criticized aspects of I Want To Believe is a subplot involving Scully’s attempts to perform an unproven stem-cell procedure on a boy (Marco Niccoli) suffering from Sandhoff disease. Though there are the usual questionable Carter provocations (stem-cell surgery in a Catholic hospital on a patient named Christian Fearon—subtle), these scenes are very tenderly acted and directed, and lend profound insight into Scully’s character, which was always a bit more rounded than Mulder’s. He’s amorphously up in the clouds and content to be there. She’s concretely down-to-earth, yet longs, more often than not, to attain the sublime.

“Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast,” wrote Goethe. Through much of The X-Files, Mulder and Scully are emblematic opposites—you could say, to slightly rework the metaphor, that they’re like a pair of half-souls that, when in each other’s orbit, become one. But it’s telling that Carter ends I Want To Believe on Scully alone as she walks to the hospital operating room, scrubs in, and readies to perform the stem-cell surgery on her young patient. Every element works in cinematic concert here. Cinematographer Bill Roe’s camera keeps an inquisitive distance from Scully. Snow’s musical score gently complements her every step. Even Carter’s decision to show a trio of nuns peeking their heads into the OR feels just right—almost as if Scully had silently called up the presence of the Greek Charites, but in Catholic garb.

An assistant chimes in, “Are you ready to begin, Dr. Scully.” A pause. “Yes,” she replies. The camera pushes in. Anderson tilts her head slightly, cracking a beatific smile, and her face is suddenly charged with divine fervor. Agent Dana Scully has attained the sublime. And we have, too.