The X-Files: I Want To Believe (originally released 7/24/2008)
In which a franchise attempts to resurrect itself
Todd: My primary memory of the second X-Files movie is of disappointment. I wasn’t disappointed in the movie itself, no, but in the fact that it so quickly sank without a trace. At the time, its director and stars blamed this on the fact that The Dark Knight sucked up all of the available movie-going oxygen, but it was really much simpler than that: Nobody was into The X-Files anymore when this movie came out. I remember the excited reports from various conventions of new footage being shown, the moment the trailer came out. But as the release date got closer and closer that summer, it was hard to escape the thought that nobody really cared, that whatever fanbase the show had once had had been scattered to the winds. The movie came out and disappointed at the box office. I ponied up for a morning matinee ticket, my wife and I the only two people in the theater. I remember walking home feeling glum.
I also now think that 2008 me was probably unnecessarily harsh on this movie. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a great movie. It’s not even that good of an episode of The X-Files. But it definitely feels like something that could have felt at home in the midst of the series’ Silver Age (roughly seasons five and six). It’s nothing amazing, but it’s occasionally thought-provoking—even if it bites off more than it can chew—and it’s capable of providing a couple of jolts. Plus, it’s got that amazing Mulder and Scully chemistry to coast off of, and it’s just fun to see both actors engaged with the parts they’re playing and bouncing off of each other again. What’s even more interesting to me is how little time the movie spends trying to dredge up favorite things from the series. There’s some fan service—I’m not sure bringing in Skinner in the third act was strictly necessary—but it mostly skews toward putting its best foot forward as a monster-of-the-movie franchise, where all you need to know about the series are the names “Mulder” and “Scully.”
Of course, to have that sort of franchise, the movie would have had to center on a truly compelling monster-of-the-week plot, and it’s here where I Want To Believe falls apart. The plot might have been okay for a middling midseason episode of the show, but when expanded—to its utter breaking point—to feature length, the story starts fraying all over the place. It involves a psychic former priest, who left the church in the middle of being revealed as a pedophile, who’s helping the FBI track down a missing agent—and maybe several other missing people—because a couple of backwoods mad scientists are conducting experiments with head transplants and the like. (The best scare in this movie is when a disembodied head opens its eyes and looks at Mulder.) The movie attempts to have more to it than that—there’s some business about the two men being lovers and one of them being one of the priest’s former victims, which is all very poorly thought through—but by and large, it’s a mad scientist tale with a sheen of religious connection.
This is all well and good. The idea of a pedophile who’s also a psychic is the sort of thing the show could have turned into a terrific episode when it was firing at all cylinders, but it would have required a defter touch than Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz display here. The questions about whether God might use such a flawed vessel to deliver his message and about whether the connection stemmed, in some way, from the pain he caused his victims are explicitly made text here in a way that doesn’t do them any favors, and the movie’s sexual politics are all out of whack. Plus, on a structural level, there just isn’t enough there to justify the 105 minute running time. It seems like there are 5 million chase scenes in this thing, and they’re all oddly boring.
If there’s a reason to watch I Want To Believe, then, it’s because we get to see Mulder and Scully together again, back in action. When I wrote a piece in the wake of the release of the Veronica Mars movie about how we often punish our favorite characters as fans by wanting them to get back to what they do best, I had this movie in the back of my head, but on this rewatch, I felt like a lot of this stuff played much better than it did the first time through. In particular, I like that the movie doesn’t strain to put Mulder back in service, even if it feels absolutely ludicrous that this case would be the one where the FBI would agree to work with him again (and that nobody would think to tail Scully to find him). But it’s just nice to see Mulder and Scully as, effectively, an old married couple, even if you can do without all the kissing. The level of trust and respect they have has nicely settled into a comfortable groove, and it makes for soothing viewing. Also: There’s a bit where Scully looks at a photo of George W. Bush hanging in FBI headquarters, and the famous theme song plays on the soundtrack, and it’s weird and hilarious.
What did you think, Zack? Was having Mulder and Scully back together again enough for you, or were you more troubled by the monster-of-the-week elements being so threadbare?
Zack: I missed this in theaters (I was working as a projectionist at the time, though, and I remember watching the credit cookie of Mulder and Scully in swim-wear and wondering what the hell was going on), but I’d seen it before watching it again for review. Like you, I’ve always associated it with disappointment, although for me, that disappointment was always pinned to the movie itself, which seemed so minor and thin compared to all I wanted from it. After The X-Files petered out in its final season, and after its first cinematic outing was passable but not amazing, I had hopes a new movie, especially one based off the monster-of-the-week format, might change things. It didn’t, and while in retrospect, I realize my expectations were impossibly high, I still think we could’ve gotten something better than this.
It’s not badly made, exactly. Everything pretty much makes sense, and the story itself, which doesn’t mention alien invasions or black oil or anything about the mythology beyond a few character nods to Samantha Mulder, is a gratifyingly closed unit. And yeah, it’s fun seeing Mulder and Scully back together again; the easy chemistry between the two actors is as warm and gratifying to watch as it on the show, and there’s something sweetly adorable about watching them talk about their troubles while snuggled up in bed together. It doesn’t resolve anything the finale introduced, but on the whole, that’s probably for the best. A movie that’s trying to get back in touch with a world that had been out of the public consciousness for over half a decade should try and keep things brisk and unencumbered.
Maybe that’s what frustrates me so much watching the movie now. Ignoring the details of the plot, this is the exact right approach I would’ve wanted the writers to take, and for the most part, Mulder and Scully act as they should. I’ll admit to not being a huge fan of the scenes of Scully trying to talk Mulder out of getting involved with the case, because those arguments always tend to be pointless. Wanting Mulder to avoid getting sucked back into his various obsessions makes sense from a character perspective, but not from a narrative one, which renders a chunk of the film’s middle-section repetitive and not very interesting.
But then, that sort of thing is inevitable when you’re trying to stretch out a story as thin as this one is. I love Billy Connolly, but casting him as a pedophiliac priest just creates a hole from which nothing that follows can ever dig itself out of. While it serves to make a point about faith later in the film, it’s a character device that works better in the abstract than in the practical, as it’s hard to settle in to a good monster movie while the pall of child rape hangs over everything.
That’s not the worst, though. The worst is that this is a story that would’ve been uninteresting no matter how you told it. It shies away from the paranormal almost entirely, relying on Father Joe’s psychic visions (which aren’t all that exciting) and an admittedly exceptional form of organ transplant to hold our interest; the attack scenes are well-shot, but not particularly memorable, and the villains never get more than vaguely developed. We call it a monster-of-the-week episode, but there’s no real monster, and apart from talking a bit about psychics and their mysterious ways, Mulder doesn’t get to do any crackpot theorizing.
It’s just so drab and unnecessary. Not a train-wreck, but not something that ever comes up with more than a half-hearted defense of its own existence. Scully’s storyline reads like a contractual obligation inserted into the screenplay to make sure Gillian Anderson would sign on. The actress does her usual good work, but the sick little boy who needs stem cell treatment (his name his Christian Fearon, which I found hilarious) does not make for gripping cinema. About the only thing I liked in her storyline was the abrupt ending. It was weird to see how much of the movie was about faith, though. Did Carter find religion or something?
I guess I really wanted more, which is always a frustrating thing to ask from a creator. There was no way this movie would have recaptured the magic of the show in its best seasons, but I still wished it could, which made production’s passable mediocrity all the more of a letdown. Watching the end credits, I think I enjoyed seeing behind-the-scenes photos of the cast and crew more than any one thing in the movie itself. It reminded me of the reason I fall for shows like The X-Files in the first place—that reassuring, if often terrifying, existence of a home away from home. I wanted a great story, which I didn’t get, but I wanted to reconnect with some old (fictional) friends, and that mostly worked out okay. Which is better than nothing.
Still, it feels weird to go this far without mentioning Amanda Peet. Remember when she was a big deal? And could she have been more of an afterthought in this film? (I guess it could’ve been worse; she could’ve been Agent Drummy.)
Todd: Yeah, having Agents Dakota Whitney (which, what?) and Drummy only served to underline even more just how much this story has always been the Mulder and Scully story, despite how much the writers might have wanted to make it about the X-Files in general. There are shows that can cycle in new character after new character, but not many of them. The X-Files was so tied to the chemistry between those two people that it could never really break free of them, which must have frustrated 20th Century Fox. But look back to this show at its height, and yes, there was a lot of talk about the horror aspect, and yes, there was a lot of talk about the mythology, but this is also the show that invented the term “shipper” for a reason. Mulder and Scully are why we’re watching, and that means any other characters—even played by an actress as generally solid as Peet (and I really have liked her work in a lot of stuff)—are there just to provide exposition and have shocking death scenes. (For as useless as she is to the film, I thought Dakota’s death helped juice things up at a time when everything felt very bland.)
I think Carter also comes up with some surprisingly nice images here and there. The movie was shot in Vancouver—the first bit of X-Files-related stuff shot there since the season five finale—and he gets a lot of mileage out of the barren snowfields and the characters tromping through the white, poking at the snow and hoping for a grim answer. It certainly doesn’t help that right after watching this, I watched an upcoming Hannibal, which also makes great visual use of snowfields, but I was never terribly infatuated with Carter’s direction outside of “Post-Modern Prometheus,” and I think he did a very fine job here. Whatever faults the movie has aren’t in the performances or technical aspects but in the script. It’s just that the script is very weak.
I’m giving I Want To Believe the same grade as “The Truth,” but if this is the last bit of X-Files-related material we get over the years, I think I’m happier with this being the end than the series finale being the end. Ultimately, it just comes down to the thought that this story tries to honor Mulder and Scully, where the series finale only really tries to honor Mulder. And the place that the two of them are left at the end of the film—assuming we excuse that hilariously unnecessary credits cookie where the two of them wave at the camera—is one that leaves us capable of imagining them having other adventures we just don’t get to look in on. That’s where I want to leave these two: fighting the good fight, not being beaten down by it.
Todd’s grade: C
Zack’s grade: C
And now some thoughts on The X-Files: Season 10 comics: Over the past few days, I’ve read all 10 of the current issues of the X-Files, season 10, comic, and while I’ve enjoyed them, it was with the creeping sense that all I was reading was a bunch of fan service. The comics unnecessarily resurrect characters, and they bring back famous monsters from the show’s history mostly just to explain their origins, and they seem to be going all in on the mythology in a way that even the show never did. (The mythology stories get the big, multi-issue arcs, where even Flukeman merited just two issues.) The comics also suffer from the same thing the later seasons of the show did: It’s difficult to make readers feel any real peril. Most of that peril is theoretical, and most of it stems from William, who’s not only a theoretical character but hasn’t appeared in the flesh for ages and ages. (Reportedly, Carter is saving the resolution of his story for a prospective third movie, which, ugh.)
So I guess I’d say the comics are only worth reading for super-fans, because what they get right is the interplay between Mulder and Scully. The banter occasionally feels off-brand, but more often than not, I can imagine vintage-era David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson speaking it, and that gives the comics a little thrill that I’m not sure they precisely earn. Regardless, it’s worth checking out the first arc of five issues (which I believe has been collected in trade paperback form) if only to see how writer Joe Harris (supervised by Carter) has attempted to reboot the series’ mythology from the ground up. I’m not sure it precisely works, but it’s at least a valiant effort. These comics are fan service, yeah, but I’m a fan, so sometimes, I enjoy being serviced. (I didn’t mean for that to sound so gross.) Todd’s comics grade (so far): B-
And now, some awards!
Best recurring character (non-evil division): There are many, many, many options here, but is there anybody else to turn to other than Walter Skinner? The show started out trying to play him as an obstacle for Mulder and Scully, but Mitch Pileggi was so much better at playing the good guy, and it was so heartening to see him join them on their quest in later seasons. He was the only recurring character who should have turned up in this final movie, and it uses him almost exactly correctly, I think. Runners-up: The Lone Gunmen, Mr. X, Mulder’s mom [TV]
Best recurring character (evil division): The X-Files had its share of colorful, iconic villains, but for impact, longevity, danger-level, and humor, it would be impossible to top the Cigarette Smoking Man, aka C.G.B. Spender. Appearing in the pilot as a silent, glorified extra, CSM soon became one of the show’s most reliable Big Bads, a figure of inscrutable motives and origin whose only consistent feature was his persistent lust for power. As the CSM, William B. Davis managed to make a memorable figure out of someone designed to be unmemorable, the shadowy, anonymous bastard who lay at the heart of every government conspiracy. And as the show went on, and the CSM was given more to do, it was a mark of Davis’s talent, and the resilience of the character’s foundation, that so much of it worked. Runners-up: Krycek, the shape-shifting alien bounty hunter, the Well Manicured Man. [ZH]
Best mythology arc: This is tough, because probably the best mythology episode is “Paper Clip,” but it’s preceded by two episodes that don’t work quite as well (though “Anasazi” has its charms). The mythology episodes from season three’s November sweeps period, however, are terrific from start to end, so I’m giving this one to “Nisei”/“731.” Not only do they have Mulder jumping onto a moving train, but they also have the introduction of so many vital mythology tentpoles, like the human-alien hybrids. Runners-up: “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” “Duane Berry”/“Ascension”/“One Breath,” “Piper Maru”/“Apocrypha” Problem I ran into when judging this contest: Is Scully’s abduction a proper “myth-arc” storyline? Possibly. Is her cancer one? I decided not. Both storylines are really great, but don’t really contribute to the mythology, so much as building character arcs. [TV]
Best monster-of-the-week: The show would have more sympathetic monsters, but its hard to think of one more memorable, and more important to establishing what the The X-Files could do, than Eugene Tooms. Debuting in “Squeeze,” the third episode of the first season, Tooms didn’t fall into any predictable monster types; his powers were esoteric (he could stretch to fit through anything), but specific and well-designed, and his reappearance in “Tooms” later in the season helped solidify a commitment to long-term serialization. Doug Hutchinson’s smirking, sly performance made the character one for the ages, but Tooms’ biggest value was in opening up a mythology which, in the previous two episodes, had been fixed on aliens and UFOs. If Mulder and Scully could end up chasing an evil Mr. Fantastic who ate his victims’ livers, the possibilities became endless. Runners-up: Fluke Man (“The Host”), Leonard Betts (“Leonard Betts”), Freaky Subliminal Bug Thing (“Folie a Deux”) [ZH]
Best overall season: Season three. This one is actually pretty easy. The two seasons bookending it are solid, and I think season six might be a little underrated. But season three is the one season where The X-Files nails absolutely all of the tones it’s going for. It’s also the one season with vital episodes from both Darin Morgan and Vince Gilligan. Runners-up: Season two, season four, season six. [TV]
Most underrated season: Season eight. I know that fans hate that Mulder’s not around for all of it, but it accomplishes some really tough things in making the mythology vital again (mostly because Mulder’s not around) and in playing off a dynamic of Scully as uneasy believer and Doggett as a skeptic, less from a scientific perspective than from the perspective of a world-weary cop. Not one of the show’s greatest seasons, but far better than many other programs’ eighth seasons. Runners-up: Season six, season four. [TV]
Worst season: Maybe it’s because the pain is so recent, but I’d say season nine takes this in a walk. It’s not quite as agonizing as I’d feared, but after the promising introduction of Doggett in season eight, season nine quickly disabuses the audience of any possibility that the show might keep running with two new leads. Sluggishly paced, forced, and ludicrous by turns, it’s the quintessential example of what happens to a series when it tries to keep past the expiration date. Runners-up: Season seven, season one. [ZH]
Worst episode: In general, the major problems of season one are just a matter of a show figuring out what it wants to do, and how it’s going to do it. Most of the episodes, even the weakest, have enough charm to make them watchable. “Space” is neither charming nor watchable, a messy, ugly piece of work that nearly undoes the good work of the seven episodes leading into it. A mixture of poorly used stock footage, laughable special effects, and a frustratingly nonsensical story, “Space” is a perfect storm of suck. The best thing you can say about it is that it marked the lowest point of the series for many years to follow; at least everyone involved learned from their mistakes. Runners-up: “Tesos Dos Bichos,” “Fight Club,” “First Person Shooter” [ZH]
Todd’s favorite episode: This is a lie, because my favorite episode is “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.” But that’s also, weirdly, not a very good episode of The X-Files while being an absolutely tremendous episode of television. (This is a phenomenon that pops up every so often. See also: Buffy, “The Body.”) And I know Zack is going to choose one of my foremost runners-up. So I’m going to go with “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” which is controversial, I know, but if you go back and read my review of it, I think you’ll see why. And because I’m a cheater, I’ll toss in a favorite scary episode, too, and say “Home.” Runners-up: “Small Potatoes,” “Paper Clip,” “Field Trip.” [TV]
Zack’s favorite episode: I could make a joke here about how Todd somehow managed to pick six episodes instead of four, but it’s a mark of how great this show is that it’s easy for me to find six other episodes I’d be happy to stand behind. My first pick, which hasn’t changed since we started this run of reviews, is now and forever “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” for reasons I hope I made clear in my review. But because I can cheat too, I’ll mention my favorite Scully-centric episode, “Never Again,” which gives us a startlingly dark look at the dysfunctional nature of the series’ most important relationship; and “Bad Blood,” which examines Mulder and Scully again, but with a lighter, more generous touch. Runners-up: “Die Hand Die Verletzt,” “The Pine Bluff Variant,” “Monday” [ZH]
And that’s all, folks! Thanks for reading along with these all of these years, and my thanks to Zack for letting me join him around the middle of season two and trading these off with me all this time. Also my thanks to Keith Phipps, for originally writing these reviews and for encouraging us to keep going, even when the page views were very low. (For some reason, season nine has been one of our most-read-about seasons. I have no idea why. But I thank you.) I hope you’ll join us all for…
On May 31: Our Twilight Zone reviews resume! We’ll be covering the fifth and final season of the show over the summer, so join us in TV Club Classic Summer launch week for a look back at some terrific installments and a whole lotta dross.