While some may consider it blasphemous, The X-Files was really nothing more than somber serious science fiction in an era overrun by otherwise slapdash space operatics. It channeled V, various conspiracy theories, and just enough Night Gallery ghoulishness to keep geeks glued to the set. When it failed to fully deliver on its multi-layered mythology (are you listening, Lost?) viewers began packing up and leaving the speculation to the likes of nerds like Whedon. Now, a TV lifetime since it’s last legitimate episode (and a previous film that filled in some midpoint alien invasion blanks), agents Mulder and Scully are back…except they no longer work for the FBI…and they no longer oversee the investigation of the X-Files…and this latest sequel has nothing to do with the show’s previous extraterrestrial cabal. Huh?
When a bureau agent goes missing, the Washington bigwigs decide to track down former FBI agent Dana Scully, now working in her previous profession as a doctor. They hope she will lead them to the infamous (and disgraced) Fox Mulder. Seems a convicted pedophile, a former priest named Fr. Joe, claims to have a psychic link to the victim, and the current agency has no time for such supernatural falderal. Under the guidance of agents Whitney and Drummy, the former X-Filers head out into the cold West Virginia wilderness, defrocked clergyman in tow. There, they begin to unravel a sinister plot involving missing persons, incomplete visions, and severed limbs. Meanwhile, this return to ‘darkness’ has Scully questioning her connection to Mulder. It doesn’t help that she has a terminally ill patient to contend with…and a hospital administration who wants to merely give up on the boy.
In a summer that’s seen its fair share of outsized spectacle, everything about X-Files: I Want to Believe is somber, subdued, and in the end rather minor. After witnessing the Shakespearean angst of a masked vigilante battling a clown faced psychopath, or the reinvented spy superlatives of a literal ‘iron’ man, a standard serial killer procedural is just not that significant. It’s not that head honcho Chris Carter doesn’t try to artificially load his film with significance. The subtext surrounding this latest stand alone installment (in line with the ‘monster of the week’ work the series initially traded in) deals with several current hot button topics - stem cell research, black market organ transplants, pedophilic priests, gay marriage…even George Bush gets a gentle, sound cue tweaking. Yet all of this social sturm and drang can’t compensate for a narrative that’s made-for-TV friendly, and decidedly out of its medium.
Carter seems convinced that this less showy Silence of the Lambs will truly resonate with audiences. He treats every confrontation - either between Mulder and Scully, Scully and Fr. Joe, Mulder and anyone within earshot - as if the fate of the free world rests on the very next syllable. He keeps his clues close to the vest, making it almost impossible for viewers to follow along (or eventually foil) his dénouement. He gets a lot of mileage out of the bleak Vancouver landscape, and yet the snow-covered vistas hide more than just the film’s muddled motives. I Want To Believe seems locked in a kind of entertainment permafrost, feeling that elements that made heads spin and tongues wag 15 years ago will still seem intriguing in these days of torture porn and gorehound gratuity.
Indeed, the best material here ignores the mystery fully, and instead focuses on the complicated and moralistic relationship between Mulder and Scully. Since this film takes place AFTER the end of the series (Fight the Future was set between seasons five and six), there are lots of references to certain interpersonal cliffhangers. The fate of William, the trumped up charges against our hero, the need to stay in hiding, and the reason behind Scully’s reluctance to rejoin the cause are all addressed, and stalwarts Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny are so familiar with these characters that they nail every emotional beat. Sure, these scenes stop the narratives formulaic forward motion, but without them, I Want to Believe would be nothing more than a run of the mill, slightly more macabre CSI.
The rest of the cast confirm this. Amanda Peet is given the thankless job of playing the agent still willing to give Mulder and Scully a chance, while Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner is reduced to slowburning as the surly ‘bad cop’. Bill Connolly’s boy buggering cleric is all fright wig gray and Scottish brogue, lacking the depth needed to make Fr. Joe anything other than a plot point. Perhaps the biggest mistake a movie like this makes is turning the terror into an unseen item. Since we don’t know who or what is behind the disappearances, and don’t get enough information to connect the uncovered body parts, we have to wait to the final 15 minutes before anything clicks. When it does, we see an intriguing potential in the premise - and recognize how it was more or less scuttled for other storyline significance.
Oddly enough, all would have been forgiven had co-writer/director Carter (who redeems himself in both behind the scenes arenas) simply renamed this project and cast Lance Henriksen as prophet/profiler Frank Black. This is much more a Millennium movie (the horribly underrated X-Files follow up from 1996) than something Scully and Mulder look comfortable in. And in our current political clime, the dour face of a man who’s tuned into the approaching Apocalypse makes for a much better shock conduit. While some fans have longed for the return of the more horror-tinged side of the series’ set-up, the alien invasion conspiracy - and its inconsistent folklore - is what drives most memories of (and messageboard showdowns over) the show.
As a stand alone title, something to remind fans of how chilling The X-Files used to be, I Want to Believe does a decent job. And when compared to other similarly styled thrillers, including recent rejects like Untraceable and 88 Minutes, it is definitely a clear cut above. But in a season where a sort of creative classicism rules, resting on one’s laurels just won’t do. X-Files: I Want to Believe, for all its interpersonal intrigue and controversial context, feels like the proverbial little fish in a very, very big cinematic sea. No matter its many strengths, it just can’t compete.