Belief isn't easy to come by these days. But - despite most reviews - I still believe in The X-Files.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this new film (sub-titled I Want to Believe) arises not from the stars (or the production itself), but from ourselves, and -- specifically -- our expectations.
Based on the savage reviews proliferating on the web and in print, audiences and critics apparently desired a Wrath of Khan, when what they actually get is...The Search for Spock.
In other words, X-Files: I Want to Believe is a more intimate, cerebral adventure than it is a "big event" summer movie. There are virtually no optical special effects in this movie. I could detect no (or very little) CGI. There are few action sequences.
There is little violence of any kind, actually (I don't believe a single gun is fired...). Mulder and Scully never even carry fire-arms, as far as I can detect. And there are no explosions whatsoever.
All the fireworks, rather...are purely human; emotional. Accordingly, the climax is one that relies on the specific nuances of human interaction and relationships, not fights, chases, or gun-fire. The film's success hinges on such old--fashioned elements as atmosphere and mood. A wintry, oppressive location -- West Virginia -- is practically a supporting character here, and the build-up of real suspense is generated through effective use of solid film techniques such as cross-cutting. This is good work, beautifully photographed; it's merely out-of-step with the kind of movies being offered in our cineplexes today.
Honestly, I Want to Believe's greatest failing has nothing to do with what it is; but rather what it is not; what people apparently "wanted" to believe about the form it would take.
One of The X-Files' trademark phrases was "Resist or Serve" and I remembered that catchphrase with bemusement while I watched I Want to Believe. The new movie daringly resists formula and classification. It flouts expectation, and what I've detected so far in the criticism of the film is a total unwillingness to engage with what the movie actually is about. I suppose if a movie isn't exactly like Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, or Dark Knight, well...critics don't know what to make of it.
Audiences apparently feel the same way: the film opened in fourth place this weekend and grossed a disappointing ten million dollars (roughly the same opening week haul of Serenity in 2005). Yet The X-Files I Want to Believe was made cheaply - at under thirty five million dollars. Just a bit of history: that's what it cost, or thereabouts, to make Star Trek V: The Final Frontier in 1989. Almost twenty years ago. At the very least, Carter and his team were frugal...and that fact may be a saving grace for the franchise. Which - reviews to the contrary - has a lot of life and energy left in it. It's only a "dull" or "boring" movie (as critics assert), if you choose not to engage with it.
I Want to Believe picks up six years after the finale of the popular Fox series (which ended in 2002). Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) are living together in a small but comfortable house, and Mulder has grown a beard and pretty much retreated from the world. Despite the fact he knows his sister is dead, Mulder has not given up searching for "the truth" about what happened to her. Meanwhile, Scully is a successful medical doctor at a Catholic hospital and enmeshed in the treatment of a very sick little boy; one with a terminal illness.
It's a quiet, relatively "normal" life for the most part; a normality that is shattered when the FBI solicits Mulder's help in solving a new and urgent "X-File" (in return for a pardon...). An F.B.I. agent named Monica Bannon has disappeared in the snows of gloomy West Virginia, and a fallen priest named Father Joe (Billy Connolly) claims to be experiencing psychic visions related to her case. In fact, he leads a team of FBI searchers to a burial ground of body parts in a vast, foreboding ice field (a beautifully-filmed, tense sequence).
But Father Joe may not be credible...in part because of his past. He's a convicted pedophile, you see. Mulder and Scully each boast a different perspective on Father Joe (naturally...), and their viewpoints are so contradictory that these opinions threaten to fracture their (now longstanding...) emotional relationship. This case revives Mulder's obsessive, brooding nature; and it reminds Scully of the darkness she has sought to escape.
So...what is The X-Files: I Want to Believe really about? In a deep, meaningful way, it concerns the concept of redemption. I don't mean that the movie pays lip service to the notion of redemption as that concept currently exists in the superficial popular culture lexicon (see: Angel). There's nothing comfortable or easy about how this film portrays the central moral dilemma. The crimes Father Joe committed against the innocent are utterly monstrous, as Scully rightly points out. Father Joe knows that society will never forgive him, but wonders if God can do so.
And here's where things get....murky. Father Joe castrated himself at age 26 in order to "kill" the horrible, seething appetite that led him to commit such crimes. And now, Father Joe chooses to live in a group home for pedophiles, one where sex offenders live in shame and police each other's behavior. It is a sort of Hell on Earth to live amongst such scum, especially for a Man of God. Are these signs he has changed?
And, of course, Father Joe claims he is experiencing psychic visions about that missing FBI agent, and wants to help the police find her. Is he to be trusted? Would the Divine empower a man like Father Joe with second sight? If his visions are real, are they from God? The Devil? Or is he just an accomplice in Monica's capture...?
The underlying moral quandary is this: What great "right" can undo a great "wrong?" In the fantastic and noble tradition of The X-Files, Scully and Mulder view Father Joe and his predicament in radically different ways. The series always concerned the opposing viewpoints of these two characters, and how their beliefs (and biases) shaped their perception of reality. It's the same thing here. Scully believes Father Joe is a depraved attention-seeking monster, that his visions are a hoax and a cry for attention. Mulder wants to believe that men like Father Joe can change, that redemption is possible, and that Father Joe's psychic visions are legitimate.
Pretty serious stuff. No summer movie featuring a convicted pedophile in a central role is ever going to find popularity in America. That's a fact. We go to movies to escape, generally, not to engage and this may simply be one bridge too far for mass audiences. Father Joe's inclusion and role in the story is a courageous (perhaps even self-destructive) choice on the part of writers Spotnitz and Carter because the film's central dilemma makes audiences confront the idea of real redemption in a very tangible, very challenging, very realistic way.
It is easy to forgive someone who seems heroic; someone who is beautiful; or someone who had an excuse for what he did. But what about forgiving someone for committing the worst crime (a crime against a child...) imaginable? I'm not saying you should forgive; that anyone should forgive. However, if you are not willing to forgive Father Joe, there are repercussions to that decision. The biggest one is that you can't say you believe in redemption, can you? If you don't let "good works" account for something in the cosmic tally of morality, you can't claim you believe in forgiveness, either. Nor can you claim to be a Christian, because forgiveness is the very crucible -- the beating heart -- of Christianity. I'm not condoning any particular interpretation....just commenting on the moral implications of this film. It will challenge your beliefs, and force you to evaluate what you think when the decision "to forgive" is not easy; not superficial.
I still can't believe a mainstream film (and a franchise film; and a sequel, for god's sake...) tread so deeply (and bravely) into this unsettling territory, but I'm glad it did. The X-Files: I Want to Believe effectively holds a mirror up to all those who claim belief in Christ's teachings yet actually thrive on hate and draconian notions of punishment and morality. In doing so, it comments explicitly on our times; an epoch when religion is often used to codify hatred of "the other" in our society (and in other societies). This paradigm - this Father Joe Dilemma - is true to everything The X-Files has always been about.
The mystery concerning the severed body parts (and the agent's disappearance) has apparently disappointed some critics and viewers too, but it is also very true to The X-Files' history. The series has always concerned our two world-views (belief vs. skepticism/Mulder vs. Scully) vetting mysterious "horror stories" and in the process giving them new life and energy. Spontaneous combustion, demonic possession, ESP, vampires, werewolves, succubi, golems, out-of-body experiences, and other old concepts in the genre were always re-purposed for the show to incorporate the latest advances in paranormal and medical literature and study. I Want to Believe explicitly continues that tradition with a plot concerning organ transplants, stem cell research, and a cadre of outlaw (Russian...) scientists playing Frankenstein. Is it ridiculous? Well...is a man who turns into a giant green superhero when he's angry also ridiculous? Is a man with a leather fetish wearing a black bat suit ridiculous? You may find the specifics of this X-File on the verge of ludicrous (one critic compared it to They Saved Hitler's Brain), but again, the tradition of taking hoary "monster"/horror chestnuts and granting them new (intelligent...) life is a long-standing facet of Chris Carter's creation. The franchise has been around for fifteen years now; so you likely have already decided whether or not this kind of thing works for you.
There's another aspect of I Want to Believe that works surprisingly well. It too has been ridiculed by reviewers. It's a brief comment said - oddly enough - by Father Joe. He urges Scully not to "give up" at a critical point, yet - as he himself readily admits - he has no reason to have said it to her. "Don't give up" may seem like an easy platitude (gee, like "with great power comes great responsibility?"), but it is actually kind of touching here; a short-hand for much good material. Especially when played between Mulder and Scully. In Duchovny and Anderson's deft hands, "don't give up" is one lover's comment to another in the face of hardship, past hurts and regret. Scully can't give up on the boy whom she is treating now because of the little boy (William) she once gave up on. And balanced against the Mulder/Scully relationship is a man (Callum Keith Rennie) -- a villain -- who steadfastly refuses to "give up" on the life of his lover...and goes to extreme (and really, really radical...) means to see that his lover survives. One plot is played against the other, and I found the balance elegant and touching, not cheesy.
Another theme here is the "burying" or cleansing of the past. The criminals responsible for Bannon's abduction attempt to bury the past (and their crimes) in the ice. Mulder hopes to cleanse his past too (if he just saves this one woman, he will have made up for failing his sister all those years ago). Scully, by saving her patient believes she can be cleansed of her guilt over William. But along comes Father Joe - a man with a past anyone would want to hide - who instead focuses on digging up the past (digging in the ice, in the snow, literally). Things keep coming to the surface. Things that must be dealt with.
The violent scenes in this film are tense, and make surprisingly strong use of a snowplow as a weapon. The bleak locale and the hidden secrets there keeps you alert, looking for clues amidst the ubiquitous falling snow. The location reflects the dark heart of the characters, and the final moment (post-credits) is a splendid (if brief...) catharsis; a release from the blinding white snow of Somerset, WV. More emotionally touching than exciting; more moody and lugubrious than spectacular, more contemplative than action-packed, more dark and foreboding than shocking, this is an uneasy, unsettling X-Files movie in which the truth isn't "out there" but rather "in here" - in us. In the endless mysteries of the human heart and human behavior.