Thursday, July 24, 2008

I wanted to believe [The X-Files: I Want to Believe]

The X-Files: I Want to Believe [PG-13]
Grade: C
Cast: Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny, Amanda Peet, Xzibit, Billy Connolly
Director: Chris Carter

The unexpected thing about The X-Files: I Want to Believe is that it’s Scully’s picture.

It’s as if all those X-Philes who haven’t exhaled since the series’ 2002 end (and let’s face it - a couple years before that) haven’t been awaiting more spaceships, black helicopters, and oily goo. Rather they’ve been waiting to see Dana Scully perform brain surgery and wrestle with faith.

This should bring the popular nineties television show full circle. It started as FBI agent Fox Mulder dashing into the paranoid and paranormal, as the sensibly-dressed skeptic pulled the leash. Certainly the film’s plot recycles from the series’ crop-circle constellation – a missing FBI agent, a psychic priest, an urban legend. These are manly MacGuffins, making way for a distinctly feminine touch. The result is an unconventional relationship drama in which man and woman argue about epistemology rather than chores.

The female touch has its upside. Scully evolved into the heart of the series, balancing faith, science and the unknown. From an acting perspective, it trades up, too. David Duchovny’s acting appeal has always extended to the exact dimensions of Fox Mulder. But Gillian Anderson is a gifted actress. Her film performances, such as Terrance Davies’ The House of Mirth, attest. Why she didn’t go on to win an Oscar is a Hollywood mystery. Even a little older, Scully remains the smart girl’s role model and the thinking man’s heartthrob.

The show created one of the longest effective will-they-or-won’t–they relationships in television history. The secret was that they already were. The matrimony was their mutual work, care, and fascination. Why wouldn’t it be? When you spend your eternal honeymoon saving each other from vampires, who would settle for the conventional thrill of sex? It’s hard to think of something more romantic.

Yet by denying the fans an alien storyline, the film also denies its key relationship its sauce. Instead, the film’s tone is tender, almost intimate. Amping down the chills, director Chris Carter, the series’ creator, works on familiar X-Files’ themes of paranoia, obsession, the relationship of power, belief, and reality. By including the domestic drama, he adds a question at the heart of his other forgotten show, Millenium. Once you’ve looked into the abyss, how do you come home to an ordinary life? It all makes for an autumnal feel.

In a Roswell-obsessed decade, few television shows so captured the zeitgeist. A UFO-obsessed master FBI agent with startling childhood memories. A wavering Catholic rationalist sent to keep him in line. Little gray men. Men in black. Paranoia and sexual tension in the FBI basement. Mulder and Scully even might have accounted for the unbalanced federal budget. Together, they racked up the largest worker’s comp bill in American labor history. Each hospital in the country should dedicate a Mulder-and-Scully wing.

Due to the show’s quality, any re-visit spurs good memories. For a while they are earned. The first half of the film is darkly energetic and crisply suspenseful, tingling spines in its endless snow. It also has things missing from normal summer entertainment – a character-driven story, a strong female lead, an intellectual bend to its silliness. Often, it reminds you of why the series broke so much new ground. But the bottom line is this – if the story were an episode, it wouldn’t stand out. There’s a better effort for the having. It wouldn’t be fair to allow them to do less.


Alexander Coleman said...

They've had my money since the moment they announced it.

I've heard everything you say to be true, about this being Scully's film... Sounds terrific.

"...thinking man's hearththrob." So true. So very, very true. Glad to know retroactively that I was a thinking man all along.

Nick Plowman said...

Yeah, I found this film tedious and uninteresting, but I was glad that Sully got most of the limelight.

K. Bowen said...

Well, I have to say that my opinion on it is turning around a bit. For some reason, this film has been on my mind since I saw it. I'm not sure why. I'm about to post something on it.

"Thinking man's sex symbol" was always how Scully/Anderson was referred to in the nineties. She might have been the first of that kind on TV. One of the interesting things about the show is how many women became doctors or scientists because of it. Of course, the funny thing is that Duchovny was the Yale-educated super-genius offscreen, while Anderson was simply goood at acting the part.