Friday, July 25, 2008

The X-FIles: Second thoughts

I think I’m slowly coming around to liking The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Don’t misunderstand me, my observations in my review still stand. But as the disappointment of the thin plot recedes from memory, I feel more intrigued and haunted by the relationship drama and the intellectual levels of the story. This is much more than we get from most films, much less summer releases. It does a lot of interesting things. While the reviews have been mostly negative, this is a thumbs-down film where the positive reviews are the interesting ones.

Here are six key observations about the film. SPOILERS INCLUDED.

The first thing is that the film is, as I mentioned in my review, definitely Scully’s. That means that her arc is the important one. More than that, though, I Want to Believe subtly shifts the narrative perspective to her own. The television show ran on Mulder’s assumptions – he was always trying to drag that wet blanket Scully into believing his explanations for what was in front of her eyes. The movie, though, sees it the other way. Mulder seems like the wide eyed-child, gullibly chasing “monsters in the dark.” The perspective comes from the mixed feelings of Scully, and this is how the whole series must have looked to her. She feels frustrated by his childish obsessions and disapproves on one level. At the same time, she still lives through his wonder and enthusiasm, from which she gets a much-needed spark to her life. At one point, she threatens to leave him, but we all know it’s not going to happen. She needs him out there as much as he needs it. They’re two misfits who would never feel understood by anyone else, and they’re far too mutually dependent to ever depart. Their relationship has that wonderful sense that if the one of them didn’t exist, he or she would have to ask their alien abductors to clone the other in order to feel whole. And I think that's really romantic.

Two, as it always has, the film addresses the Mulder-Scully relationship in admirably subtle ways that are unusual in filmmaking nowadays. In her review, the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis calls them the “Nick and Nora of paranormal freakouts.” Both couples are marked by their under-physical-ified love that finds expression instead through wit, intellectual attraction, mutual respect, and fascination. (Do you ever hear the term “intellectual attraction” anymore?) Even if Mulder and Scully aren’t technically married, both couples make finding the right man or woman to be with look fulfilling and wonderful.

While it’s jarring for X-Files fans to see Mulder and Scully as a couple in bed, there’s still a great deal of subtlety to the rendering. Their love is expressed in small things such as touches of the hand, in Scully’s quiet annoyance while watching Amanda Peet butter Mulder up, in understanding the deepest ways of the other, in the quiet physical and spiritual vocabularies of marriage.

It seems that filmmakers quit making romantic comedies about marriage with the rise of the divorce rate. Nowadays, almost all romantic films are about the rush of finding love. Too few are about the way that successful marriages function. With the divorce rate on the way down, I would hope to see more films that see love in the longer term, as this one does.

Three, I love Gillian Anderson. It’s true she had ten years of practice in the role that other actresses won’t get. But I haven’t seen another actress so own a film so far this year. As I’ve said, after her stunning performance in The House of Mirth in 2000, I really thought she would be thanking the Academy within five years. Instead, she went five year without appearing in a film, finishing The X-Files and working on stage and BBC productions in London. I would love to see a resurgence in her popularity. She has a number of British film projects coming up, as well as How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, a Simon Pegg comedy with some buzz set for release this fall.

Most actresses, unfortunately, run out of time once their looks start to go. But the best stick around. And Anderson appears to have what researchers will one day doutlessly refer to as the Angie Dickinson Chromosome -- she might be more beautiful now at 40 than she was at 25. This is my way of saying she still has time. And with her acting skills, her unique eyes and her lavish lips, let me add her to my Catwoman sweepstakes.

Four, the film reminds me intellectually of a number of very good films. For one, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. (This is one of the things that the shift to Scully’s POV helps illuminate.) Mulder is much like Thomas the photographer. Each character feels the overwhelming urge to ground their uncertain beliefs into objective reality. Meanwhile, Scully is a little like the mimes; the clowns are comfortable living in ambiguity. Scully isn’t quite comfortable there – she still wants to know. But the ending of this film, which frankly is haunting me, gives her a moment of peace with the ambiguity.

The result is that you have an irony – Mulder, the flyboy of wild belief, is actually the one who needs to feel crowned by reality. Scully, the rationalist, feels more comfortably disposed among existence’s unknowns.

Five, the thinness of the plot still bothers me. I think I understand why (perhaps aside from funding) X-Files creator Chris Carter went this direction – by keeping the plot skeletal, it couldn’t overshadow the domestic drama. Yet in doing so, he also sheds the main kindling of the relationship. This probably looks like a better trade-off in his head than it does on screen, and the result is a dour film with dull spots largely shorn of Mulder and Scully’s wisecracking banter. As a result, the wintry film feels almost like The X-Files as directed by Bergman or Antonioni, a too pop-ish concoction sourly contemplating alienation and/or the presence of God.

I think there were two things that Carter could have done to make this work better. He could have gone with an alien plotline, with plenty of black helicopters and special effects. It would give the plot more energy, as well as spark the relationship. We all know that when chasing aliens, Mulder and Scully are at their best. Or he could have done what Hitchcock might have done, ala Vertigo, or what Antonioni did in L’Avventura - just toss the plot aside. Admit that the mystery is only a device (a maguffin) to get things moving and means little to nothing in the end. Why invest so much time and energy into solving a lame crime? Rather than going the potboiler route, it would be better if the mystery were solved by accident, a police officer stumbling onto a clue in the road, or some such. That route would have taken creative guts, and might not have been practical with Hollywood financial considerations. But I think it would have been the right ending for the film on the screen.

Six, I was an X-Files fan from its first season to about 1999, about the time its fan base started to leave the series due to its denseness. That’s fine; every series jumps the shark sooner or later. I have to say, though, the idea that this film might be the end of the line jars me a bit. Carter has planned to make one more film, at least, set for 2012. I hope so. I wish he would have rewarded the characters for their service with a little bit more sun than this film does, and I hope he can still do so. But I’m not sure if this film will earn quite enough for that to happen. (Other than last weekend, could it have a possibly worse release date from a box office perspective?) I worry that this might be the end, and I feel like bits of me and my youth are going with it, into some netherworld of collective memory that slowly fades through the ages. And I think that's partly what may be eating me about this film the past few days.

10 comments:

Alexander Coleman said...

Wow, terrific post.

I especially think points #4, #5 and #6 are splendid, as I agree with your eloquent statement comparing it to Blow-Up was a (suitably, since this is The X-Files after all) radical way of looking at it. And I agree.

Yes, the thinness of the plot. I have to say, I'm convinced that this has almost everything to do with two things: firstly, Carter and co. couldn't make a more expensive film, since Fox wanted the budget reasonable (35 million) so they could see some light at the end of the tunnel with this, and secondly because I think Carter wanted to have a completely simple (kind of dull--but I'm pretty sure it didn't look that way in his head, like you say) paranormal storyline (a) so as not to distract from the more important relationship drama and (b) so that people who were either former fans who got turned off by it (like you and I) or were wholly ignorant of it completely wouldn't feel threatened by an overwhelming "myth-arc" involving black oil goo, alien space ships, black helicopters and a bunch of old men in a noirishly shot room plotting the end of the world as we know it.

The problem is (and I plan on expanding on this in my own review to be posted sometime soon), when Carter and Spotnitz try to link the paranormal storyline (psychic disgraced priest) with the Mulder-Scully relationship storyline with that dialogue towards the end, it kind of falls flat, sadly, because one part was so flimsy that it can't meet the challenge of reprenting any kind of dramatic allegory for the other part. It's really that which is the greatest failing of the film in my mind--its lack of visceral punch--because the best episodes demonstrated a clear linkage between the banter and philosophical tug-o'-war between the two FBI agents and the case they were working on (obviously, one stems from the other, but the idea was always to make the show character-driven and that only works in any kind of TV show, if the storyline of the week supports the "arcs" of the characters, and this movie's storyline just doesn't get there).

Lastly, I have to say, regarding #6: By the time you speak of (1999 or thereabouts) I had become so sickened by the show that I continually wished they would just put it out of its misery. It was becoming an insufferable enterprise, especially when compared to the heights of the glory days (Seasons 1-3 especially, with 4 as a still-strong season but a "dip"--let's face it, the show, as good as it remained for a while, was never the same after Mr. X got whacked and Season 5 offering some serviceable-to-good episodes).

I remember hating the series finale in May 2002 as a kind of bloated exercise in boring self-congratulation (and Carter's recent comments about the strengths of the latter seasons bugs me to no end) but as I watched Mulder and Scully's last scene together in this film, and then that shot of them in that boat, I thought, "Well, it's all worth it, and this takes that bad taste in my mouth away, finally."

As I said in a brief, parenthetical comment (as I was actually discussing Tell No One in its thread), this film is better than the haters give it credit for being, despite its glaring problems.

Alexander Coleman said...

Oh yeah, Skinner was wasted. But I expected as much. Still, it's Skinner, you could do better than give Mitch Pileggi five lines of dialogue, a scene where he gets to stare down some bad Russians and a paycheck.

Craig Kennedy said...

Yes this feels like the end to me too, especially after seeing the dismal box office figures.

I haven't come around to it yet the way you have (Just saw it this morning followed by the execrable Step Brothers), but I like the points you make here. I'm skeptical about your yearning for an alien subplot though. For me that's where the show started to go haywire and I started to lose interest. The beginning and end of my interest in the show ultimately revolved around Scully and Mulder and their relationship. Not to questions of whether they'd "hook up" but just in general.

K. Bowen said...

First, Alexander, could you describe, in excruciating visual detail, the post-credits boat thing? I didn't stay.

Craig, I'm not necessarily talking about a myth-arc alien storyline. Or even necessarily an alien storyline. Just more of a plot. But you might be right. Friends or lovers, their relationship has always been the most interesting thing about it. And always has been.

As to a future sequel, the theory is going around on IMDB that the film has strongly pushed sales for the television DVDs. SO that's a bonus. And it was cheap. So it's not impossible. I'm still not betting on it, though.

Alexander Coleman said...

I could see Carter summoning enough resources at Fox for one last ride in 2012 to coincide with his "myth-arc" storyline in which the world is threatened for good in 2012 with colonization, blah, blah, blah. That is good news about the DVD sales, KB.

When I saw the boat thing, KB, I said to a friend, "Nobody is going to see this," because everybody else was long gone by then. Essentially, the credits begin to run over great National Geographic style shots of ice, then later those credits run over shots of the ocean. We see the shadow of a helicopter in the water. This goes on for a while. Then we see Mulder in T-shirt and shorts rowing a boat with Scully looking on--in a bikini!!--and then they look up at the overhead camera and wave as we pull back and they get smaller and smaller... And then finally, as it seems like we're going into space, the screen goes black and that's that.

Honestly, though, what I remember most is Gillian Anderson in a bikini. I think that was the most exposed she's ever been in an X-Files episode or movie. Too bad the camera was so far away.

So, now you have an incentive to see it again and get through the credits.

K. Bowen said...

7097

K. Bowen said...

Whoops.

I was going to say, until this weekend, I didn't realize that Mulder and Scully consummated their relationship. Someone ove rat IMDb pointed me to YOuTube clips of the "All Things" episode where it happened. Why don't you tell me these things, AC? :) Just watched the clips, and it seemed to be handled well. Anyway, I need to rent some DVDs or catch some reruns.

Apparently the boat thing is there so that it can go either way, according to Duchovny. If they make another movie (unlikely, but not totally out of the question), it's a vacation interrupted. If they don't, it's a happy ending and a farewell, which is something I didn't think the film gives them, so I'm glad about that. I wish I'd stayed. Maybe I'll catch it in the coming days.

I jsut hope that Gillian's career gets a little spark. As a fan I would enjoy it. As a critic, I think she's a talented actress. Judging by the reviews of her British film work, she seems very well regarded there. But maybe she doesn't want to deal with fame again. Understandable, I suppose.

K. Bowen said...

But if Hollywood trends keep up, i don't think this is the last of The X-Files onscreen. In fifteen years, we'll have a bigscreen revival Abigail Breslin as Scully and that kid in Bridge from Terebithia as Mulder. or something like it.

Dan Coyle said...

At the time, the events of "all things" were meant to be deliberately ambiguous- I believe Gillian Anderson meant to have Mulder and Scully finally do the nasty, but Carter being Carter, he fixed it so it didn't look that way.

It was only after badgering from a Fox exec about William's paternity that Carter drew a line in the sand and said, "Look, Mulder is the father." So that's when, I guess, Mulder's black oil/artifact infected mega-sperm turned on the lights of the formerly rusted out uterus of Dana K. Scully.

I liked the film much more than I thought it would, and I agree that it's a fitting goodbye, far more than "The Truth" would or could be. It's got some troubling flaws, and Carter can't direct action to save his life, but I went home satisfied. It would not have worked without the subplot of Scully fighting the hospital to save the boy's life, because that's what gave the tired M and S conflict a backbone.

Sam Juliano said...

I am not surprised by the probing excellence of this essay, as the author has been quite consistant in this vein. I was a fairly regular devotee of THE X FILES in its peak years--my favorite episode oddly enough wasn't of the paranormal variety--but a down-to-earth grisly horror episode about a depraved hillbilly family, called HOME. Actually that episode was deservedly one of the series' most prominent.
I did not see this film yet, but was highly unimpressed with the first film for a variety of reasons. You and Alexander really make it an intrigue, though.
I agree with what you say in ageneral sense about Gillian Anderson, and of her superb turn in THE HOUSE OF MIRTH.
Similarly I am intrigued by your comparison there with Antonioni's BLOW-UP.
Again, beautiful work here, no matter what one may ultimately think of the film.