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.