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As stories go, that of the latter-day revival of The X-Files leaves something to be desired. It starts out promisingly enough. Quirky television auteur comes out of nowhere to create a cult hit that quickly balloons into a cultural phenomenon and shapes television for years to come (it has for some time been my theory that between them, The X-Files and Babylon 5 are responsible for most of the scripted television on our screens today). Then, a tragic reversal. After a few years, the show starts to flag. Spin-offs and similar series from the same team fizzle. First one lead leaves, then the other. Finally, several years after its time, the show is allowed to die. Five years on, a potential twist, as the show comes back for a big-screen encore, to which the only reaction from the masses is dubiousness, for a host of very good reasons—the casual viewers have long ago forgotten the series; the hard-core fans are still bitter at the way it broke their heart; everyone has more interesting and more current things to care about. Everyone assumes that the film will be a colossal flop. And it is, so everyone was right. You see my problem? There's no arc. "Once-Great Series Fails to Make Spectacular Comeback" has a bit of a Dog Bites Man ring to it.

And a failure to make a spectacular comeback is exactly what The X-Files: I Want to Believe is. It's not a good film, neither on the level of the original series's best episodes—cleverly written and tensely plotted mysteries with well-drawn supporting characters and sharp dialogue—nor on that of its first foray into film, The X-Files: Fight the Future, a dumb but entertaining summer flick that looked very pretty and temporarily recast the main characters as action stars. But neither is it spectacularly bad, a feature-length "Space" or "Fearful Symmetry," which at least would leave its viewers with some meat, however rancid, to chew on. Instead, I Want to Believe is pointless and insubstantial. The plot, as famously promised by the show's creator and the film's director and cowriter Chris Carter as if this were the magic bullet that would bring former fans back to the fold, has nothing to do with the government conspiracy and alien abductions that underpinned the series for nine seasons before fizzling into nothing. A disgraced Mulder is now living in seclusion in rural Virginia after having been driven out of the FBI. (I stopped watching the show regularly after its sixth season, and irregularly after its seventh, so I'm not sure how it ended. As the film tells it, Mulder was accused of a crime he didn't commit, but has been allowed to slink off into obscurity in exchange for his freedom.) He's called back to the bureau by the improbably named Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet, whose performance gives the distinct impression of having had most of its substance lopped off and left on the cutting room floor), who contacts him through Scully, now treating patients in a Catholic hospital (why a pathologist would be treating patients, much less performing surgery as Scully does later in the film, is something which is never explained). Whitney is investigating the kidnapping of an FBI agent, and wants Mulder to help her deal with a source of information about the kidnappings, a pedophile priest who claims to be seeing visions of the victim (Billy Connolly, in a performance so stiff and unpersuasive that to call it wooden would be an affront to trees and fine furniture the world over).

To say much more about I Want to Believe's plot would almost certainly be to expend more energy and attention on it than its writers have done. The characters seem, for the most part, bored, unable (with the exception of Mulder, who, after all, has made it his life's mission to care about things nobody else cares about) to work up much enthusiasm or urgency about the mystery or the missing FBI agent. Scully in particular, and despite persuading Mulder to take the case on, quickly comes to resent it. She's antagonistic towards Connolly's character (it's unclear whether she's disgusted by his crimes or by the fact that he has the presumption to pray for forgiveness for them) and far more interested in a young patient suffering from an incurable degenerative disease, spending most of the film debating whether to let him die peacefully or subject him to a radical and invasive experimental procedure. I imagine that if Carter and cowriter Frank Spotnitz were asked about the film's shapelessness, they'd argue that its focus is on the main characters and their relationship. That's certainly a persuasive reading when one considers that the biggest spoiler I can reveal here has nothing to do with the kidnapping investigation but rather with Mulder and Scully themselves, who, as the film opens, have for some time been in a romantic relationship. The investigation, and Mulder's rediscovered obsession with both it and the supernatural, spark a crisis for them, with Scully complaining that Mulder has brought ugliness and horror back into their lives, and Mulder refusing to give up the chase no matter how much she entreats him to.

"I Want to Believe" was one of the original series's tent-pole phrases, an expression of one of its core themes, faith. Most of The X-Files's episodes revolved in one form or another around the question of faith—Mulder's in the supernatural and paranormal; Scully's in God. In the series, however, "I Want to Believe" was matched by another phrase and another core concept, just as the stand-alone mystery stories were matched by what fans called "mythology" episodes, the ever-complicating and proliferating, ultimately pointless story of a conspiracy to suppress evidence of alien life and alien abductions, and perhaps to hand over the Earth to alien invaders. "Trust no one," Scully is told by Mulder's dying government informant in the first season finale, the first of these mythology episodes. The concept of trust and the question of who to trust continued to dog the series throughout its run. Trust and faith are what The X-Files boils down to; what the relationship between Mulder and Scully, who trusted only one another and had faith in completely different things, boils down to.

It was a commonplace of X-Files fan circle back when I was still a part of them that when characters in the show, and most particularly Mulder and Scully, used the word 'trust,' what they actually meant was "love." On one level, this is a starry-eyed and romantic reading of the series as a crypto-love story, but when taken less literally it reveals an important truth. It's not that Mulder and Scully had a habit of saying "I love you" in code, but rather that in the world they moved in, in which lies were more common than truth and deception a fact of life, to wholeheartedly trust any one person was an emotional commitment as intense and meaningful as love is to normal people. I Want to Believe, as its title suggests and its plot description confirms, focuses on the original series's faith component, once again pitting Mulder against colleagues who think him not much more than a lunatic, once again plunging Scully into self-doubt, once again showing us the two of them struggling with their incomprehension of each other's cherished beliefs. Having gotten rid of the conspiracy story, however, Carter and Spotnitz have no justification for trotting out trust, and have therefore turned subtext into text and given us love instead—a substitution that turns out to be less than wholly satisfactory.

Mulder's tenacity, Scully tells him after he refuses to drop the case, is the reason she fell in love with him (and it is very strange to hear that phrase fall from Dana Scully's lips). As former fans, we can sympathize. We too were carried along by Mulder's indefatigable determination, which is not only his defining characteristic but his only virtue (for all that it is also sometimes a flaw). Mulder is, after all, a not particularly impressive person who has failed every single time he's set himself a mission—find his sister, rescue Scully from her abductors, find a cure for Scully's cancer, topple and expose the conspiracy, learn the truth about alien visitations on Earth. All he has to show for himself is his unwillingness to let past experience be his future guide. When, over the course of the series, Scully committed herself again and again to Mulder's cause and to standing by his side, it was clear that she did so not simply out of love, or even admiration for his tenacity, but because she shared his goals and had goals of her own—to avenge the death of her sister, and to learn the truth about her abduction, her infertility, and the creation and swift death of her daughter—which were served by that commitment. Take away this motivation from both characters and it's simply not clear why Scully sticks around. It's a choice that actually makes us think less of her, especially when she seems to expect Mulder to change that single defining quality when she asks him to abandon the case. Scully comes off as whiny and girly—the woman who falls in love with a man because of a grand and tragic flaw, and then expects him to change just that trait in order to keep her.

As I've said, I Want to Believe isn't bad in the way that The X-Files's most disastrous episodes were bad. It is, to my mind, bad in a way that is far worse. It echoes those episodes of the series in which the writers were clearly coasting, relying on ambience, on the characters and the audience's affection for them, and on the show's popularity, to carry them to the end credits, and failing to provide not only a compelling plot but anything resembling energy or liveliness. About halfway through these episodes you'd shake off the show's spell and notice that it'd been months or longer since you'd seen Mulder or Scully smile or show any other sign of possessing a personality; that no one really talks like this, using so many words to say so little. And finally you'd notice that Mulder and Scully aren't really very likable. That he's selfish and empty of anything but sarcasm and a terrifying determination. That she consistently lets her awesomeness be boxed in by her preference for coloring within the lines, choosing to follow others and then resenting them for that choice (it's only towards the end of the film that we get a glimpse of the other Scully, the one who could chase down armed criminals in three-inch heels and reduce men twice her size to quivering jelly with just a raised eyebrow, the one who let nothing stand in her path). The same sense of disillusionment washes over us about halfway through I Want to Believe, but whereas in young people with a mission (who were being seen through the eyes of teenagers) these flaws had an appealing grandeur, they are something quite different—something sad and pathetic—in a middle-aged couple with nothing to care about in the world but each other.

What's really sad about I Want to Believe, however, is that everything I've described above—the shriveling of Mulder's quest, his and Scully's settling for mundane survival, their choice to turn away from their mission and focus solely on each other, and the subsequent intensification of all their worst qualities—could have made for a truly excellent movie. For a brief time, Mulder and Scully were heroes, major players in a global drama, but by the end of the series they had failed and were tossed out of the game. There's a harrowing story to be told about people learning to live an ordinary life in the wake of heroism, learning to settle for less and draw meaning from their reduced importance (this is, of course, assuming that a writer with some intelligence and talent were given charge of the material, but as Carter and Spotnitz wrote some of the show's finest episodes, it can't be said that they lack talent, merely that they've chosen not to use it). But that can't be done if the fact of that past heroism is never addressed, if the audience is expected to accept that we have always been at war with Eurasia, and that The X-Files was never anything more than a love story set against the backdrop of a supernatural Law & Order. No one would have expected a new X-Files film to resolve the myriad questions the series left hanging—most of us gave up on getting those answers while we were still actively watching the show—but it doesn't follow that the existence of those questions has to be swept under the rug.

I Want to Believe is an odd artifact—on the one hand, clearly aiming for and relying on viewers' nostalgia and lingering love for Mulder and Scully, and on the other leaving out much of what made The X-Files and its characters appealing to just those people it is trying to draw back in. It seems to have been written in the wake of two false assumptions: that nearly a decade and a half after the fact, it is possible to put the genie back in the bottle and pretend that the show's conspiracy aspects never existed, and that having gotten rid of the aspect of the show that drew most of its fans in, it can keep their attention by giving them a romance instead, because all fans really wanted was for Mulder and Scully to kiss. Well, they kiss, for quite a while and with rising music in the background, and it is weird and unsatisfactory and seems completely unrelated to either the preceding one hundred minutes or the preceding nine seasons and one film. It's not Mulder and Scully—or at least, not the ones we wanted to see kiss all those years ago. And it is definitely not The X-Files.

Abigail Nussbaum (anusbaum@netvision.net.il) works as a software engineer in Tel Aviv, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Vector, and the Israeli SFF quarterly The Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.



Abigail Nussbaum is a blogger and critic. She blogs at Asking the Wrong Questions and tweets as @NussbaumAbigail.
4 comments on “The X-Files: I Want to Believe”

i wonder if you've read David Cox's 'defense' over at the guardian?
just wanted to point out that, as many problems as this movie had, Scully working as a medical practitioner was not actually one of them. pathologists are still doctors, after all. i believe (or want to, harhar) that was meant to show just how 'far' she had 'fallen', that, rather than practicing her chosen specialty (four years of residency, who knows how many for fellowship), circumstances forced her to 'revert' to general practice (in some backwater town hospital, basically doing what we call 'moonlighting').
i'd like to add that pathologists who keep their hand in actually treating patients should, in theory, make the most excellent doctors, pathology being somewhat like Gregory House's made-up 'diagnostic medicine', with the exception of not being directly involved in the treatment of patients and generally only waiting until some of them die of a fatal disease rather than doing everything in their power to kill them to learn about it.

Thanks for reviewing the movie. It seems I enjoyed it a bit more than you did, but I can certainly understand your frustrations. It seemed for a long time like Carter was promising the stand-alone to be a terrifying, monster of the week-type episode, so when I saw the movie, I was initially bummed that it wasn't creepier than it was, and that it didn't give me nightmares. It also felt more like a double episode for TV, which in the end for me wasn't so bad. I've missed Mulder and Scully.
That said, a little nitpick: Duchovny did leave the show for about a year and a half but Gillian Anderson never left, although her role was downplayed a bit more during the last half of the final season. (Which, yes, you are lucky to have missed that last season.)

Gwynplaine

Not to mention the fact Scully also performs what is portrayed as an experimental surgery after merely Googling and printing several random internet resources the night before. A true virtuosa of whatever the plot finds it convenient for her to be.
I found the 'heartfelt' dialogue between Scully and Moulder particularly irritating.

R. B. Minton

I too was generally disappointed - especially at the original theatrical showing; but I bought the DVD and after watching it 5 times I liked it (but only as a non-mythology, stand-alone, double episode flick). I reviewed about 150 reviews by others and liked Ms. Nussbaum's the best. I also found that the DVD reviews were much more favorable than the theatrical reviews - perhaps the way a tune improves with repeated playing.
The worldwide TV and DVD gross is now at $75 million (or so - I don't have the numbers with me at work); so Chris Carter might convince 20th Century Fox to make a 3rd X-Files movie. I like the name suggested by "Annie" at the Rolling Stones website: XF3:2012. The name says it all - the final block-buster mythology to solve all mysteries and reveal all truths - and perhaps where Fax and Dana really fall in love and get married ! One can only hope we will see them again on the big screen. Excuse me, I have to run now - I need another fix - time to see XF2 again. (R. B. Minton, Raton, New Mexico, USA)

 

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