Monday, July 28, 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe / *** (PG-13)

Fox Mulder: David Duchovny
Dana Scully: Gillian Anderson
ASAC Dakota Whitney: Amanda Peet
Father Joseph Crissman: Billy Connolly
Agent Mosley Drummy: Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Chris Carter. Written by Frank Spotnitz and Carter. Based on the television series created by Carter. Running time: 100 min. Rated PG-13 (for violent and disturbing content and thematic material).

I rarely read other reviews of a movie before I tackle it myself. But I am a fan of “The X-Files”. I own every episode on DVD and recently finished watching the final three seasons. These are characters and concepts with which I am very involved and felt I needed some perspective with which to juxtapose my thoughts.

The release of the latest “X-Files” adventure “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” seems to have been met with confusion by critics. The confusion comes not from the plot but the purpose. It seems most people are basing their views of the film on their views of the television series and where the film falls in line with the series. Too many are looking at the whole picture and not this specific movie, which is a strong FBI procedural thriller that addresses many of the thematic issues of the series but abandons all of the conspiratorial concepts upon which the show was based.

Coming a long six years after the TV series’ cancelation at the end of its ninth season and a full ten years after the last big screen outing for “The X-Files”, “I Want to Believe” is a “stand alone” story in the vein of “The Silence of the Lambs” or “The Cell”. It’s not as bold as either of those films, and that’s its greatest weakness. But it is a good thriller that relies upon the wits and imaginations of its characters and the cold, dark atmosphere of its landscapes rather than on over-produced action sequences and special effects.

The movie begins with the disquieting image of a line of FBI agents crossing a field of snow in West Virginia poking the ground with sounding sticks. There is little doubt that they are searching for a victim of some type of abduction. They are lead by a man with long white hair who falls to his knees in the middle of the field and begins to dig. This daylight scene is intercut with a night scene in the same wintery area. A woman is attacked by two men. She injures one with a gardening fork before she is overcome. Back in daylight we find the white-haired man has uncovered the severed arm of the man she injured.

This opening scene masterfully sets the dark mood and basic suspense of the film. Director/co-writer Chris Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz prove how much they have grown as filmmakers since Carter created “The X-Files” in the early nineties. The tension and mystery they build in these initial scenes sets the picture’s tone with great efficiency. Cinematographer Bill Roe (a veteran of television shows like “The X-Files”, whose work can most recently be seen on the Fox series “Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles”) deserves a great deal of the atmospheric credit in the way he photographs the chilling winterscapes of Vancouver substituting for West Virginia.

The white-haired man is Father Joe, a convicted pedophile claiming to receive psychic visions of the woman’s abduction and others. The woman is an FBI agent he believes to still be alive. The FBI depicted here is a very different one than existed in the television series. This is a more serious FBI that has no patience or time to ponder the paranormal, let alone build intricate conspiracies to ratify or debunk such theories. ASAC Dakota Whitney does not believe Father Joe is really psychic. Rather she thinks he is more likely involved in the abductions. But he is their only lead, and thus she enlists the aid of former Special Agent Dana Scully—now an accomplished surgeon—to recruit her former partner Fox Mulder to assist in the investigation with his vast knowledge of the paranormal.

When we last saw Mulder, he was a fugitive that the FBI had used as a scapegoat to cover up an alien-based conspiracy. Considering where Mulder has been hiding in the intervening period, it is obvious the FBI hasn’t been trying too hard to find him, nor has he been too concerned about being caught. In fact, little is mentioned of Mulder’s former fate beyond the fact that the FBI is willing to forgive any prior infractions in exchange for his help on this case. Not only does this create a clean break from the trappings of the series’ mythology, but this allows his character to play a little like a more typical rouge element who is necessary to crack the case even though no one believes in him.

Scully is not so willing to return to a life of chasing ghosts and monsters, and is dealing with her own crisis of faith with a patient she is treating at a Catholic hospital. The only hope for a cure is a controversial stem cell procedure that is not backed by the administration. Her belief in the procedure against everyone else’s doubts mirrors Mulder’s belief in Father Joe.

Some fans may be pleased that the movie deals very deeply and intimately with Scully’s and Mulder’s relationship. Gillian Anderson (“Bleak House”) and David Duchovny (Showtime’s “Californication”) slip back into their former characters like falling back into their natural skins. The writing of their relationship is much improved upon from the series, where they dealt with each other as idealized opposites. Here their relationship is more rooted in reality. They fit well together, but can’t reconcile the aspects of each other’s personalities they would prefer to change. The fact they share a real relationship gives the audience the impression of joining these character’s lives already in progress rather than alienating the uninitiated by presenting a mere continuation of the relationship begun in the series.

The supporting cast also offers strong performances. Amanda Peet (NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) is an anchoring force as the skeptical agent-in-charge Whitney. Calling on Mulder’s expertise is an act of desperation for her, but she never allows the weakness to reveal itself in the authority with which she conducts her investigation. And British comedian Billy Connolly gives an understated performance as Father Joe, who doesn’t understand his power but sees it as a possible redemption for his past sins. Only Xzibit (“Gridiron Gang”) is given too little to work with as Special Agent Drummy, representing the bureaucracy of the FBI that has no room for alternative theories of investigation.

Some fans may find “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” almost too standard to fulfill their expectations from an “X-Files” adventure. There is a slight sense that the filmmakers are playing it safe, but that could be as much from being restricted to a PG-13 rating as it is from abandoning the alien invasion premise that drove the series. Certainly the reasoning behind the abductions is disturbing and unusual. In that way “I Want to Believe” is in the same tradition of some of the best “X-Files” episodes, which had nothing to do with aliens or conspiracies. And it’s so skillfully made that anyone can enjoy it, even if they’ve never heard of “The X-Files”.


SecretAgent said...

not a fan. but david is great in californication.

Andrew D. Wells said...

Yes, I caught one episode from the first season and liked what I saw. I plan on catching the series on DVD, since I don't subscribe to Showtime.