Halfway through The X-Files: I Want to Believe I was still holding out hope. I hoped that this dawdling, frosty and sort of boring story would hit its stride, that Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz were just getting their engine primed and the the movie would kick into high gear. As the end credits began to roll I sat almost dumbstruck: was this really a movie released by a major studio in the middle of the summer season? Had I really watched a movie without any threat, with a final showdown that amounted to Scully hitting a dude in the face with firewood and then Skinner pointing a gun at some Russian doctors who put up no resistance?
If this movie was an episode of the series (and minus a couple of lame subplots, it easily could have been), it would have been the worst episode of whatever season in which it aired. This is The X-Files at its worst: a half-baked story that has no tension, that covers ground that’s already been well-trod by Mulder and Scully, and is totally devoid of scope, be it in terms of action, mystery or even personal excitement. This would be the kind of episode you’d skip over when rewatching the DVDs.
The story picks up six years after the last episode; Scully’s now a doctor at a Catholic hospital while Mulder seems to be a stay-at-home paranoid. She’s facing a crisis at work as the hospital bureacrats want to deny experimental care to a boy dying of some brain bullshit or other. Meanwhile, an FBI agent has been kidnapped and the only clues in the case come from a pedophile priest who claims to be getting visions from God – visions that lead the FBI to a severed arm buried in the snow. The feds offer Mulder amnesty from whatever he’s wanted for from the end of the series if he comes in and aids sexy Agent Amanda Peet and endlessly glowering Agent Xzibit. He of course wants to believe the visions of Father Billy Connolly, while Scully is skeptical that God would speak through a pervert. There are some interesting ideas here, especially with the question of forgiveness and how it might relate to this priest, but the movie never fully engages them, which is baffling since it doesn’t do anything else. The ‘solution’ of the mystery comes to Mulder and Scully in a series of wholly unbelievable coincidences, meaning that the second act of the film is wheel spinning.
It’s nice seeing Mulder and Scully back together, and I like that even though they’ve been a couple for years they call each other Mulder and Scully. They have this interesting, almost business casual relationship that’s unusual in the movies. Sadly there’s nothing much else going on around them, and their relationship isn’t tested enough to carry any interest, despite a perfunctory story beat where Scully threatens to move out because she can’t deal with Mulder getting back into the monster chasing game. It’s especially disappointing because one of the more interesting dynamics of the early Mulder and Scully years was that Mulder wanted to believe everything except the religious, while Scully was more likely to believe in miracles.
The movie plays and feels like a nicely shot TV movie – it even opens with a scene that would make a great pre-credits teaser. I expected the visuals to be TV guy Chris Carter’s problem, but the truth is that while things are tube sized, they’re pretty enough and well composed. It’s the story where he stumbles, unable to find anything that engages in this monster of the week without a monster. The beats of a standard X-Files episode are here in total: halfway through Mulder begins to question the veracity of the paranormal phenomenon he’s investigating, at the end he and Scully are somehow seperated and he goes it alone against the monster and has to be rescued. Stuffed in between the standard beats are boring extra bits – Scully’s hospital woes are excruciatingly stupid (and conclude with a scene so dense in silly symbolism that it seems like it came from the minds of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker) and the new FBI agents are pointless beyond belief. Xzibit’s surly character simply disappears from the movie; I suspect that he was meant to stick it out through the whole film but his final scenes were given to Skinner, who pops up out of nowhere at the very end.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is the slightly disturbing, possibly homophobic subtext at its heart. Here there be spoilers: it turns out that all the kidnappings are the work of black market organ harvesters, but they’re not selling body parts. Rather they’re grafting body parts together into a (barely shown) Frankensteinien body upon which their honcho’s head is sewn. The honcho was once raped by Billy Connolly and his husband (!) is the guy running around grabbing people – but women, for the most part. The movie makes a stab at claiming he’s grabbing people according to blood type, but in the movie it’s just women, so the gay guy is building a female body for his male lover, who seemingly went gay because of priest rape (and that rape is why Connolly is able to have visions about the kidnappings). When you parse it out like that it sounds more interesting than it really is, but it’s just as stupid weird.
I was hoping that a good monster of the week movie would be the shot in the arm that The X-Files needed as a franchise. As much as everyone loves the mythology episodes, many of the true classics are the stand alones, where it was all about the storytelling and the atmosphere and the concept, not building on or answering mysteries and puzzles. Done right, a creepy, scary, thrilling monster of the week movie would have jump started this franchise, guaranteeing us new adventures of Scully and Mulder every three years or so. Instead I Want To Believe feels like a last gasp. The greatest X-File of all may be solving what paranormal phenomenon convinced Fox to greenlight this piece of crap.