The wait is nearly over. The X-Files is back on TV and ahead of the UK broadcast I take a look back at the second film, The X-Files: I Want to Believe.
Is it as bad as everyone makes out?
I will admit, The X-Files: I Want to Believe is not a perfect film. Released in 2008, six years after the end of the TV series, the film certainly had some challenging obstacles. Even though I do like it, as mythology fan, Fight the Future satisfied me more.
I know that sounds bad. In some respects I shouldn’t compare both films – one was released at the height of its popularity, the other born in the aftermath of a writers strike in Hollywood and released a week later after The Dark Knight.
The X-Files: I Want to Believe is not a summer blockbuster style film. It’s more of a low key affair, in a similar vein to a Nordic Noir mystery, concentrating more on intimacy and atmosphere than the Hollywood spectacle of explosions and action scenes. Some fans think this film was a slap in the face in the show’s legacy and arguably the film suffered from high and unrealistic expectations. It wasn’t their X-Files they would say – no aliens, no conspiracy or a freaky monster that would make you grab a pillow to hide behind. The plot wasn’t the best and the more I think about it, it would have been best served as a TV episode than a cinematic film. Yet you could argue that people easily forget how experimental and ground breaking the show was. It was flexible to be whatever it wanted to be. You only have to look around you to see the influence and its long lasting legacy.
The more I think about I Want to Believe, the more I begin to understand it, especially when it’s viewed in context with the entire TV series. While it may not be apparent, the film thematically and subtly touches on concepts from the show – points that are easily missed out or ignored by the critics at the time. One of those key references is the title of the film itself – I want to believe. The X-Files has never been a show about answers. It’s always asking questions and in context to our central and integral characters in Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), it is the battle of their beliefs and their faith – the believer vs. the sceptic. As they embark on a sinister murder mystery involving a missing FBI agent, that faith is tested.
“This isn’t my life anymore, Mulder. I’m done chasing monsters in the dark.” – Dana Scully
I find it interesting that the film was set in a wintry landscape. The snow is not an accidental, directional choice. It’s designed to mess with your senses. When you think of snow, I bet the first thing you think of is Christmas with all its nostalgia of innocence, purity and fun – something us Brits wish for every December 25th only for snow to turn up in February…if we’re lucky! But in The X-Files world, snow is represented as a metaphor. That innocence and joy is just a smoke screen as it gently covers up the deep, dark, hidden secrets of the world. That is what is illustrated in the opening scene.
The X-Files still has a knack to provide a real world context and relevancy. Again the choices are not random. Joseph Crissman (Billy Connolly) is a convicted paedophile and priest who claims he has psychic abilities. He offers his help to the FBI in order to find the missing agent. However the fact we never see his “visions” always creates doubt. It’s designed to make you feel conflicted and to challenge the validity.
The film also focusses on the idea of transformation using the topic of homosexuality as a basis of discussion. If society hated the idea of homosexuality so much, what would you do in order to feel accepted? Would you care or would you do something drastic? In the case of this film, the dilemma comes into question when scientists perform their own interpretation of the Russian dog experiment.
Or how about stem cell research – should we continue to pursue this avenue with its medical advancements or keep things the way God and nature intended?
Notice how the topics I mentioned are all ethical, controversial and sensitive subjects that initiates the moral debate.
There’s nothing supernatural about I Want to Believe. The plot is as straightforward as a case on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. But that’s not to say that the film doesn’t fit into the realm of the show. It’s easier to believe in something extraordinary like in a Eugene Victor Tooms. However when there’s a hidden ambiguity on who the real monster is, sometimes that can be harder to accept or thinking it lacks imagination. I Want to Believe playfully suggests that humans can be equally capable of committing cruel and horrific crimes.
If you’re familiar with Chris Carter’s other work, then I Want to Believe will feel familiar. The film is more like a Millennium storyline than an X-Files storyline and yet how the dynamic is applied to the Mulder and Scully relationship is interesting. Mulder has become like Frank Black – a former FBI agent with a unique gift or in the case of Mulder, his ability to take leaps of faith as a gifted profiler. Scully has become like Catherine Black – she accepts Mulder’s gift and intuition but craves normalcy. Just like in Millennium, the couple were at odds with each other, in particular in the second series as Frank and Catherine tried to maintain a balance between the darkness and a family life and that is similarly explored in the second X-Files film.
Mulder and Scully have changed. Scully is now a practising medical doctor. Mulder, still listed as a fugitive after being falsely accused of murdering a military officer in the series finale, finds himself isolated, trapped and removed from the outside world. Only Scully provides that link to civilisation. But their relationship is not all rosy as fanfics would imagine it. They’re not the same youthful FBI agents that use to chase UFOs with flashlights and guns and if you are expecting that, then this movie is not for you. This is the first time we see the former FBI agents carrying the burden from their previous life. The scars, both physically and mentally poignantly scratch the surface of their existence. It’s a change I welcome. I don’t want to see Mulder and Scully trapped in the past. I want to see development and growth, no matter how imperfect it is and we as the audience shouldn’t be afraid of change just because our favourite characters do something that goes against the grain.
Mulder sees the case as a way to get back into his former groove. He suddenly feels alive after years of disillusionment with his reputation ruined. Shaving off his beard becomes a symbol of his rejuvenation. But stepping back into that world is not without consequences. There’s a brilliant scene where Mulder finds body parts through dirty glass. Once again, he had to prove his beliefs when everyone else was giving up or doubting Father Joe’s claim. After the discovery, he refuses to acknowledge anyone, taking a sombre walk away from the crime scene as if he was saying “been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.” The emotional toil and experience never gets easy, especially when Mulder is not winning. Despite taking these leaps of faith, he immediately recognises that he’s “half the team.” He values Scully’s input as a validation hence his constant insistence that he doesn’t want to explore the darkness on his own. As illustrated in the episode Little Green Men from Series 2, without evidence, his theories lack substance. He learnt that from Scully.
But it could easily be argued that I Want to Believe is really a Scully driven movie. People have criticised Scully’s ever changing persona throughout the film. Yes in some respects that’s a valid comment but on the other hand, instead of saying “well that’s unlike Scully”, question why she’s doing it. For me, her actions boils down to this specific line in the film:
“If you were a mother, Dr. Scully, you would understand.” – Margaret Fearon
The most neglected fact that seem to pass over most critics is that Scully is a mother! Mulder and Scully had a child together – William. He was given up for adoption in Series 9 to protect him because of the alien threat against his life. Let’s not also forget, she also had another child, Emily Sim, born as a result from Scully’s abduction back in Series 2.
Scully’s attachment to Christian Fearon, a young child suffering from an incurable disease is her motivation. In a similar way of how Mulder can sympathise with the victim, Scully operates in the same fashion. Knowing she couldn’t protect her own child, she tries to do everything she can to make sure Christian’s parents don’t suffer a similar fate. Of course it will never make up for her own reasons for giving up her son, but in her mind this is how she justifies it. It’s a decision not without challenges, with the hospital operating with the same bureaucratic behaviour that you would expect from her previous life in the FBI.
When you think of it in the grand scheme of things, the whole film asks the question about penance and forgiveness. Scully works at a hospital called Our Lady of Sorrows aka the most depressing hospital sounding name in the history of hospital names! I mean, if you broke your leg, would you want to visit there? In the six years between the finale and I Want to Believe, working at the hospital is her prison, a self-imposed punishment. It acts as a mental torture by surrounding herself with others less fortunate. Father Joe on the other hand had himself castrated. Because of the nature of his crime and his inability to lead a normal life, he lives in an isolated housing complex, keeping his sin away from the rest of the community.
Scully’s constant challenging of Father Joe is her own crisis of faith. As a Catholic and a scientist, she views Father Joe’s crime as the ultimate sin and therefore in no position to lecture on God’s work. That right went when he “buggered 37 alter boys.” Yet his specific words, “don’t give up” leads her in the direction of new evidence and adds to her confliction. If you haven’t noticed the connection by now, there are similar parallels between Beyond the Sea from Series 1 and I Want to Believe and it’s that nuance performance from Gillian Anderson that makes this entire point worthwhile.
There are multiple times where the case could have ended and Mulder and Scully could have gone back to their normal lives, whatever that may be. They pointed the FBI Agents Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) and Mosely Drummy (Xzibit) in the right direction. But because of their personal curiosity in the case, drives their involvement further.
Scully is naturally afraid. She wanted Mulder to accept the case because it was his chance to obtain his freedom by getting his criminal charges dropped, freeing him from her fear of long term isolation. But Scully knows how obsessed Mulder can get which leads him into danger. People easily forget how dark Mulder can be – think Demons from Series 4 or Grotesque from Series 3. The fact that she’s blunt to him about his sister may have felt out of character but that is Mulder’s constant driving force and she knows that. Just because his sister is dead, a mystery burdened by family betrayal, secret deals and abductions, doesn’t mean he wants anyone else to suffer the same fate. Mulder’s ability to champion the voiceless has always been within him – again think Oubliette from Series 3 or Mind’s Eye from Series 5. Scully was always trying to protect him, a bit like Dr. Watson protecting Sherlock. Mulder could have easily thrown it back at her regarding her own persistence on helping Christian but we all know that Mulder does his own fair share of protection for Scully.
“What’s up Doc?” – Fox Mulder
Despite these thoughtful insights, there are areas of this film which are problematic.
No matter how many times I watch this film, the X-Files theme being played when Mulder and Scully are at the FBI offices always takes me out of the moment. I understand the in-joke but it wasn’t needed. Whilst I understood the context, I still missed Mulder and Scully working together. Majority of the film they spent time apart. Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) makes a brief cameo appearance but he shows up and then disappears without giving him a proper follow up and exit. As much as I admire doctors going to great lengths to keep up to date with the latest medical advancements, it felt a little unrealistic Scully would google the research and process of conducting stem cell procedures! But the biggest complaint I have is the end itself. I’m a mythology fan and it would have been cool to see some recognition. Whilst I enjoyed the Easter egg at the end of the movie, it felt out of place like a final goodbye. The X-Files was never about concluding stories. It always left the door open.
Essentially, I Want to Believe is about the restoration of faith for our two characters. Despite being separate for majority of the film, Mulder and Scully were working on the same case, viewing it from their respective viewpoints.
The heavy blanket of snow that concealed their secrets and fears melts away, allowing Mulder and Scully to finally move on. Mulder could have easily pushed for the truth but decides against it. His relationship with Scully is far more rich and important and chooses her over the truth. Mulder went through different “partners” in the film and Scully was the only one to really prove her worth. She solves the case without suffering similar fates as the other agents.
It will be interesting to see how that acknowledgement will play in the upcoming revival.
Even after this review, The X-Files: I Want to Believe may still not convince you and I’m ok with that. The X-Files was a lot of things to different people.
But if you give it a chance and place it in context, the truth might be more revealing than you think and hopefully the revival will be show’s redemption in restoring the faith to the fandom.