The X-Files: I Want to Believe premieres today, shrouded in its own set of Clintonian conspiracy theories. Can Agent Scully rekindle our fangirldom? Are our two special agents still an item? Who's the casting director that saw rapper Xzibit and thought "FBI agent?" Oh, and about that plot: it sounds like a mediocre episode of the series itself: an FBI agent goes missing and a pedophile Catholic priest's psychic rantings may hold the only key to finding her. Agent Scully, who has since become a doctor at a Catholic hospital, and Mulder, who is now a bearded Ted Kaczynski-esque recluse are called up from retirement to decide if they want to believe in the priest's psychic abilities...and their own love. Disappointing details of their middle-aged affair after the jump!
Viewed without skepticism, "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" is a taut, well-acted, thoughtfully organized, not very scary, not very hard to figure out serial-killer mystery revolving around two 40-something adults with trust issues. They still drive a Taurus, and their adventure takes place over a few gray, snowy days in NoVa and WeVa. (British Columbia, once again, reprises its "X-Files" role as a wet, overcast Anywhere.) Described thusly, the movie sounds like a low-budget yawner from an off night at Sundance.
People will complain (and already have) that "I Want to Believe" looks cheap and easy, barely rising to the level of a usual episode back when. Doubter that I am, I actually took it as a sweet bit of epilogue, made by and for adults. Even the show's "shippers" . . . may be surprised by how grown-up our paranormal sleuths have become. With simple sanity and lack of flash, Mulder and Scully make it clear: Our summer movies are part of a big conspiracy plot to trash our minds. I want to believe Mulder and Scully are correct.
A subtler anachronism is the seriousness with which Mulder and Scully take their work and themselves. On TV, Duchovny settled quickly into his role as an obsessive plodder; Anderson's gravity served as a rebuke to all the actresses her age who spoke in baby talk and aspired to nothing higher than Baywatch. The movie continues that dark, quiet tone, which means that today's moviegoers will have to forgo expectations of wisecracking heroes and snarling psychopaths, and to take seriously a couple of anguished folks who look and behave with the tired tenseness of anchors on C-SPAN.
For one thing, the Mulder-Scully chemistry seems to have evaporated. David Duchovny is still engagingly low-key as the truth-seeking Fox Mulder, while Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully seems to have become even more dour. Grounded in science, her doctor character was always serious, but she has lost some of what made her more human: passionate emotions and flashes of dry humor. There's a discernible lack of sparks during a bedroom scene. Sure, it's meant to be cozy rather than sexy, but it feels forced.
Scully, who now works as a surgeon at a Catholic hospital (Our Lady of Sorrows, nudge nudge), was always a wrestling act for Anderson, who had to fight against the character's morose, doubting-Thomas side, not to mention prosaic literary tendencies. Anderson loses the match here: Scully has ossified into one of the most humorless characters to suck the life out of a summer movie.
That relationship still simmers, though at a reduced temperature. There's nothing stirring the air between Mulder and Scully, who, having left the bureau, come across as unmoored and unfocused, even when they're working on the outlandish criminal case that drags them back into the twilight zone. A similar lack of urgency characterizes the movie, which despite its yowling dogs, barking Russians, screaming women, swelling choral voices and moody cinematography by Bill Roe - which turns even dark blue a deeper shade of black - never finds a sustainable pulse. Mr. Carter knows how to grab your attention visually, but the amalgam of trashy thriller clichés that he has compiled with Frank Spotnitz, another series regular, creates its own deadening effect. It's no wonder Mulder and Scully seem so diffident.
The film's central "mystery" is painfully underdeveloped. The pedophile priest, in addition to being a walking cliché, adds little to the proceedings, and the revelation about what lies behind the kidnappings and murders is B-grade bad. The film musters a little tension toward the end, with Mulder in peril, but that's in stark contrast to the dull and tedious 90 minutes to precede it. One keeps waiting for I Want to Believe to shift into high gear, and it never does. Do we ever believe that the characters are in danger or that their "mission" means anything? No. The film feels like an excuse for nostalgia.
The actors don't seem to care, either. Duchovny is okay, and the film was apparently made largely because he made himself available for it, but the Mulder in this film is a lot more laid-back than his TV series counterpart. Gillian Anderson claims that it was difficult for her to re-discover the character after such a long layoff, and it shows. Scully is a shadow of what she once was. Most distressingly, where these two used to play brilliantly off one another, here they never mesh, even on those occasions when the screenplay allows them to share the screen. What's the point of a reunion if the characters are going to be kept apart so much? Amanda Peet has more scenes with Duchovny than Anderson does.
The nefarious plot behind the agent's abduction is so far-fetched I'm itching to spoil it. But I'll limit myself to observing that, if ever I'm dying of a rare brain disease, I hope my surgeon won't go home and frantically Google treatment options, as Scully does at one key moment. (Couldn't she at least log on to Medscape?) The problem with the movie's semisupernatural crime plot, though, isn't that the resolution is completely outlandish; it's that the outlandishness is insufficiently grounded in pseudoscience. If you're going to posit stuff this crazy, you'd better have some solid-sounding bullshit to back it up.
The story unspools adequately from this premise, but rarely feels like more than a middling episode of the series extended to twice its usual length. In part this is thanks to series creator (and first-time feature director) Chris Carter, who repeatedly gets failing marks in How to Make a Movie 101. It's difficult, for instance, to follow even the basic geography of the film, which jumps back and forth between the rural West Virginia crime scene and Scully's hospital (are she and Mulder commuting?), and features a climactic chase in a city I assume was Richmond but may have been somewhere else. Worse, the coy are-they-or-aren't-they relationship between Mulder and Scully that was emphasized in the latter years of the series has progressed into something revealed so opaquely that it takes a good while to recognize what it is.
The X-Files: I Want to Believe is in no conventional sense a good movie. And yet, for fans of the series, it may be just good enough. There are moments of penetrating moodiness and horror; stabs at mystical profundity that don't miss too badly; some nice performances (especially by Connolly); and even an all-too-brief appearance by Mitch Pileggi's Walter Skinner. Most important, the chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson has lost little of its fizz, and it's nice to spend more time in their company, even as it's hard not to wish they could have found a better way to occupy themselves than wandering through such a shaggy retread. This latest, and presumably last, X-Files installment is not an unpleasant way to pass a couple of hours, provided you, too, want to believe. But you have to want it pretty badly.