The X-Files: I Want To Believe Review
As every fan knows, there is a truly great movie of The X Files just waiting to be made. Seldom has a TV show come so well adapted for the transition to the big screen, and the thought of Agents Mulder and Scully being let loose on a decent-budgeted cinematic adventure exploring the realms of the unexplained is enough to get even the more casual X-Phile excited. Even though it pushed the boundaries, the TV show was inevitably constrained by being on US network television so that we could never quite be exposed to the true horrors that the pair might have encountered, or really appreciate the scale of the worldwide conspiracy that was preparing the planet for alien invasion. It’s easy to imagine The X-Files on the cinema screen, no longer held back but letting rip, taking everything that made it one of the biggest shows of the Nineties – the iconic leads, the supernatural happenings, the jet-black humour that amused and appalled in equal measure – and ramping it up for the ultimate adventure of Fox and Dana.
But that film is never going to exist now, because for some reason I Want To Believe was made instead and in one fell stroke killed the franchise stone dead.
Chris Carter’s film is bizarre, and not in a good, Home-from-Season-Four kind of way. It is so relentlessly unambitious, so low-key, so awkwardly written and so utterly devoid of inspiration that if it wasn’t for the presence of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson one could dismiss it as a direct-to-video potboiler which was knocked out in a couple of weeks by people satisfied to work from a first draft screenplay. Whenever a film version of a TV show is released it's inevitable that some reviewer will describe it as nothing more than an extended version of a good television episode, but even that isn’t true here – it is, instead, the extended version of an utterly mediocre episode, the sort written towards the end of a season when inspiration is running low and the writing staff are content to fill the remaining slots in their schedule with any old thing. Given that the story had been in development for five years by the time production began (ironically a fact that even Mulder would find difficult to believe) one can only presume that Carter and his co-writer Frank Spotnitz became so consumed by their idea that they lost all perspective and didn’t realise quite what a non-event of a movie they were creating.
You know you’re in trouble from the opening sequence. A group of FBI agents follow Billy Connolly’s psychic priest Father Joe across a snowy wilderness, intercut with a sequence of a girl with the word "Victim" practically flashing over her head driving a car at night. Obviously the two are connected, and we watch with pleasurable anticipation as the girl gets into difficulties and Joe crosses the snow, apparently being guided by the spirits to Something Awful. What will he find? The mysterious remains of the girl’s car? The girl herself, possessed by some sort of demon? Or maybe it’ll be her corpse, mutilated in some horrific way and wearing an expression of such complete terror that you just know that whatever did this to the poor unfortunate could only have come from the very pits of hell itself. But no, what he digs out of the snow is none of those things. Instead he finds (brace yourself)... an arm. A severed arm. You know, like the kind of thing they find on CSI every single week. And it doesn’t spring to life and try to throttle him, or write a ghostly message in the snow, or even snap its fingers. It just lies there, because that’s what severed arms do. It’s not scary, it’s not especially intriguing, and it most definitely isn’t how an X Files movie should begin.
Unfortunately, the mystery doesn’t get any more absorbing, or indeed especially supernatural. Picking up six years after the series ended, we learn in a series of pointedly expositional scenes that Scully (Gillian Anderson) has left the FBI and is now working as a doctor in a private Catholic hospital while her partner Mulder, with whom she is now officially shacked up with, spends his days hiding from a bureau which no longer gives a stuff growing a beard and eating sunflower seeds. For the purposes of the movie Amanda Peet’s Fed Agent Dakota Whitney decides she needs Mulder’s unique experience to help her and colleague Agent Drummy (rapper Xzibit) track down a missing agent, given that their only lead is Connolly’s psychic ex-priest and Mulder knows about that sort of thing. Despite being a somewhat tenuous reason to bring him back (given the number of cases he got through in the old days it seems unlikely that something rather more strange hadn't happened in the past six years for which his experience might be needed) he duly returns, and it goes to show how bored the poor sod had been because, despite the fact there is little evidence of anything spooky going on beyond the visions Connolly is having, he soon becomes completely absorbed in the case. This he demonstrates by shaving off his beard and arguing with Scully the Sceptic, who doesn’t believe that Connolly is anything other than a con artist somehow involved in the girl's disappearance (albeit one who can bleed from his eyes when it suits him) because he is also a convicted paedophile. Over the next sixty of so unremarkable minutes everyone plods around the icy landscape looking for clues, every so often yelling at each other presumably to relieve the monotony, while periodically we cut to scenes of the missing agent locked in a box watching her tormentors performing Unspeakable Acts on various bodies. Finally through a bit of luck Mulder tracks down said tormentors but, being out of practice, heroically if foolishly bursts in and promptly gets himself captured. Luckily, and for no apparent reason, his and Scully's old friend Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) turns up, and he and Scully rescue Mulder in the nick of time with surprising little difficulty, shutting down the villains' operation and sending the audience away to stare blankly at each other as if to say "Is that it?"
The film’s subtitle, one of the most evocative of the show’s many catchphrases, is used because as well as the main story Carter and Spotnitz attempt to make the film a thematic exploration of faith. This was, of course, one of the main tenets on which the show was based (although admittedly it was somewhat biased, given that nearly everything Mulder believed in, however unlikely, turned out to be real) but here the ideas feel crow-barred in, and neither mesh with the main story nor present any real coherent argument. A major subplot, which sees Scully having to take her own leap of faith by treating a terminally ill boy with an experimental procedure, ends up being little more than a distraction, a clumsy device to give Scully something to fret about more than something the audience is expected to invest in (so much so that we never actually discover whether the treatment works). There's a vague parallel between this thread and the villains' aims (and I'm being careful not to say exactly what that is, as the creators seemed to hold so much store in concealing it) but it goes nowhere, while the various heated debates she has with Mulder and Father Joe, complete with daft references to "the darkness" are overblown (which is a shame given that Anderson gives an impassioned performance.)
But that isn’t the main crime of the film, which is simply that the main mystery is so unabsorbing. One of the biggest flaws is that the look and style of the villains is one that will be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the genre (as I said, we’re even given scenes of the victims being kept in cages, and spying on their captors through the slats) while, even worse, they are almost completely faceless, giving us a thriller without an identifiable bad-guy to hiss at - The X-Files used to have such great villains, from Tooms onwards, all of whom would have wiped the floor with the almost Hostel-like nonentities we are presented with here. But even then had something more been made of it the film might have worked, just, but Carter goes for subtle almost to the point of opacity, so much so that even near the end the full horror of what we are meant to be seeing isn’t realised, making for a flat, anticlimactic end to the film. Not that what came before is much better; the progress of the investigation is sluggish and feels repetitive - while the lack of big set pieces is not necessarily a problem, there isn’t a single memorable scene or moment, and hours after having watched it it’s difficult to remember the film at all as anything other than a colourless, snowy blur, while the one bit of excitement, the chase in the city, is gratuitous and comes with a climax one has been expecting since the very beginning of the movie. Of course, much of this is to be blamed on Carter, whose direction is strictly functional in a TV-movie style, and hardly cinematic, something which at least the first film, directed by Rob Bowman, strived for.
Are there any positives? Precious few. It is, of course, great to see Mulder and Scully back together again, and Duchovny and Anderson slip back into their roles with great ease. While the nature of their personal relationship has changed they still have that sparky banter and chemistry which was such an important part of the show, and it is something of a pleasure to see them back in action again. Equally, the snowy wastelands of what are meant to be West Virginia lend the film a chilly, stark beauty which is fairly atmospheric. Equally, in as much as they are given to do both Peet and Connolly do fine work (although the latter isn’t let off the leash nearly as much as one would have hoped for) but Xzibit, while proving perfectly serviceable as a performer, is regrettably never given enough to do to make an impression, and essentially comes across as window dressing. Like everything else, from the theme of the piece onwards, he is underdeveloped.
All of which makes for a huge missed opportunity. What The X Files really needs is a Nick Meyer-type figure, someone has never been previously involved to come in and make the franchise truly worthy of the big screen. The potential is there, but I fear now the moment is lost, as the show has had two bites of the cinematic cherry and come up short both times. The first film was constrained in having to rely too much on the complicated backstory, but there’s little excuse for this limp sophomore effort - okay, the budget might not have been skyhigh, but the film's main problem stem from the script and not the scares. This summer saw the revival of two long dormant and much beloved franchises in the cinema, both of which were received with very mixed reviews and long moans of disappointment. But whereas Indy was at least good fun, I Want To Believe is just dull and uninvolving, and it's almost worthy of an X-File itself to investigate just why it all went so wrong. The truth is still out there, but I fear the search might just have come to a rather sad end.
The film is released in Region Two on one and two-disc editions, both of which contain only the extended Director’s Cut of the film. I didn’t see the film at the cinema so can’t comment too much on the differences to the original, but from snippets of the commentary I gather the difference between the two versions don’t amount to more than five or so extra minutes of footage, the addition of a couple of minor scenes and during the climax some extra shots of the poor unfortunates being experimented on (as well as the end credits now being populated with photos of the crew). The Menus are very sparse and functional, illustrated with minimalist pictures from the film , which are about as thrilling as the movie. There is an Audio Description option on the DVD, and both the film and all the extras, including the commentary, are subtitled.
Given that the majority of the film consists of scenes in either brilliant white snow or night-time the Video does a reasonably good job. It copes well with the night sequences, having reasonably good definition, but the outdoor daytime scenes suffer a little more from problems. There’s a fair bit of edge enhancement, as well as some general softness in the image and lack of definition – there’s one shot in particular of Mulder’s face at distance which is just a indistinct blob. That said, given the amount of snow around there are very few problems with blockiness which is a good thing, and the colours are crisp, bringing across the chilly atmosphere well. The Audio is somewhat understated – despite its subject matter it doesn’t make a huge lot of use of its surround sound, and even in scenes in which you might expect a great degree of atmosphere, such as in the baddies’ lair, there isn’t a whole lot going on. Never the less, the levels are fine and it’s a perfectly competent, if underwhelming, track.
There are two Extras of real substance. The first is the Commentary with Carter and Spotnitz. The latter doesn’t say much, mainly because Carter never stops talking, and while he isn’t the wittiest commentator in the world, he is consistently informative, detailing both what he wanted to do with the film and the decisions he made during the shoot, making for an excellent track. The other is the lengthy Making Of, Trust No One: Can the X-Files Remain a Secret? (86:01) which is at times as preoccupied with detailing the great lengths the crew went to stop the film’s plot leaking out as it does the production history. Spotnitz and others tell with great relish how they went about trying to “leak” false information to the web, such as the bogus appearance of a werewolf, which makes it all the more tragic that not more people were paying attention – as one of those involved ruefully observes, some of the red herrings they released “no one seemed to notice.” Overall, this is an enjoyable look at the shoot, with contributions from all the main players, and if there’s a tendency to put a bit too much emphasis on the whole fake plot stuff, who can blame them – it’s far more interesting to talk about than the movie itself!
The rest of the content of the discs are far shorter, but not without interest. There are three Deleted Scenes (5:53), the most relevant of which is a scene in which Father Joe visits Scully’s patient, thus tying the two plot strands together far more explicitly, while Body Parts: Special Effects Make-Up, (8:12) in which Special Effects Designer Bill Terezakis shows off some of the extremely lifelike corpses used in the film (complete with internal organs) is good fun. Chris Carter: Statement on Green Production (6:16) on the other hand, isn’t, as it consists of the man discussing how he tried to make the film in as environmentally friendly a way as possible which, while an interesting topic, feels more like a precis of a business meeting than a DVD extra. Still, at least it makes an effort, unlike Dying 2 Love (4:03), a boring slideshow of stills from the film set to a track of Xzibit – why wasn’t there a proper music video to this put out? The Gag Reel (9:47) is the usual collection of tomfoolery and for once I enjoyed the detailed Stills Gallery, a type of extra I usually miss out altogether. This one is divided into four sections, namely Collectibles (full of old X-Files magazines in languages other than English), Concept Art, Unit Photography and Storyboards, and it’s the first and last of these which are the best. Rounding things off, both the Domestic Theatrical Trailer (1:31) and International Theatrical Trailer (1:38) (which has a markedly different emphasis, trading far less on the thrill of seeing Mulder and Scully together again) are included, as is a Digital Copy of the film.
An extremely disappointing film gets a very decent release. The lack of the choice to watch either the Original or Extended Cut, which is present on the Region One, is disappointing, but there seems to be so little difference between the two that it hardly matters. Other than that, the film is presented in an acceptable manner and is accompanied by a fine collection of extras.