Mulder and Scully return to investigate another paranormal case. Will this departure from traditional X-Files mythology make you Want to Believe or simply Want to Leave?
Had the X-Files avoided slipping into increasingly esoteric nonsense about alien Super Soldiers and concentrated upon its “monster of the week” strengths, there’s no reason it couldn’t still be showing in some form on primetime television today. (Some might argue it does in the guise of the excellent Lost.) At The X-Files’ core played out the eternal conflict between superstition and science which, if anything, is even more relevant today. Yet, when faced with sliding viewing figures, television executives took the easy route out and capitulated to fans’ wishes forgetting that success should lead and not follow.
So here we are six years after the series’ conclusion with the trinity of Chris Carter (creator), David Duchovy (Mulder) and Gillian Anderson (Scully) back together with a blank canvas to take the franchise in a seemingly new direction. The film opens with an FBI investigation team without any meaningful leads in the search for a missing agent. Desperate for progress, they enlist the help of a paedophile priest (Billy Connolly) who claims to experience visions relating to the case. With the X-Files having long been disbanded, and no alternative maverick supernatural investigation duo on their books, the FBI reluctantly searches out Mulder and Scully for assistance.
We discover that Scully has seemingly reconciled her inner struggle between science and religion by working as a doctor at a religious hospital. Mulder has predictably achieved no such reconciliation and has transposed his FBI basement office into the study of a remote cabin which he cohabits with Scully. His work on the X-Files having been roundly discredited and buried by his erstwhile employers, Mulder is initially unable even to countenance striking a deal even in exchange for immunity for past crimes. Had this been an Ingmar Bergman film, it might have played out as a character study in claustrophobic relationships, with them cyclically arguing over past mistakes as they both slide slowly into insanity.
Box office suicide is avoided by a miraculously improbable U-turn which boils down to Mulder’s desire to get back in the field, a sudden resurgence of patriotic duty and an emotional connection to his alien-abducted sister. It’s a crucial early misstep which simultaneously destroys Mulder’s credibility and any notion of a true clean slate for the series. What follows will please neither hardcore fans nor those simply after a classic “monster of the week” with a cinematic budget. Instead we’re left with a tame thriller with only tenuous and eventually largely discredited supernatural connotations.
What’s most disappointing is that talent and budget have been wasted on a story which simply doesn’t justify it. Actors do their best with hopelessly simplistic characters that never seem likely to break free of their initial preconceptions, leaving only Scully to take any meaningful emotional journey. Her beliefs are again tested as she is forced to reconcile the priest’s murky past with his willingness to selflessly aid the investigation. Special mention must go to Billy Connolly’s performance which eschews any kind of traditional acting technique in favour of simply reading the lines with a random series of stresses and pauses to provide characterisation.
Ridiculously, in what’s supposed to be a time critical case, Mulder and Scully spend much of their time commuting between the crime scene and home where Scully battles religious opposition to her attempts to cure a sick child. Her controversial use of experimental medical techniques is clearly intended to mirror the grim medical revelations of the FBI investigation, but it fails completely to create any kind of moral quandary since the examples fall so squarely into distinctly good and evil. Thus the moral ambiguity for which the film strives is woefully ineffective and lack of urgency and proximity between events destroys any chance it has of succeeding even as a competent thriller.
“I Want to Believe” isn’t an unmitigated disaster, but the lead characters are so shackled by their pasts and simplistic motivations that they’ve become a liability to any story that doesn’t embrace the X-Files mythology. Exploring the battle between religion and science might be more relevant than ever, however, on this evidence the X-Files has hit a dead end and it’s going to take a fresh perspective to successfully investigate anything other than alien Super Soldiers.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum