Film discussion

Throwback 10: The X-Files: I Want to Believe

While the first X-Files feature film, Fight the Future, had premiered in 1998, it would end up being a long ten years before Mulder and Scully would return to movie screens. On the smaller screen, The X-Files continued for another four seasons, the last two of which ended up being renewed pretty much at the last-minute.

Originally the plan had been to end the series after its seventh season, it would be David Duchovny’s last season under contract, and he had pretty much put it on the record everywhere he went that he would be finished with the show once season seven wrapped.

In the end, he would come back for a smaller number of episodes in the eighth season and then make good on his word and leave when season nine was renewed, but there was no getting away from the fact that The X-Files had continued beyond what many who had worked for the show behind the scenes had planned for.

Chris Carter had talked about five years and a movie but was happy enough to go for another two seasons and make it a pretty long seven-season run. Season eight was renewed at the last moment and with David Duchovny scaling back his involvement, it meant a new actor was needed for the show, thus the casting of Robert Patrick and then, later into the run, Annabeth Gish, who would become a regular in season nine.

When The X-Files finally completed its television run in May of 2002 with a series finale entitled “The Truth”, talk once again turned to plans to take the series into the realm of a movie franchise, with discussion of a second movie being mooted for 2004 or 2005, but unfortunately legal issues would prevent it from happening, with creator Chris Carter launching a lawsuit against Fox for lost earnings.

It would be 2008 when one of the most iconic duos in pop culture would return to our screens and the results would be, as is frequently the case with long-awaited on-screen comebacks, very divisive.

With many criticising how convoluted and complex the series’ ongoing alien mythology had become, itself the focus of the first feature film, the decision seemed pretty straightforward to make the second movie a stand-alone story, albeit one that would address the fate of Mulder and Scully after the events of the finale when they had both went on the run, as well as not shying away from the six-year gap between the finale and the second movie.

While labeled a monster of the week tale, the biggest surprise about The X-Files: I Want to Believe is how less genre-oriented it is in comparison to most episodes of the television series. In fact, for the majority of the movie, the movie owes a debt to serial killer movies like The Silence of the Lambs or a Se7en, and even Chris Carter’s other 90’s television series Millennium.

The comparison to the latter is hard to avoid in some respects. Given that the X-File nature of the case is only hinted at throughout and not fully revealed until the final act, and that there is a psychic link and the majority of the movie is given over to finding a serial killer, it makes one wonder why the FBI didn’t put the call in to Chris Carter’s other famed former FBI profiler.

One of the film’s most intense sequences involves watching the film’s central villain, Janke (Callum Keith Rennie), stalk one of his victims at a swimming pool, follow her and then run her off a deserted road, before knocking her out and dragging her away. It could almost be the teaser of a Millennium episode, the only thing missing being the flash and percussive beat that opens every episode.

Even placing Mulder and Scully in a domestic setting, albeit one further away from the suburbs than the Black family lived in, has similarities with Millennium’s exploration of violent criminal investigations visiting themselves upon a family unit living in domesticity, albeit one that is so because one half of the couple has had to hide away.

For many, the more crime procedural nature of the film, with emphasis on a serial killer narrative as opposed to exploring the mythology further was a massive problem, even though it appeared to make more commercial sense to step away from a convoluted narrative that many had come to criticise in the final episodes of the original series.

Shippers were mostly happy, the film’s emotional core is the relationship between the characters, but others disliked that the central characters were apart for most of it. Scully takes a back seat in the investigation and gets embroiled in a subplot involving her trying to save a patient in her new job as a doctor at the most intense Catholic hospital you can think of, although there is a beautiful irony in that Scully, a stoic, by the book character in the television series, has, in the eyes of many at the hospital she works in, become almost like a Mulder-like renegade in flouting the rules in order to do the right thing.

The main story itself involves body parts showing up in the snowy Virginian countryside, with Mulder tasked in helping the FBI, whose only source of information is a disgraced former priest, Joe Crissman (a superb Billy Connolly, familiar to UK audience for being a stand up comedian), in exchange for the charges levelled against him in the series finale of the show expunged, a strangely quick way to get Mulder and Scully back to investigating given that the charges levelled against him in the last episode of the show were incredibly serious.

There are issues with the central storyline that have become even more problematic in the space of ten years. Carter and co-writer and producer Frank Spotnitz have crafted a wonderfully chilly atmosphere that might have helped the film play better in the middle of Autumn or Winter as opposed to the middle of a hot, humid summer, but the story’s decision to make the central antagonists not only Russian but also a homosexual couple makes the film’s story sometimes feel both homophobic and xenophobic.

The film isn’t trying to promote phobia of either homosexuality or being foreign, but it does feel as if the film has fallen into obvious villainous tropes without making those characters more three dimensional other than mentioning that they’re foreign and in a same-sex relationship, like so many Hollywood thrillers (think Silence of the Lambs and its portrayal of transsexualism, or Basic Instinct and its portrayal of bisexuality and psychotic behaviour).

Released in the same summer as The Dark Knight, coming out the following weekend, the film got lost in the hype and hoopla of Christopher Nolan’s masterful comic book sequel, as did many others that summer.

20th Century Fox releasing this film at the height of the summer, the weekend after a film that many expected to be a massive hit was a major misjudgment. With its snowy atmosphere, slower and methodical case and explorations of themes such as faith vs belief, religion and a key character being a child abuser, the film did not play as a summer blockbuster in the manner that Fight the Future did.

It plays like a methodical character-driven thriller, the type of which Hollywood used to make frequently but which has sadly gotten lost amongst cinematic universes and big-budget extravaganzas. Even in 2008, such a film felt like it was starting to become something rare.

Coming on the back of one of the greatest blockbusters in recent memory meant that The X-Files: I Want to Believe got lost. Opening in the fourth spot of its opening weekend, the film struggled to make back it’s not very high budget of $30 million. Even though it grossed a little over $64 million worldwide, it put the franchise on hiatus, this time permanently it seemed. Fans over the world launched intense social media campaigns to alert Fox that there was an audience awaiting a third movie, but in the end, when The X-Files returned, it would do so to its original home, on the Fox Network a little under eight years later.

As for I Want to Believe itself, it may be a flawed film, but it is also one that deserves to be better regarded than it is. Visually beautiful in places, but also with an intense grittiness, there is a dark plateau here that sees Chris Carter the director as opposed to the writer actually firing on all cylinders. It’s snowy landscapes, hellish surgery scenes, coupled with Bill Roe’s suitably darkened lighting, means the movie looks and feels like an X-File.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are wonderful with what would be the first of many explorations of Mulder and Scully as older, slightly more embittered agents having been consumed by a lifetime of betrayal, and professional and personal disappointments. The film does address the issue surrounding William and Scully’s choice to give him up in one of the film’s best scenes that sees the Mulder and Scully dynamic portrayed in a lovely, subtle light; so typical of this franchise to finally give audiences a Mulder and Scully bedroom scene, but make it one that is taken with a  beautifully layered and meaningful conversation (also a Millennium trope, interestingly).

Then, there is also Mark Snow. Once again working with an orchestra, his score here is a work of art that is amazing to listen to on its own or as part of the film. It’s atmospheric, draws you in and is creepy as hell, but not afraid to throw in some lush, beautifully subtle and romantic themes for its central characters.

The film itself may not be perfect, but it’s still a lot better than its reputation suggests, and even with its issues, still has a lot to recommend it and makes for a darkly wonderful gap filler between the series finale of 2002 and the season premiere of 2016. Maybe taken away from a six-year wait and now being part of a series that can be binged with the series finale before it and the recent revival after it, it may play better with new viewers and the next generation of fans.

As for this reviewer, one that has grown up with the show for a large chunk of their lifetime and who eagerly awaited it with baited breath, I guess you could say it actually did make me believe.

Are you a fan of The X-Files: I Want to Believe? Let us know.

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