Here are a few things I remember from “The X-Files”: Fox Mulder’s sister was abducted by aliens. Dana Scully’s dad’s favorite song was “Beyond the Sea.” Scully doesn’t get along with tattoos that have Jodie Foster’s voice. Mulder may or may not be destined to die of auto-erotic asphyxiation.
I was disappointed that none of these particular data points had any relevance to the new film The X-Files: I Want to Believe. At the same time, I was relieved that neither did anything in the vastly larger trove of X-Files arcana I’ve forgotten in the decade since the last movie and six-plus years since the TV series staggered to its finale. (What were the bees for, again?) This latest foray into X-Filedom shrewdly shrugs off the series’ convoluted alien “mythology” and presents itself, instead, as a one-off story of the kind the show regularly scattered in amidst its longer narrative arc. Sadly, the movie’s shrewdness does not extend much beyond this initial notion.
Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny) have both left the FBI--her, for a medical position at a Catholic hospital; him, for life as a quasi-recluse, complete with beard and a few dozen pencils idly javelined into the ceiling of his cluttered home office. But when someone from the Bureau (Amanda Peet) asks for their help in locating a fellow agent who’s been abducted, the two ultimately accept. The key to the case--and reason to bring in the old X-Filers--is that finding the missing agent will involve confirming or debunking the “visions” of an ex-pedophile priest (Billy Connolly) who is either a) psychic; b) somehow involved in the crimes; or c) a really, really good guesser.
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 else, but it is revealed so opaquely that it takes a good while to recognize what it is.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take note of the film’s most preposterous howler: In a side story that echoes the main theme of faith and perseverance, Scully clashes with hospital administrators for the right to attempt an experimental, excruciatingly painful form of stem cell therapy on a small boy who is dying of a degenerative brain disease. The battle finally won, Scully heads to her office, where she dutifully Googles “stem cell therapy”--yes, literally types that exact phrase into the Google search box--in preparation for performing the operation. Who imagined that all this time the hyper-competent Dr. Dana Scully was a graduate of Wiki U. Med School?
By the time the movie stumbles to its anticlimactic finale, the villains are disappointingly revealed to be both mundane and ridiculous. (The conclusion actually bears a disconcerting resemblance to one of the early “Simpsons” Treehouse of Horror segments.) Innumerable questions remain unresolved: What exactly are a pack of villainous Russians doing in West Virginia? Why are they willing to go to such chilling lengths for their dying boss? Are we really supposed to believe they’re going to reattach--oh, never mind. The only way for this particular storyline to have succeeded, I suspect, would’ve been if it’d been played for laughs (as several of the best “X-Files” episodes were).
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.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.
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