A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, PG-13, 104 mins.

Fox Mulder: David Duchovny / Dana Scully: Gillian Anderson / Dakota Whitney: Amanda Peet / 
Father Joe: Billy Connolly / Agent Drummy: Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner / 2nd Abductor: Callum Keith Rennie / Father Ybarra: Adam Godley / Gaunt Man: Alex Dikakun

Directed by Chris Carter and written by Franz Spotnitz and Carter.

If you excuse its enormously lame title, THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE does what all great sequels and sci-fi films do:  Firstly, this is a sequel that manages to retain its prequel’s strengths while taking its characters into new narrative and thematic waters (which is more refreshing than simply rehashing the same storyline twice over).  Second, the film is in the grand tradition of the best of sci-fi, which places its emphasis squarely on thoughtful characters and meaningful themes that have familiar echoes to viewers.     

Perhaps even more significant is how this film goes so rigidly against the curve of (a) the types of summer films that are released these times every year and (b) the type of X-FILES film many fans and I were expecting.  The first X-FILES movie, FIGHT THE FUTURE (okay, these films have lousy titles) from 1998 was largely enraptured with the continuation of the TV series’ long standing alien mythological story arc (it was also a adaptation in the sense that it was made at the height of the show’s popularity, not several years after it went off the air).  The show went off the air years ago, so conventional wisdom kind of dictates that the further exploits of FBI agents Mulder and Scully would continue on from the story angle of the TV series and first film.  

What’s so intriguing about I WANT TO BELIEVE is how it completely avoids telling yet another extraterrestrial storyline involving these characters.  Instead of being the visual effects heavy, large scale and big budgeted sci-fi summer escapist film that too many similar seasonal films are, I WANT TO BELIEVE is much more satisfyingly subdued and low key.  What we get is a thoughtful and involving procedural, a murder mystery, and a creepy and evocative thriller with emphasis on drama and intrigue. 

Full credit must go to series creator Chris Carter, the Godfather of this whole X-FILES universe, who impeccably understands that the best way to make another film is to not slavishly repeat formulas and routine plot elements.  In this sense, I WANT TO BELIEVE does much more than standard, run-of-the-mill movie spin-offs of TV shows rarely do:  it takes the staple characters and plunges them into newer and more worthwhile thematic waters.   Carter’s original intentions here were to make an X-FILES film that would both appease hardcore X-FILES-aholics without alienating them while – even more tricky – making a film that would be readily accessible to the virginal series fan that are completely unfamiliar with the unrelentingly dense storylines of the TV show.  I have seen perhaps no more than a dozen episodes of the TV series, but this in no way impeded my enjoyment of this X-FILES film.  Much like many of the respected episodes of the TV show, I WANT TO BELIEVE is a wholly satisfying and surprisingly involving standalone thriller that both obsessed and lay fans of this series will like.  That’s decidedly difficult to pull off effectively. 

However, this film does not abscond from the staple ingredients from its famous TV antecedent.  Yes, we still have Fox Mulder, the staunch believer in anything paranormal or alien, and his partner, Dana Scully, who serves as the pragmatic foil to Mulder and uses her intellect and icy deductive reasoning to find logical explanations for the supernatural occurrences that Mulder professes a belief in.  They have a richly observed yin-yang relationship and their beliefs almost benefit from and are strengthened by their respective resolve in them.  At its heart, I WANT TO BELIEVE continues to develop and foster this character dynamic, but it changes the settings and story particulars. 

The film takes place six years after the events of the last episode of the TV series.  Mulder (David Duchovny, playing a blend of cocky bravado and soft spoken integrity to great effect) and Scully (Gillian Anderson, equally strong willed and out spoken) have long since left the FBI and the bureau’s X-Files division behind them.  Despite the fact that they still refer to one another by their last names, they are intimate with one another and live together in a secluded house.  The two are lovers and this is clearly hinted at here, but the heat in Mulder and Scully’s interplay is not sexualized; they feed off of each other’s abilities to challenge one another on an intellectual level.  Since both have left the agency, Fox essentially lives the life of a hermit in his home and still collects clippings of the otherworldly whereas Scully works as a doctor at a Catholic hospital. 

Alas, this is an X FILES movie, and nothing truly normal ever occurs with these two people.  It is revealed that a pedophilic former priest named Father Joe (Billy Connelly, really strong here) has developed visions from…well…we are not quite sure.  During the film’s wonderfully realized opening moments, we see a squadron of FBI agents headed up by Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) and Mosley Drummy (Alvin “Xzbit” Joiner) being lead by the priest across a vast pain of frozen ice and stone.  At one point, and without warning, Joe drops to his knees and decries, “This is the place!”  Rest assured, the FBI do dig up a body part.   

Is this old coot a real psychic?  Or, the more simple explanation, is he really a fraud that had something to do with the dead person found?  On one hand, it’s mighty easy to see how this man appears guilty (he has a shady and deplorable criminal record, plus he knew the location of the body with pinpoint perfect accuracy).  However, there is definitely something exceedingly eerie about how this man could walk across a mile of snow-covered field, without anything apparent to demark the location of the body, and…well…locate it.   

This, of course, sets up the quintessential X-FILES storyline:  Whitney decides that there is something more to this old man that meets the eye and decides to re-enlist Mulder back into the FBI to assist them in their efforts to locate a missing agent.  If Mulder does help them successfully then all of his sins with the bureau will be expunged.  Mulder is, as the TV show demonstrated, a man with a fanatical focus on all things weird and alien, so the thought of getting proof of a real psychic at work is intriguing.  Scully, of the other hand, wants none of it.  She sees Joe, at face value, as a dirty and sick minded old man that can’t clearly be the real deal with his psychic powers.  Scully simply can’t bring herself to believe the man, but Mulder sure seems keen on doing so, especially after he witnesses the priest collapsing with tears of blood streaming from his eyes.  Hmmmm…. 

This clearly puts strains of Mulder and Scully’s relationship.  Interestingly, Scully does not partake in much of Mulder and the FBI’s investigation of the missing agent, seeing as she has her heart firmly within a rather touching subplot involving a very sick young boy she is treating.  Now, the plot involving the dying boy does not directly link itself to that of the murder mystery within the film, per se, but it’s crucial for defining Scully’s growing distance she places herself apart from her past life as a FBI investigator into matters beyond explanation.  Even more crucial, her emotional connection to the sickly boy helps frame one of film’s central themes of difficult choice.   

The boy has a terminal brain disorder and will most likely die.  Scully has done the research and knows of a treatment that has had decent results, but the approach could lead to more suffering for the boy.  Ethically, as a doctor, she wants to do everything she can to save the boy.   Morally, as a person, she does not want the boy to continue to be in agony.  The treatment involves a stem cell procedure, which is in direct theological opposition to the faith of the hospital’s head, Father Ybarra, who later makes the decision to transfer the boy out of the hospital where he can spend his last few days dying without suffering.   

Now, this provides for a very intriguing dilemma for Scully:  Does she renounce her own strong religious views and proceed with the excruciating surgeries that could save the boy or does she disregard medical science and let the boy die without prolonging his misery?.  To help reinforce her choosing of a correct path, she confronts Father Joe, whom she despises, because maybe…just maybe…he has some psychic visions of what will to become of the boy.  When Joe insists that he has none, this places Scully is a tricky corner.  She does not believe that Joe can help Mulder and the FBI with cracking their case, but Mulder does.  Moreover, Mulder's association with Joe is severely hurting their relationship and, in turn, is making it difficult for Scully to validate Mulder’s continuing cooperation with a man she sees as a perverted criminal. 

Saying more about the plot would spoil I WANT TO BELIEVE.  If anything, the film’s story is taut, tightly constructed, thrilling in the right dosages and places, and is unexpectedly thought provoking.  What I liked the most about it was how it dwelled thoughtfully on issues of science versus faith and how the conflict between the two deeply affects the choices of one particular character.  It is I WANT TO BELIEVE’S introspection with its character's crisis of conscience that she goes through that make the film stand far apart.  Then there is the ominous and polarizing character of the child-molesting priest, whose abilities serve as a lightning rod for the further challenges that the characters deal with.  For example, Scully certainly feels that Joe is a “devil” with no psychic abilities, but Mulder looks past his obvious offenses and sees the practical assistance he has given to the FBI.  If Father Joe were the devil,” he asks Scully at one point, “why would he say the opposite of what the devil might say?”  Good point. 

There are no aliens in this X-FILES film.  Nor or there any monsters, but you certainly can consider the reprehensible and scary-as-hell actions by the human villains of the film - when revealed in the film’s very tense and terrifying third act - as monstrous.  Again, I WANT TO BELIEVE is not about escapist spectacle like the first X-FILE film focused on.  This film is shot with a real taste and economy, from both a story and aesthetic level.  Instead of using heavy-handed CGI effects and dime-a-dozen tricks to make another banal sci-fi action picture, writer/director Carter goes for the low-key sheen of an intelligent and moody drama and thriller.  Perhaps even more impressive are the performances.  Connelly gives an effectively unsettling performance playing a troubling man that may – or may not be – what he appears.  Duchovny and Anderson slide back into their parts with little difficulty and still have great chemistry, but Anderson really stands apart here with a riveting and heart-rending performance that has a real palpable emotional resonance.  You feel for her plight and her disconcerting quandary her character is placed within. 

In the end, I believed in this second X-FILES big screen film adaptation of the classic TV series.  It still tells a compellingly invigorating story with obvious paranormal trappings, but I WANT TO BELIEVE’s real achievement is how it eschews what summer films often provide, not to mention that it’s fairly daring with its approach to do away with the often-overshadowing alien-conspiracy arc of the TV show and first film.  Yes, the film appeals to X-FILES fans in the way we still get agents Mulder and Scully looking into dark corners that involve vile creatures and unexplained phenomenon, but I WANT TO BELIEVE is human centric.  It skillfully ruminates on and engaging us thoroughly with its characters and themes.  Instead of explosions and the threat of alien invasion, this is a more accessible and entertaining X-FILE story for how it keeps everything restrained and discreet.  I WANT TO BELIEVE may not be what people are expecting from an X-FILE film…but maybe that’s a good thing.

Or...maybe it's...a conspiracy?

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