July 31, 2008

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The X-Files: I Want to Believe (PG-13)
Fox Mulder and Dana Scully drudge back out into the snow and the dark to uncover another spooky mystery in The X-Files: I Want to Believe, a long delayed (but not, I should say, long desired) sequel to the TV show.

A couple days after seeing this movie, I happened to catch part of the show’s pilot on TV. Way back then in 1993, I thought this show was the bee’s knees. In fact, even many years later when actual bees showed up as a completely confusing component to the government conspiracy about aliens and black oil and the whereabouts of Mulder’s abducted sister, I still liked the show. The relationship between Mulder and Scully seemed perfect — all full of unresolved sexual tension and based on the fact that Mulder believed in aliens and Scully was a very big fan of the scientific method.

Now, some six years after the show went off the air and some eight years after most fans stopped giving a damn, the Mulder/Scully relationship has become a shorthand version of its original self — he’s nuts, she’s a killjoy.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to know nothing, don’t read any further, in fact, you’ve probably gone too far already. Go back, retreat, SPOILER ALERT. You’ve been warned.

Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) have each moved on from the FBI but are called back to assist on a case by Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet), an agent whose idiotic name tells you all you need to know about her idiotic self. She’s searching for an FBI agent with the help of Father Joe (Billy Connolly), a sketchy priest who says he’s psychic, and her partner Agent Molsey Drummy (Alvin “Xzbit” Joiner), a character who serves absolutely no purpose. Whitney no more needs Mulder’s help than I need season two Millennium action figures but she begs him to assist anyway because the script calls for it. Spooky-ish stuff happens, Mulder and Scully disagree, characters (some we know and despise; some who quickly become indistinguishable from other characters) die.

And, as you’ve likely heard, by now there are no aliens.

I was ready to smack Amanda Peet in the head by her third minute on the screen and I was equally itchy to give a finger flick to the forehead to Chris Carter (show creator and this movie’s director) for his slow-reveal-style of camera work. (We know it’s Scully, we know it’s Mulder; stop shooting their shoulders while they’re talking like you’re going to surprise us with their presence.) He does this even with the first glimpses of a few characters we’ve never seen before this movie. He does it enough that you wonder if he dozed off and the camera flopped down a few inches just before shooting began.

As if this underline-the-obvious approach to camera work weren’t enough, we get a few double-takes and sight gags (George W. Bush while the old X-Files whistle plays — ha ha ha, ugh.) that go for the easy laugh but very little of the dry, smile-free humor that made the show so loveable to begin with. And then there’s the dialogue — laughable, painful, windy stuff that makes you long for the stoic silence of the Cigarette Smoking Man. The absurdity of the mystery (which is all Russians, abducted women with medical alert bracelets and barking dogs but very light on the sort of supernatural stuff; TV show Mulder would not have made this an X-File) helps to accentuate the goan-inducing qualities of the dialogue.

This movie’s biggest crime, however, is what it does to the Mulder/Scully relationship, which is all sharp points and has none of the mutual respect and nerdy intelligence that made them such watchable characters on TV. Scully doesn’t out-of-hand dismiss Mulder; she waits for the science. Mulder isn’t a disrespectful jerk to Scully (at least until, like, season five); he’s simply passionate and a little defensive about his weird viewpoints. These characters don’t dislike each other — by the middle of season one, relationshippers were already willing them to kiss, kiss already! The movie captures very little of this and instead distills them into the simplest one-line descriptions of themselves. I realize Carter’s hope is to bring in people who weren’t necessarily fans of the TV show (unlikely) but I don’t think that with the shelving of the aliens he should have dumped the one thing — the complexities of the Mulder/Scully relationship — that kept people hanging on through Tea Leoni guest appearances and the aggravatingly ham-fisted plotline about Scully’s return to Catholicism.

On the other hand — and remember you’re still under SPOILER ALERT warning — this movie does give us ’shippers genuine moments between Mulder and Scully, a glimpse at how their partnership-turned-friendship-turned-off-camera-hook-up (which produced, you’ll remember, the sort-of alien baby William) might have matured over the years. The writing is shaky, the characterizations are lousy but Mulder and Scully are still in there somewhere.

And now for the big SPOILER. Never are these old characters and why I loved them more apparent than during a cameo by Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi). The movie set it up with enough lack of subtlety so that I knew he was coming, saw him waving miles off in the story and yet I still squeaked with pleasure when he appeared. This is the team — the brash Mulder, the skeptical Scully, the wary but protective Skinner — that I scrambled to the TV on Friday nights to see. It was delightful, if only for a brief moment, to see them again.

“Don’t give up” is the movie’s big message (one, actually, that almost directly echoes speeches given by the original source within the government, Deep Throat, way back in season one). For the true X-phile, enjoyment of this movie requires that kind of dogged determination to keep on plowing through, no matter how much Amanda Peet is thrown your way. To enjoy this movie, you do have to want to believe in it. C

Rated PG-13 for violent and disturbing content and thematic material. Directed by Chris Carter (with whom I have many a bone to pick) and written by Frank Spotnitz and Carter, The X-Files: I Want to Believe is an hour and 45 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by 20th Century Fox.