At first, the new X-Files movie confused me: Where was the paranormal creepiness? There’s a man who may or may not be a psychic, but otherwise, to paraphrase John D. MacDonald talking about one of Stephen King’s “straighter” stories, there’s nary a rustle nor breath of other worlds in it. That’s not to say there’s no creepiness, though: pedophiles and organ harvesting — are those creepy enough for you? Ten years after the last X-Files film, and six years after the show excused itself from Fox’s schedule, director/cowriter Chris Carter has brought former agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) out of mothballs in order to tell a psychologically and ethically twisty yarn about faith (check the subtitle).
The alleged psychic is Father Joe (Billy Connolly), a pedophile priest who has visions connected to various missing people, including an FBI agent. Scully is pulled away from her physician gig (where she’s trying to get stem-cell therapy for a dying little boy in the face of the Catholic bureaucracy at her hospital) to go fetch Mulder, who sits in his clippings-covered hiding place wearing what I guess we’re supposed to take as a real beard. ($30 million doesn’t buy much these days.) Soon enough the duo are back in the thick of weirdness, as body parts turn up and Father Joe bleeds from his eyes, and people are always waddling around in deep snow or getting snowplowed off the slippery roads in their cars.
The consensus is that I Want to Believe feels like an episode (or a two-parter) of the medium-budget show, and in a way that works for it. The smaller scale allows Duchovny and Anderson to work together quietly — the movie is unexpectedly hushed and emotional. There are no explosions, no vast black-oil conspiracy or mystification accessible only to those who’ve memorized every episode (a big problem with the previous film). What the movie boils down to is a rather queasy rumination on good science vs. bad science, good faith vs. bad faith. This being an X-Files film, it involves, at one point, a team of surgeons preparing to graft a gay man’s head onto a woman’s body. (I don’t even really feel like unpacking whatever Carter and cowriter Frank Spotnitz think they’re saying about homosexuality and gender.)
Dark and steamy as the plot is, there’s a good dollop of humor, mostly emerging from within Duchovny’s beard (and, later, his clean-cut mug). There are a couple of callbacks to Mulder’s eternal search for his alien-abducted sister, but most of the subtext falls heavily inside Scully’s gut. She has lost one child and does not want to lose another; she may also be aware that the authorities at the hospital (who run their decisions past a Higher Authority) possibly consider her surgical experiments as barbaric as those of the organ harvesters. Scully, a drifted Catholic herself, may also see herself in Father Joe, the ultimate drifted Catholic, and doesn’t much enjoy what she sees (does God hold her and him in equal wrath?). I don’t think Carter is drawing a moral equivalence in either case — it rhymes literarily, not literally.
So here’s an X-Files adventure without aliens or snot monsters who can fold themselves into origami, or whatever the early Creature of the Week episodes spooked us with. It’s pretty light on action, too. Yet I was compelled by the lurid storyline and its impact on our old friends Mulder and Scully. This is a solid character piece, of the sort that I’m surprised 20th Century-Fox was willing to finance (albeit for a relative pittance). It reminded me why I liked these two when I was sampling the first season. It will, no doubt, disappoint fans who were hoping for the Dark Knight of X-Files movies, a soaring epic tying up the entire show and paving the way for more sequels. But for casual viewers like myself, it’s a compact and unusual thriller with two underrated actors climbing comfortably back into old skins. It could’ve been a whole lot worse.