The first X-Files feature film Fight the Future (1998) was so tightly bound to the complex mythology of the original television series that it was mostly incomprehensible to anyone not already a deeply committed fan. I myself had only seen the odd episode over the years, and as such could barely follow what was going on.
The unexpected I Want to Believe, belatedly coming about six years after the conclusion of the series and a full decade after the last feature film, is a standalone adventure almost entirely decoupled from the series’ unifying story arc: all that jazz involving an invasion of body-snatching aliens collaborating with the government, all of which may or may not have something to do with sticky black goo.
Freed of the weight of years of continuity allows this new film to dig into the true core of the series: the relationship between Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). These are two people who not only deserve each other (their idea of pillow talk is to discuss toxicology reports) but are actually each other’s yin and yang. Their believer / skeptic dynamic fueled the addictive science fiction aspects of the show, but also the sexual tension that helped make it a hit. They each need each other in order to not self-destruct.
Scully, a brainy redhead like a grown-up Hermione Granger, is every geek boy’s crush. In the intervening years, she has voluntarily left the FBI to toil without reward as a doctor at the aptly-named hospital Our Lady of Sorrows. As a pragmatic woman who does not operate on faith, a Catholic Church-operated institution is the last place she ought to be. Her counterpart Mulder, since last we’ve seen him, has become the stereotypical bearded recluse. Without the mediating influence of Scully, it’s clear he’s only a few cranky letters to the editor away from becoming the next Unibomber.
Meanwhile, next-generation FBI Special Agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) investigates the alleged visions of a convicted pedophile Father Joseph Crissman (played against type by wacky comedian Billy Connolly). Needing agents with a certain expertise in the weird, she gets the old X-Files band back together. In an unfortunately dropped subplot, it’s evident she crushes on an endearingly oblivious Mulder. In fact, her entire character is unfortunately dropped too soon — dropped down an elevator shaft, that is. Sorry for the spoiler, there, folks.
The plot is a mélange of hot topics ripped from the headlines, Law & Order style. Ticking the boxes, we have lung cancer, gay marriage, Catholic church pedophilia (the murderer turns out to be the husband of a grown altar boy that the Father buggered years ago), stem cells (Scully attempts to cure a boy’s rare brain disease with research she cunningly finds via Google), grotesque scientific experiments (a plot point refers to an actual Cold-War era Russian experiment that has been making the rounds on the internet recently involving artificially sustaining a dog’s severed head). To top it all off, the movie also features cinema’s most extreme sex change operation since The Silence of the Lambs.
I Want to Believe was poorly reviewed, and worse, a commercial failure (although, granted, much of the latter was the fault of opening opposite The Dark Knight). The most radical innovation to the X-Files formula is the new version of the famous theme music by electronica outfit UNKLE, so perhaps audiences and critics wanted something new, and not a nostalgia retreat. But it’s an enjoyable film, largely because it’s not without some humor, and against all odds, features a happy ending for the long-suffering couple.
A note on the DVD: I watched the “Extended Version” cut, so I can’t comment on how significantly it may differ from the theatrical version. Among the bonus features is an interesting featurette in which Chris Carter discusses the “green production” for the movie (the use of hybrid cars, recycling of set materials, etc.), and how he abhors the waste that typically goes into television and movie production. An anti-smoking public service ad is included on the DVD, making one wonder if the recurring theme of lung cancer in the plot was grafted on or an organic component to the plot.