Okay, thought I'd get in one more blog while I was in a prolific mood. If you haven't already, please check out my previous post for the long-awaited account of last weekend's San Diego Comic-Con adventures. But now, I'm here with a review of one of this summer's most interesting movies - The X-Files: I Want To Believe.
But before I get into the review, I just want to take a minute and say that, whatever one's opinion of this movie or this franchise happens to be, there's no denying the obvious: the marketing folks at FOX royally screwed this one up. The marketing for the latest X-Files flick, sadly, turned out to be a textbook example of how NOT to promote a movie. The television spots were barely there, and only ramped up a week or two prior to the movie's premiere. The movie's trailer was poorly cut ... but that was undermined by the fact that the trailer was barely even SEEN anywhere other than online. Personally, I've seen almost every major summer movie in the theater, and did not see the X-Files trailer even ONCE. That is inexcusable. And finally, the promotion around this film was ridiculous in that almost nothing was revealed about the film under the guise of secrecy. Please. Nobody was demanding plot details, but what was the harm in talking about the time period in which the movie was set, about the state of the central relationship between Mulder and Scully? There was no reason to be so secretive about a movie like this, which, if anything, needed all the hype it could get. The bottom line is, FOX treated the movie's launch with zero respect. Even if they lacked confidence in it, they should have a little bit of respect for the franchise as a whole. This is, afterall, a movie that spins off of one of the greatest television series ever made, a series that helped put the FOX network on the map in the 90's and which elevated the medium of television to new creative heights. If the marketing had been there and the movie still failed at the box office, well, then at least FOX could be proud that it gave the film the best push it could. But as it stands, it's just pretty awful that a new X-Files film, something that should have been a HUGE deal, was treated by its own company like a non-event. If nobody at FOX seemed excited about it, then why should any of us be?
But the fact is - I was excited. The X-Files is by far my favorite TV drama of all time, and was a gigantic influence on me. When the show debuted during my middle school years, I was obsessed with all things alien-related, as were many at the time for some reason. I don't know what it was, but there was just something in the zeitgeist of the 90's that lent itself to a strange national obsession with government conspiracy's, big-eyed E.T.'s, and alien autopsies that may or may not have been elaborate hoaxes. From the time I was a pre-teen up until the time I was halfway through college, sitting down and turning off the lights to watch a new episode of The X-Files was one of my most treasured weekly traditions. At first, the show aired on Fridays, and as a kid I'd eagerly watch and discuss each new episode with my grandma, hunkered down on her couch and just getting totally wrapped up in the stories of aliens, vampires, monsters, and all manner of strange phenomena. Later, the show moved to Sundays and I'd watch with my dad, and then with friends when I went off to college. I remember fondly sitting around our small dorm-room TV at BU, carefully adjusting the rabbit ears to get the best possible reception. But it wasn't all bad if it came in a bit fuzzy ... The X-Files was a show that almost seemed to work better when it came in via a small and grainy transmission. And of course, watching it in silence, with the lights out, was an absolute must. I actually bonded with many friends over a shared enthusiasm for the adventures of Mulder and Scully, and there's no better TV marathon to have than a multi-episode X-Files extravaganza. In college, I wrote an X-Files spec script for a writing class - I tried to do my own spin on one of the show's trademark "quirky" episodes, like Jose Chung's From Outer Space or Clive Bruckman's Final Repose. I later wrote an op-ed for BU's Daily Free Press, titled "Closing The X-Files," to comemorate the show's final episode in 2002. As I sit here now at my desk, an X-Files poster that I've had since college looms behind me, and somewhere in my closet lies a rolled up reproduction of Mulder's famous office poster - that iconic image of a blurry photo of a UFO, with bold letters simply stating: "I Want to Believe."
So the truth is ... it was hard to explain this to people who weren't lifelong fans of the show, but even as my friends got excited about movies like Indiana Jones and Iron Man, I was semi-secretly even more excited about the new X-Files movie. To me, other than The Dark Knight, it was the most anticipated of any of the big summer movies. And that isn't really because I thought it'd be a giant blockbuster, or even that I had confidence it'd be a great movie, per se. It was simply because the show was such a tradition for me for 9 years, such an influence on me creatively, that I simply couldn't wait to step back into that world, to see those characters again. And on that level, there was probably little that the movie could do or not do to dampen that excitement.
But what did I actually think of the movie, as a movie? Well, Truth Seekers, read on ...
THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE Review:
- The X-Files: I Want to Believe, is not exactly what I'd call anyone's idea of an ideal X-Files film. It features a strangely uninspired plot, a distinct lack of real paranormal intrigue, and a limited sense of scope and continuity that makes one wonder why this particular story was the one that Chris Carter and co chose to bring The X-Files back to the big screen. That being said, to me there was a lot to like about the movie in spite of its flaws. And it's for that reason that I've been slightly surprised by some of the scathing reviews I've seen - it's as if they are working harder to justify the movie's poor box office returns than they are to actually analyze the movie itself. Because the fact is, while I Want To Believe ultimately lacks the punch that it should have had, it retains many of the things that made The X-Files, the TV series, one of the greatest in the history of television.
Despite the movie's flaws, I think that those of us who get what The X-Files has always been about will come away at least partially satisfied. Because this is one more Mulder and Scully adventure, and it's a story that revives two of the most compelling fictional characters of the last few decades, and tells a story that reminds us why we loved them, yet at the same time allows them to grow and evolve to the extent that they should. One of the things I always loved about The X-Files is that it was never afraid to be INTELLIGENT. It's characters were complex, smart, and adult, as were its storylines. It was a show that was oftentimes less about the details of a particular plot, and more about the underlying ideas. I've always loved the style of dialogue that The X-Files uses as well - it never tried to be "realistic," - instead, I always found the dialogue to be very literary - full of meaty words and colorful prose - and personally I love that. There's a place for realism, but personally I love writing, when appropriate, where you can feel the writer's hand in the words chosen, where the spoken dialogue has a unique rhythm and art to it.
All of that is here in I Want to Believe. Mulder and Scully engage in their typical witty banter, and the same unique chemistry they've always had is on display here. If anything, the movie is at its strongest when its focusing on each character's personal journey. Mulder is the eternal truth-seeker. When we first see him again here he's holed up somewhere out of the public eye, still technically on the run from the government and only coming out of hiding to tackle the occasional paranormal investigation. All of his old quirks have only become magnified, and his obsessions have only become more pronounced now that he doesn't have the outlet he once did at the FBI to tackle them head-on. And of course, he still has that trademark "I Want to Believe" poster tacked up on his wall. Scully, meanwhile, has left the FBI and is now back working in medicine, helping terminally-ill patients in an environment that continually seems to test her always-conflicted beliefs in faith and science. As for the relationship between the two, at first it's a it jarring to realize that they aren't quite a couple anymore. The show ended with them seemingly being romantically involved after years and years of buildup, in a sort of fairy tale ending, a kind of "love is the only real answer" finale. But here, the two have a strained, somewhat ambigous relationship - still calling each other by last-names only, still seeming to have a romantic connection of sorts but certainly not an actual couple. It's a state of affairs that does somewhat make sense given the characters, I will say that - but it is stil la bit strange trying to decipher where exactly Mulder and Scully stand at this stage of their lives.
But getting back to what's good about the movie that carried over from the TV show - again, I give I Want to Believe credit for having that trademark sense of intelligence about it, for having that back-and-forth dialogue, for having those Big Ideas at the core of the movie. And, even though the movie never quite comes together like it should, there is that great, creepy atmosphere of foreboding that is there for much of the film. This is by no means a blockbuster-style film. It's a smaller movie, as a film it almost feels like a throwback to a certain type of small-time crime drama that you don't see a lot of anymore. And I realize that that's not what many were looking for here, but given tight budget constraints and such, I do admire the movie for sticking to that slower, methodical pace, for laying the atmosphere on thick, for not trying to be something it's not. So be warned: those with movie ADD will probably find themselves a bit bored with this one, but those who like the feeling of being immersed in a slower-paced but atmospheric thriller will appreciate the style that X-Files goes for - if anything, it is a bit reminiscient of the early episodes of the TV series.
And one more note of praise before I get into some of the movie's flaws - I really think that both Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny do a great job in this one. I haven't heard many critics give them much credit, but the fact is, both of these actors fully inhabit these iconic characters, and some of the scenes between them really have that old magic. You really get that sense of shared history, and Anderson especially knocks many a scene out of the park. I feel both of the leads are pretty underrated in general as actors, but the smaller scale of this movie really lets both showcase what they've got.
That being said ... I do share in some of the general sense of disappointment about this movie. I feel it's been grossly underrated and unfairly criticized, but I think a lot of that comes from the fact that it never quite delivers anything truly special when looked at in terms of a standalone movie. By far, the best bits are those that play off of the shared history between the characters. But what's new here never really clicks. And it's particularly baffling, because if the producers intended this movie as a restart of sorts to the franchise, they really missed the boat. If anything, it feels more like an epilogue to the series than a new beginning. And what's worse, in many areas where tribute COULD have been paid to the series, we never get the shout-outs that we as fans are looking for.
Case in point: A pair of new FBI agents who figure prominently into the movie, played by Amanda Peet and rapper Xzibit, are pretty much useless. It could have been a great opportunity to introduce fresh new characters into the franchise, but instead we get two bland-as-can-be agents who most will care less if we ever see again. And it makes you wonder: why wouldn't their roles have instead been filled by Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish? Patrick in particular managed to be a fan favorite on the show despite the strained circumstances under which his character, John Doggett, was introduced. I know I would have loved to have seen him back in action in this movie, and certainly he would have been leaps and bounds a better choice to bring in than the lifeless Xzibit and the generic character that he plays.
Speaking of continuity with the show - I realize that they were going for a somewhat clean slate here, but it was a bit insulting that so many important and very relevant lingering plot threads were glossed over or ignored. I mean, the fate of Scully's baby, William - that's a pretty big deal. And yet his death is almost offhandedly mentioned with unbelievable nonchalance. Similar treatment is given to the status of Mulder and Scully as quasi-fugitives from the law following the series finale. And one last gripe (and SPOILER alert ...!) ... it was AWESOME to see AD Walter Skinner make a kickass extended-cameo appearance, but seeing him only made me pine to see a few more of the show's great supporting characters. Doggett, The Lone Gunmen (surely they can't REALLY be dead?), etc. I will give the movie credit for a few nice little fan-service shout-outs though, from name dropping Clive Bruckman and other psychics that the show had dealt with, to highlighting Mulder's penchant for sunflower seeds and stabbing pencils into the ceiling. Still, a LITTLE bit more continuity acknowldgement would have been nice.
Now, onto the actual plot / mystery of the movie. I'm sad to report that this will not go down as one of the great X-Files tasked to Mulder and Scully. In fact, the way it was written almost seemed off considering the usual style of the show. Typically on the show's standalone, monster-of-the-week episodes, we'd be presented with a mystery that would leave us scratching our heads - but then, we could always count on Mulder to have one of his usual "Mulder-leaps," where he'd use his vast knowledge of the paranormal to correctly guess at what was really going on. In this movie, nobody, including the audience, seems to know quite what the hell is going on. Everything is vague and seemingly unconnected to the point of frustration. On one hand, we have Billy Connelly as a disgraced priest who has psychic visions. The visions help to lead the FBI to clues regarding victims in a strange series of murders, in which missing limbs are found scattered throughout a white and snowy wilderness. Eventually, the trail leads Mulder, Scully, and the FBI to a secret lab of sorts, in which a dying Russian has dispatched his goons to harvest spare body parts for him, to create him a monstrous new body to replace his own, in a strange, modern-day, Frankenstein-like experiment of science-gone-wrong.
While that second plot point sounds kind of cool on paper, it barely comes into play for much of the movie. Most of the time, we're focused on Billy Connelly's pedophile priest, who Mulder wants to believe and who Scully doesn't want to give the time of day. The conceit is that God has somehow given Connelly this supernatural ability as a means to atone for his past sins - it's an interesting idea, but it just never feels substantial enough to carry a movie, and there's no real intrigue about it. Connelly is good in the role, but he seems more suited as an interesting tangent than as a central plot point of a big X-Files movie. Because the fact is, since the Russian scientists are barely focused on, this movie has no great villain at its disposal. No Cigarette Smoking Man, no Alex Krycek, no Victor Tooms - hell, not even a Fluke Man. I said earlier that I admired the movie's slower and more methodical pace. But I began to resent it once the movie ended and I realized that, plot-wise, all the build-up was anticlimactic and ultimately led nowhere. In the past, you could always count on The X-Files to deliver on the big, final reveal - to deliver that one last turn of the screw that would stick in your mind and haunt you. No such luck here - the main plot is ultimately a muddled, pieced-together mess, that can't compare to any of the great X-Files episodes. In fact, the episode "Post-Modern Prometheus" tackled similar subject matter with much more style and aplomb.
I also have to mention this: while most of the movie is suitably creepy, dark, and atmospheric, there are certain inexplicable moments of stupidity that completely took me out of the movie. Honestly, I was just baffled by a few moments here, which I can only hope will be cut out of an eventual director's cut or DVD release. The worst one by far occurs when Mulder and Scully re-enter the halls of the FBI after an extended absence. They pass twin portraits of J. Edgar Hoover and George W. Bush. They stop, look at the portraits, and then look at each other quizically as all of a sudden, the X-Files theme music plays. It might be the single biggest WTF moment I've ever seen from the franchise. Even it its quirkiest moments, the X-Files I know would never have an overt moment of out-and-out goofiness like that. Plus, the "joke" barely even made sense and certainly wasn't funny or smile-worthy. Just really, really bad.
I guess that's what's strange about I Want to Believe - it has some real crackling moments involving its leads, and a nice overall vibe that felt true to the series - but overall, it just has that stitched-together feel to it (figuratively and literally). It feels rushed and not well thought-through, and it feels like a strange compromise between trying on one hand to do a standalone movie and on the other hand trying to catch us up on the characters and the continuity and mythology of the show. The plot, overall, never comes together in a satisfying manner, and many of the new elements that are introduced (hello Xzibit and Amanda Peet) fall flat. But oddly, the movie has some great moments that are almost all character-driven. Mulder's realization that he is destined to always seek the truth, that he can't ever hide from it, and Scully's struggle over whether to let Mulder pull her back into the darkness. The comraderie and growth and struggles of these character is palpable, and when Skinner finally shows up, it has to make you smile because it's a reminder that these are living breathing characters who have been to hell and back together. That evolution is really played off well here, and Anderson and Duchovny provide the necessary heart and soul. It's a strange movie, a small movie, a personal movie - and certainly not what most envisioned it would be. I know the box-office returns have been pretty abysmal, but I can only hope that the film finds some legs ... because as great as these characters and this world are, I want to see everyone's effort go into blowing out the franchise with the giant alien-invasion movie that we all want to see. It's been set up in the show and well known in X-Files lore - 2012 is the date when all hell breaks loose and the long-foretold colonization begins. The X-Files deserves a chance to tell that one, last, great story, and I hope we get to see it.
My Grade: B
- Alright, that's all for now. Be back this week with the next exciting chapters of my all-new, all-awesome adventures.