And episode is a good word to describe “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” with. In many ways it is a big budget episode of the original show, moreso even than the previous “X-Files” film. Gone is the cumbersome mythology and desire for spectacle that bogged that film down. Gone too are the aliens and flying saucers that tended to define the show. The focus instead is on a much older, much more complex mystery human nature. And it’s better for it. Carter and co-screenwriter Frank Spotnitz have fashioned an intimate story for this iteration of “The X-Files.” One where the supernatural menace is vague and ambiguous and largely a backdrop for delving into the mind and hearts of its lead characters: Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny).
Since we last saw them, Scully and Mulder have left the FBI and their all consuming quest for ‘The Truth’ behind in order to pursue something much more dangerous and elusive. Real life. Scully as a doctor at Our Lady of the Sorrowful Heart Hospital (which would be the last hospital I’d ever want to go to), and Mulder in seclusion as a fugitive no one wants to find. Until the FBI comes looking for him. An FBI agent has gone missing it seems and the only lead so far is possibly psychic Father Joe (Billy Connolly) who claims that the woman is still alive. The lead investigator (Amanda Peet) is willing to pull out all the stops to find her, including bringing its maestro or the macabre in from the cold.
Quite literally, in fact. Carter has set his film against the wintry backdrop of Vancouver (standing in for eastern Virginia), contrasting the beautiful bleakness of the landscape with his own dark story and themes. “The X-Files” was always, at its heart, about the nature of belief and “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” is obviously no exception. One of the frustrating things about Carter’s particular style of storytelling has always been its aptitude to subtlety, to the point of being almost sublime, coupled with an often staggeringly obvious heavy handedness. “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” is no exception to that, either.
The most obvious western focus for any story on belief would naturally be a priest, and so it is here. Even more obvious, Father Joe is a disgraced priest, a convicted pedophile, whose very existence calls into question Scully’s belief in forgiveness and her own faith. He’s also the center point for Mulder’s fixation with saving people through possibilities others cast aside. It’s actually a lot better than it sounds, mostly thanks to a fine performance by Connolly, who understates Joe’s internal conflict and intense self-loathing every step of the way. And it’s not often you to call a character who weeps blood understated.
The hearts of the film, though, are Scully and Mulder. The chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson was one of the things that made the original show fly, and it’s just as readily apparent here. It’s also where the benefits of a film over television come into play, as Carter is able to bypass the will they/won’t they sexual tension that a series can’t afford to tamper with. He’s focused instead on the complexities of a mature relationship, and he and his stars are at their best in these moments, which sneak up on you often as not. For all the philosophical pondering “X-Files” was and is prone to — its quest to find ‘the truth’ the real truth is the relationship between these two characters. Particularly as they play out the drama of two people who’ve been together for a long time coming to the realization they may not be traveling in the same direction any more. It’s Carter at his most subtle, and it’s fantastic.
It’s too bad the mystery can’t keep up, especially since it receives the lion’s share of screen time. That’s not so much a strike against the story as it is a reflection on how good some of the character work is. That said, the central story does have its moments. Carter’s always been good at the oppressive atmosphere and he’s lost none of his skill. On the other hand, in his attempts to be ambiguous, atmosphere is often all you get. That was true of the show, and it’s just as true of “I Want to Believe,” which often devolves into pointless smoke and mirrors. Very good smoke and mirrors, but… The point of smoke and mirrors is so that you don’t see the turn sneaking up on you. In “X-Files” it’s often so that you don’t see it sneaking away.
The result is a film that is often chilling, but seldom thrilling. The other performances tend to be uneven and underwritten as well. Amanda Peet is perky and charismatic as ever, but Xzibit is carved from a block of wood as her disbelieving partner.
Is the film, a stirring final hurrah for the show, wrapping up all its dangling plot threads and entanglements? No. Is it an excellent evocation of what the show was at its heart, with a depth of soul and character most thrillers still don’t bother with? Yes. Better yet, its clear and sharp focus means it stands alone just fine as a work unto itself, easily accessible as a more-than-competent thriller for anyone not familiar with the show.
There are rumors of possibly one more film that really will wrap everything up in a tidy little package. Maybe they’re even true. But if not, if “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” is the last we ever see of this world and these characters, it’s not a bad send off at all. Probably not satisfying for everyone, but good for what it is.