Losing Faith

Duchovny and Anderson lead a fine cast, but 'The X-Files: I Want to Believe' is a letdown

Review C

July 25, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

That terrific TV critic Joyce Millman rightly called the first chaotic X-Files movie, The X-Files: Fight the Future, "an overgrown sweeps episode." Ten years later (and six years after the series' demise), The X -Files: I Want to Believe resembles those TV-series reunions that bring the cast of a hit together for a not-so-special occasion.

The plot about a clairvoyant defrocked priest, Father Joe (Billy Connolly), who may lead the FBI to a kidnapped agent, sutures together tropes from serial-killer movies, horror classics such as The Body Snatcher and Frankenstein, medical suspense films like Coma and psychic jamborees like The Dead Zone. The script is the real monster in this movie.

What would pictures like I Want to Believe do without a cryptic evildoer in a menacing truck? The whole enterprise suffers from tired blood.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson still look marvelous as paranormal expert Fox Mulder and medical doctor Dana Scully, now out of the agency but dragged back for this one case. They play to the hilt their traditional roles of believer and skeptic, respectively, and occasionally display the sixth acting sense that comes from developing rapport over time.

I was a semi-happy fan whenever they were mixing things up with their tart-tender chemistry, or Mulder was employing his pinpoint sarcasm at naysayers, or Scully was unleashing her smoldering disdain for anyone she considers a con artist. That didn't happen often enough to save the movie.

Chris Carter, who directed, co-wrote and co-produced (and was the executive producer of the TV series), tries to force resonance into I Want to Believe. Scully, who still wears a cross around her neck, has gone to work at a Catholic hospital, Our Lady of Sorrows. She wants to use a controversial stem-cell treatment to cure a boy with an otherwise terminal brain disease. Should she persist despite her bosses' disapproval? At her most desperate, she looks to Father Joe for a clue, and he is a pedophile who victimized 37 altar boys.

Carter deftly injected improbable comedy into grim scenarios during the series; he treats Scully way too soberly in this movie. (Mulder suggests that Scully has never stopped mourning the loss of William, the baby she gave birth to in the show's next-to-last season.) Scully grounded the TV show. She was the voice of reason with some kind of faith mixed in, especially faith in Mulder. Despite Anderson's best efforts, Scully weighs down I Want to Believe. In this movie, she is our lady of sorrows.

The movie, like the series, employs titles registering places, hours and minutes in old-fashioned military typescript, but here they're unintentionally funny. The staging and editing are so chaotic that knowing the locale and time of day is no help at all.

Some series trademarks and devices retain their zing. Carter milks offbeat locations and types for eeriness and humor, such as a snow-shrouded rural natatorium (or swimming facility) and its slow-talking old proprietor who keeps a register of users every day - and throws it out every day, too.

And the casting couldn't be better, including Amanda Peet as an FBI agent who may have her eye on Mulder in more ways than one. Peet's avidity perks up Anderson in group scenes. Scully twitches with wary eloquence when she senses another woman may have feelings for her partner.

Too bad Carter jeopardizes or kills off characters with uncharacteristic recklessness. As a result, this movie is heavy in mood and flimsy in emotion. The director has made a point of not disclosing whether Mulder and Scully get romantic, so I won't spoil the fans' fun. Let's just say that in better times, their spiritual kinship was hotter than most screen couples' erotic writhing.

In a 2002 New York Times piece headlined "The X-Files Finds the Truth: Its Time is Past," critic Millman noted the approach of a new millennium as the reason The X-Files successfully exploited conspiracy theories and spiritual phenomena despite the relative peace and security of the Clinton years. I think it was precisely the prosperity and security of the Clinton years that enabled viewers to savor entertainment that could rock their world views.

The funniest moment in I Want to Believe comes when Mulder and Scully get ready to enter an FBI office. They see portraits of J. Edgar Hoover and President Bush on either side of the door, and Carter brings up the otherworldly X-Files theme on the soundtrack. It's as if he's confessing that what Americans have been through for the past seven years is wackier and deadlier than anything he could put into The X-Files: I Want to Believe.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Online

See more photos and watch a preview of The X-Files: I Want to Believe at baltimoresun.com/xfiles

Film talk

Director and creator Chris Carter discusses revival of "The X-Files." PG 4C

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

(20th Century Fox) Starring David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly. Directed by Chris Carter. Rated PG-13 for violent and disturbing content and thematic material. Time 100 minutes.

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