X-Files: I Want To Believe
Directed by Chris Carter
Starring Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny, Amanda Peet, Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner
Fox Home Entertainment
Release date: December 2, 2008
Okay folks, it’s confession time: I have never been a fan of The X-Files. I have seen a few episodes of the series and I really enjoyed the first theatrical feature from 1998. But the show never caught enough of my interest to hook me full time during its run. I guess I just didn’t have the time. Every time I did watch though, the shows always had compelling stories and the chemistry between stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson was undeniably perfect. Plus I never had a problem following the intricate narratives despite all the conspiracies and complications the show’s writers would throw into the mix. If you were willing to open your mind and pay attention to what was going on, be it little moments that occur in the shadows or cryptic statements characters would intone to one another, then you were amply rewarded. It was refreshing to have a show like The X-Files on the air especially since the network responsible for its inception has always seemed indifferent to bold, thought-provoking programming. One of the previous decade’s most enduring pop culture phenomenons, The X-Files has lost little of its impact in the years following its last episode. Some questions were answered while many others were left hanging in the air. The success of the show paved the way for many fast-canceled imitators and programs like Alias, Firefly, Lost, and Heroes that would continue (to an extent of course) to carry the torch for intelligent genre television that The X-Files first fired up in the autumn of 1993.
This past summer, ten years after the show’s first cinematic spin-off hit the big screen, brought us The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Series creator Chris Carter assumed the directing duties this time around and co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Frank Spotnitz (author of 48 episodes of the series). Fans who were expecting another widescreen continuation of the alien invasion story arc the first movie focused on or something else so epic in scope that only the biggest of movie screens could do it justice were in for a rude surprise. Carter and Spotnitz defied years of gathering expectations to instead deliver a standalone narrative that tackled issues of science versus religion, logic against faith, that were addressed time and again in the original show. The result was a film whose appearance of a small-scale plot with little focus on the larger conspiracies that were one of the show’s hallmarks turned off moviegoers looking for another summer movie thrill ride. Needless to say I Want to Believe is far from what we all expected from an X-Files feature film.
The movie begins with a team of FBI agents headed by ASAC Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) and Agent Mosley Drummy (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner) searching a vast snow-covered plain for one of their missing agents. But the person leading the search is not an agent with the bureau, nor a member of any agency from any branch of the government. Father Joseph Crissman (Billy Connolly) is a former Catholic priest who was excommunicated from the Church. Lately Father Crissman has been receiving visions that has him convinced God has given the gift of psychic powers. The FBI naturally has its doubts but when Crissman’s visions lead them to a severed arm not belonging to their missing agent they decide to swallow their pride and call in former agents Fox Mulder (Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Anderson).
Since being forced to leave the Bureau, Scully has returned to her cherished career in medicine working as a pediatric surgeon at a Catholic hospital. Now in a romantic relationship with her longtime partner, Scully shares a house with the reclusive Mulder. At the hospital she comes into conflict with her superiors when she’s unable to properly treat a boy born with a degenerative brain disorder. Exhausting all other options Scully wants to try an experimental surgical procedure involving the use of stem cell research, a big no-no in the Catholic Church. When the FBI comes calling both are reluctant to resume their former duties, Scully more than Mulder. But Mulder’s curiosity overwhelms Scully’s concerns once he meets Crissman and slowly becomes convinced of the man’s psychic abilities. Meanwhile ever the skeptic, Scully thinks Crissman is a dead end and believes he is a pervert and a charatan who’s pulling the bureau’s collective chain in order to redeem himself in the eyes of the church, and maybe even the Lord Himself. There’s ample evidence the former priest is making up his supposed “visions” as he goes along, and yet not every so-called psychic bleeds from the eyes when he has a vision. Without giving much away the case leads Mulder and Scully to a series of serial murders and an organ smuggling operation involving a mysterious Russian (Callum Keith Rennie), and the duo’s relationship will face dire straits. But any fan of the series will know they have been through worse before.
The X-Files: I Want to Believe was filmed under a shroud of secrecy that no one could penetrate to save their life. The final product ultimately couldn’t live up to the massive hype that Carter and company’s campaign of disinformation, keeping in tune with the conspiracies that were the show’s specialty, had inadvertently created. The movie was greeted with cold indifference from audiences and critics, and even the show’s devoted fan base couldn’t muster up much support. Another casualty of the Dark Knight box office juggernaut, I Want to Believe became another financial low point on 20th Century Fox’s depressing cinematic summer and quickly faded from movie screens and memories.
Now Fox has revisited the film with an “Ultimate X-PhileEdition” DVD that spreads a generous selection of extra features across two discs with yet another useless digital copy thrown in for good measure. With this edition you also have two versions of the film: the original PG-13 theatrical cut and a slightly-longer unrated extended cut that adds around four minutes of previously deleted footage including some minor additional character moments, extended violent moments, an a reworked end credits sequence. Having never seen the movie in theaters, my first experience with I Want to Believe came courtesy of the extended version and by the looks of things the additional footage acts as an enhancement rather than a hindrance.
Eschewing the thrills and chills of standard summer movie fare for something more thoughtful and disturbing, the fruits of Carter and Spotnitz’s labor is a compelling mystery with overtones of ink-black horror that plunges straight into darkness from its opening frames and never looks back. Contributing to the film’s multi-arcing themes of disgrace, belief, and redemption is a cold, repressive atmosphere that envelops us its bleak spell. The entire movie takes place in and around Virginia during the dead of winter, ironic since being a native of Richmond, VA, I haven’t seen my own hometown this wintry in ages. Of course the movie was actually filmed in the series’ preferred filming locale of Vancouver, British Columbia. That certainly explains the endless blankets of snow. The wintry environments invoke images of isolation both mental and physical as characters venture forth into unknown territory from which they may never return, if not in body then definitely in mind.
Working with professional television cameraman (and X-Files veteran) Bill Roe and production designer Mark Freeborn director Carter gives his film a solid look and feel that could make it the most cinematic-looking episode of the show ever produced. Very few scenes were filmed in urban environments. Most of the movie takes place in the open country, in the vast spaces that exist between the cities where people can vanish without a trace. This decision adds immeasurably to the film’s overall impact. Mark Snow, the series’ veteran composer, returns to produce a strong score keeping in tune (no pun intended) with the musical motifs he established on the show and in the first movie while expanding on those themes. Film editor Richard A. Harris keeps the action moving at a taut pace but still manages to find ample space for the needed character and plot scenes.
On the acting front the movie is a mixed bag. David Duchovny returns to his signature role and his performance hasn’t lost a step. Like many other actors before and after him who have played certain characters for the majority of their careers Duchovny inhabits the tenacious and open-minded federal agent Fox Mulder like a second skin. The Mulder character has always been one rich with possibilities and Duchovny, aided by the writers and fellow cast members, has never been afraid to follow through on them. A classic sleuth cut from the mold of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, Fox Mulder is a great character driven by passion and a kind of barely sustained madness that constantly compels him to follow his instincts even as he is looked down upon as a nutcase by his peers. The years have caught up with him as I Want to Believe begins and driven him into hiding. But the lure of continuing his long-nurtured search for the truth beneath the received reality brings Mulder out of his shell, and Duchovny plays him perfectly as always.
Obviously Sherlock Holmes can’t function without his Watson, and Mulder has his in polar opposite Dana Scully. Gillian Anderson, like her colleague Duchovny, was a relative unknown when she made her debut on The X-Files and the role of Scully has become her most-identifiable character. Scully has always relied on logic and sane judgment to keep her and Mulder on the straight and narrow as they pursue the various otherworldly threats only they can face without breaking. Anderson is a gifted actress who has always worked masterfully with Duchovny and their wonderful dueling chemistry is a thing of beauty.
Besides the two stars you won’t find any other familiar faces from the X-Files universe besides Mitch Pileggi, who returns to his role as Mulder and Scully’s longtime FBI superior Walter Skinner briefly in the third act. Pileggi is terrific in the part unsurprisingly but it would have been nice if he has been more involved in the first two acts of the film rather than being trucked in for the finale much like the Lone Gunmen were in the first movie. Amanda Peet and rapper Xzibit (here credited as Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner) basically take Skinner’s place for the majority of the story. Peet, as Agent Dakota Whitney (a name too good for a supporting character), forms a nice rapport with Duchovny’s character as the lead agent trying not to close off her mind from the inherent possibilities the case has revealed to her in the way her partner has. Known mostly for her priceless comedic work, Peetgets a rare and welcome opportunity to flex her dramatic muscles and her performance is all the better for it. Xzibit does what he can with what is sadly a one-dimensional character, the grim-faced agent who is all business and doesn’t have the time to entertain wild theories. He manages to bring a healthy dose of authority to the role, and since movies like this need at least one character who is skeptical no matter what he’s faced with Xzibit plays the part well. Callum Keith Rennie makes for an excellent villain, a personification of ruthless evil lurking in the darkness.
But the standout supporting performance is given by the Scottish actor and stand-up comedian Billy Connolly as the haunted Father Joe. It was certainly a bullish bravado for the filmmakers to ask us to align our sympathies with a pedophile even if he is a man of God. Since Scully is an avowed Catholic forced to work by his side during the investigation this creates an interesting dynamic that Connolly plays well with Anderson. Even though this man has done evil things it isn’t like he doesn’t feel guilt for the crimes he has committed against his faith and the people who trusted him. Father Joe’s search for redemption in the eyes of those who once put their faith in him much as he put his faith in the Lord forms the emotional spine of the story along with Mulder and Scully’s troubled relationship. Like Peet Connolly is better known for his comedic work so his rare chance to shine here as a dramatic actor is one that pays off with a powerful performance.
The filmmakers do sneak in a few much-welcome references to the series and some priceless in-jokes. Once back at the FBI our heroes look upon a picture of a certain current U.S. president and the familiar “X-Files” whistle theme briefly pipes up. Another good joke that fans of series will enjoy comes when Mulder offers to return to the Bureau only on one condition: he wants to go for a helicopter ride. Guess which kind of helicopter he wants to ride in. I Want to Believe plays everything pretty seriously, but it’s not without its moments of humor. There’s even a final gag in the end credits where Mulder and Scully get a moment that reminded me so much of the Man of Steel flashing a grin at the camera before the credits rolled on the original Superman: The Movie. The only real problem I have with the film is the lack of tension in the finale. I’m not asking for a big Hollywood finish to the proceedings but the last crucial moments should have brought the movie to a close with an edge-of-your-seat attitude. Instead the final encounter with the culprits behind the killings seems kind of safe and muted. But then again sometimes the destination isn’t as important as the journey.
A movie like this was never going to hit big with audiences but The X-Files: I Want to Believe is a absorbing and thought-provoking mystery that draws you in if you open up to it. The movie’s not without flaws though. That will matter little once the film has you in its spell.
DVD Bonus Features
To make up for its botched marketing of the theatrical release 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has made amends with a DVD set rich with extras and a top-notch video and audio presentation. Now I will perform an autopsy.
The movie itself is presented in a fine 2.35:1 widescreen format, despite the occasional intrusion of a tiny Fox logo in the corners of the frame due to this being a DVD-R screener. The movie’s wintry atmosphere is well captured and may actually make you feel a bit cold yourself, ably aided by several distinct audio tracks. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track is the best, but there are also Spanish and French 2.0 tracks as well. The disc also comes with English and Spanish subtitles.
The extra features on the first disc kick off with a commentary from Carter and Spotnitz. It’s a bit of a chummy affair with the filmmaking team talking about the making of the movie in warm conversational tones while stopping just short of revealing anything substantial that might sate the fans’ unquenchable thirst for secret bits of “X-Files” mythology.
There are a trio of deleted scenes that are brief and don’t really add anything to the film, but there’s another well-acted encounter between Anderson and Connolly that I enjoyed watching.
Following that are a pair of small featurettes:
“Chris Carter: Statements on Green Production” (6 minutes) is basically the director talking about how the cast and crew did their part to help the environment by running a pretty green production. Best of all they got local merchants to cater the film. A nice little feature.
“Body Parts: Special Makeup Effects” (8 minutes) takes a look at the many prosthetic effects used in the film. FX junkies will get a kick out of the work presented here.
A gag reel is presented that runs ten minutes and yields a few priceless moments here and there. My favorite is an exchange of words between Gillian Anderson and Amanda Peet at the four-minute mark.
A makeshift music video for Xzibit’s “Dying 2 Live” features the song playing under a slide show of still photos from the film. The song is okay and the photos are nicely presented.
Four still galleries are included: “Collectibles”, “Storyboards”, “Concept Art”, and finally “Unit Photography”. Quite a bit to digest but worth the effort.
A pair of domestic and international theatrical trailers and a goofy public service announcement that has something to do with smoking and blowing bubbles close out the first disc.
The second disc has only one extra but it’s the best on the whole set. Presented in three parts is the comprehensive documentary “Trust No One: Can the X-Files Remain a Secret?” (86 minutes). This doc follows the production of I Want to Believe from inception to post-production and the process is intercut with the filmmakers’ attempts to cut off any potential leaks of crucial plot details to the online community by staging their own campaign of disinformation. They create their own staged pictures and send out fake call sheets to throw Internet spies off their trail, which is clever (I remember the werewolf picture showing up from earlier in the year) and it does the intended job of keeping fans in the dark as to what to believe which leaked information is real and which is not.
Duchovny and Anderson speak openly about the pressures involved with reassuming the roles they vacated six years ago when the show ended. They and other cast and crew members are interviewed at great length about maintaining the production’s veil of secrecy and the stories they tell demonstrate the absurd lengths Hollywood has to go through these days to keep the movie-going public completely in the dark. The filmmakers’ intentions are noble because they want their fans to go into I Want to Believe ready to enjoy the movie and be genuinely surprised as the plot unfolds. There’s a generous smattering of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with many key members of the cast and crew resulting in a well-crafted look at the making of a movie with the huge expectations this particular one had from the very beginning. This is an exemplary documentary.
The X-Files: I Want to Believe is not a movie to be enjoyed by anyone wanting an empty-headed rollercoaster ride. This is a strong and rewarding thinking person’s thriller I recommend to anybody looking for one.
BAADASSSSS will return.
Three-Disc Special Edition
The Video On Demand