Friday, December 12, 2008

The X-Files: I Want To Believe

Director: Chris Carter
Starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner, Mitch Pileggi

Running Time: 104 min.

Rating: PG-13

** (out of ****)

There are two mindsets with which you can approach The X-Files: I Want To Believe. You can go in not expecting much, and that’s pretty much what you’ll end up with. Nothing gained, nothing lost. Or, like me, you can go in thinking that a popular series that’s been off the air for over six years and concluded with one of the worst shark jumps in television history better come up with something really good to get people to show up at theaters.

It’s not so much that film does anything actively wrong, but that it just doesn’t bother doing anything at all. It plays exactly like one of your standard “monster-of the-week” episodes of The X-Files, and a pretty bad one at that. Because of this, those completely unfamiliar with the show will likely be more forgiving, or in the least they won’t actively despise it as much as I did. It steals the worst aspects of Hostel and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, fusing them into a screenplay that wouldn’t even pass muster as one of the lesser CBS crime procedurals. And director/series creator Chris Carter wonders why no one showed up for this film or why he’s having problems re-launching the franchise.

While I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing this film, but I did enter it with an open mind and wanted Carter to prove me wrong and pull this off. He didn't. I never considered The X-Files to ever be one of our greatest shows because even in its best seasons it was frustratingly uneven. Episodes of brilliance would be followed the next week by something so absurd you wouldn’t believe it was even the same series. But the one constant right up until the end was that you'd never get any answers. Now Carter actually has the nerve to continue that maddening tactic here where it’s most important he deliver. Sadly though, it’s almost fitting. If someone asked me what the problems were with the series as a whole I’d tell them to just watch this film and it would save them a lot of time.
Six years after the conclusion of the show Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) is a bearded recluse while his former partner Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) works as a physician at a Catholic hospital. Neither have ties to the F.B.I. anymore and seeing what they were doing now was probably the most interesting part of the film, or at least it would have been if it were a little more inventive. Both are exactly where you’d expect them to at this point and when they first appeared on screen together I was actually taken aback by how little I cared.

When a pedophile priest (is there any other kind in movies these days?) named Father Joe (Billy Connelly) starts having psychic visions of an abducted F.B.I. agent Scully is contacted by Agent Drummy (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner) and Whitney (Amanda Peet) about recruiting Mulder so they can help crack the case. After some initial resistance due to his tumultuous relationship with the bureau, Mulder eventually gives in and the duo dedicate themselves to finding the missing agent with Father’s Joe’s help. It isn’t too long before Mulder and Scully comfortably slide back into their familiar roles of believer and skeptic, respectively. While Scully seems more preoccupied with one of her dying patients, clues start to emerge (i.e. missing limbs) that connect the disappearance to a string of serial murders.

Wait a second…Mulder and Scully came back for THIS? It must be hard to find good help in the F.B.I. these days. I understand Carter not wanting to alienate casual viewers by delving too far into the show’s mythology but he thought putting Mulder and Scully in a “torture porn” plot was the solution? Worse yet, the two barely share any screen time together. Most of the film is spent with Mulder running around in the dark while Scully is at the hospital cutting through administrative red tape for her terminally ill patient. These characters are important and should be treated as such. Bringing them for a run-of-the-mill creepy killer story is like a creative slap in the face of not only the two stars, but the few fans left that still care deeply about the show. If there was ever a time for Carter to deliver a massive, all encompassing conspiracy story it was now. What should be a big event doesn’t even FEEL like one. The least he could do was attempt to fake it.
Carter and co-producer Frank Spotnitz’s script was obviously trying (with all the subtly of a hammer to the head) to depict the contrast between Mulder’s belief in the paranormal and Scully’s dependence on science, a running theme throughout the series’ history. Except the story doesn’t contain the type of depth that would make that approach resonate. Carter throws the die-hard fans a bone every once in a while such as in an unintentionally hilarious scene when Peet’s F.B.I. agent name checks former cases of Mulder’s from classic episodes There are also references to his abducted sister and romantic relationship with Scully, but all of these are just thrown in for posterity and don’t amount to anything. It should have provided the groundwork for the entire film.

Anyone who would go see this were probably knowledgeable fans anyway so part of me thinks Carter would have been better off going off the deep end with mythology than taking this route. The last X-Files film, 1998’s Fight The Future, did that and the results, while not great, were at least considerably better than this. Maybe because the show was at the height of its run Carter had an incentive for it to perform well. He is stuck in somewhat of a bind here but has no one to blame but himself because he wrote the franchise into a trap where it can’t appeal to either the die-hard or casual viewer without alienating the other. It should be a lesson to all the showrunners out there thinking of giving their television series the big screen treatment. This is a blueprint of how not to do it.

With the stakes raised in a feature film presentation, Carter doesn’t technically broaden the scope either. It’s shot no differently than your typical episode of the show. It’s dark, dreary and depressing, not to mention impossible to see what’s going on. The new additions, Peet and Xzibit are wasted and look bored to tears, with neither the least bit believable as an F.B.I. agent while Connolly fares a little better in his hammy, one-dimensional role. You’d figure to fully capitalize on whatever nostalgia is left over from the show we’d be treated to some interesting cameos but we only get one. It’s from Mitch Pileggi as Mulder and Scully’s former superior, Walter Skinner. His all too brief appearance is a scarce highlight of the film and it’s so successful you wonder why Carter didn’t add more familiar faces from the series. Who cares if most of them are dead? He should have gone all out. The topper on this mess is his refusal to even give us a satisfying conclusion for a storyline this slight. The guy clearly has major commitment issues.
You have to feel for Duchovny and Anderson. They’re so great in these roles and the characters are loaded with interest and potential the way they play them, but they’re given absolutely nothing to do. The romantic chemistry between the two is something Carter always struggled with throughout the series’ run but here he finds a new way to screw it up: just flat-out ignoring it. These two have been to hell and back together but you’d never know it given the wimpy context in which their characters are presented here.

In Carter’s defense the timing for this was horrible and the studio grossly miscalculated how many people would be interested in this in an already crowded blockbuster summer movie season. Plus, going up against The Dark Knight wasn’t exactly the wisest counter-programming strategy. Deserved or not, the studio did everything they could to bury this. The movie screamed out for a fall or winter release date where the field would have been much clearer.

Steven Spielberg found out how difficult it was to resurrect a franchise successfully this past year with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and made some similar mistakes to this. But even as silly as that film’s story was it was at least appropriate in scope for the character. It was completely misguided and awful but at least it wasn’t lazy. This is lazy. Maybe my bashing probably speaks more to expectations and disappointment than the actual film but so what? Carter deserves it. Given a major motion picture canvas to paint on he chose to just give us another episode of the show. That’s inexcusable. And being just slightly more than a casual viewer of the show I can’t even imagine what the die-hard fans think. Maybe just seeing Mulder and Scully again is enough for them. That's clearly all Chris Carter was betting on.

1 comment:

JD said...

I never really cared for the show once Duchovny left.
I did not hate this film, but it is lacking, but the the personal issues of faith that Carter explores were very interesting and kept my interest. It is a very small film and maybe he used have made it as a non- X-Files film because he does not show much interest in the series with this film. This film alway felt like an afterthought, but I was not expecting much-- how could I? They really let the series burn out so badly six years ago.

Excellent review, while I liked it a little more than you did, I am not exactly eager to watch it again or Indy 4 for that matter either.