Defending the Much-Maligned X-Files I Want to Believe

With the recent announcement that there will be a new X-Files miniseries, the internet exploded this week with people aching to see Mulder and Scully in action again. It has been some time since we last saw them, but frankly, I feel as if we’ve already had our “X-Files Reunion Movie” in the form of 2008’s I Want to Believe. At the time, the film very capably served that function for me, reminding me of why I enjoyed the files while they were on TV, how moody and interesting it could be, and most importantly how much the relationship between the two main characters had grown and changed.

The only parallel here is with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in terms of catching up with a popular genre show years later, and accurately portraying how much the central relationships have grown and changed, in a realistic and adult way. The actual plot of the film (pretty hokey stuff about psychic detectives and crazy Russian scientists) is of middling quality by X-Files standards, but two important things make this movie work: the gorgeous mid-winter setting and the relationship between Mulder and Scully.

The film had a troubled production history, originally slated for 2001 but spending years in limbo following a protracted series of lawsuits between creator Chris Carter and 20th Century Fox. That the film was stalled for so long only made public anticipation grow beyond what the film was ever intended to attract. Had it been released quietly in 2002 it would have brought the series to a conclusion with a melancholy but heartfelt send-off, wrapping things up emotionally between Mulder and Scully and leaving them in a good, though slightly sad place. But the backlash against the film in 2008 was palpable, as fans the world over screamed “Where are the aliens?” and “That’s IT??” That reaction is part of the reason why it’s important to revisit and reconsider what this film is, rather than complaining about what it isn’t.

Perhaps the context in which I saw the movie is an important consideration here. At the time, I reviewed it for a radio show I was hosting about film, and saw it on video. The winter of 2008 was very cold in the interior of British Columbia, where the film was shot, and where I was living. Carter and his collaborators use that to their advantage, giving us plenty of shots outdoors in wide-open snow-covered fields or in small, warm rooms. The strange stillness and silence of a winter’s night, and the odd tricks that light and steam play, are all used to create a feeling of dread, combined with the poetic and elegiac. The X-Files was always a show with strong, expressionistic visuals, but mostly in the rain, at night. Here the visual language is built around snow-covered fields, mostly during the day. Even the interiors are given a blue-white-black tinge in the fill light and set design, which among other things, sets off Gillian Anderson’s red hair nicely.

Mulder walks through the snow

Speaking of Anderson and her co-star, David Duchovny, they both step back rather effortlessly into the roles that made them famous. Time has clearly passed for both of them: they have aged well, but noticeably, which suits them fine. As the film begins, Mulder has been living as a quasi-hermit, expelled from the FBI and sporting a full-on crazy-guy beard as he works through dark mysteries alone in a small cabin. Scully, ever the proper Catholic girl, is now working full-time as a Physician in a reputable Catholic hospital. Though they have taken very different paths in life, their relationship is closer than ever. The exact nature of the relationship between these two (viewers played “will they or won’t they” for nine seasons) is obvious here but never spoken of directly. They’re lovers, and they’re life partners, in a very real sense. They sleep together, hold each other and though they do have some of the old push-pull dynamic (Scully the rationalist, Mulder the emotional one), it’s tempered with a middle-aged “lived in” feel that’s quite wonderful to watch. Even when she’s chastising Mulder for being unrealistic and impulsive, Scully does it with love, and Anderson plays it like that. She even gets a line of dialogue to nail it on the head, “That impulsiveness is also what made me fall in love with you.”

I may be stepping out on thin ice, but always seemed to me that Mulder needed Scully a lot more than the other way around. Even though Scully was placed in vulnerable situations during the run of the show, and there were times when Mulder had to come to her aid and save the day (the first X-Files movie in 1998 turned on that tension), but as the years have gone by, it’s clear that Scully was the one with more emotional strength, who was able to cope with the vagaries of life, make the necessary compromises and move on into the future. Mulder, as we see here, is still lurking around a crazy-guy basement, collecting all sorts of evidence that he believes will prove his pet theory and save his sister from aliens. He’s made far less progress. But she loves him anyway. That’s tremendously effective drama from a show that some people wrote off as a police procedural with sci fi elements, and a film that even the fans trash.

Scully takes care of Mulder

I haven’t given away much of the plot here because it’s frankly the least interesting thing about this film. An FBI agent has disappeared, and they’re using a psychic Priest (played by Billy Connolly) to hunt for her. The Priest, “Father Joe” also has a history of pedophilia and this draws  out Scully’s worst qualities a character: her propensity to make snide moral judgements. It’s important for characters to have flaws, and that of course adds complexity, but there are times in this film where Scully lets her moral judgement of Father Joe blind her to some important facts and revelations. She eventually does get to trust him, at least in a small way, but it isn’t easy to watch Scully being so small-minded and clearly wrong. Mulder, whose sense of morality is much more flexible, simply doesn’t believe in psychics, until Father Joe starts being right, in which case he springs into action.

Mulder isn’t much of a skeptic: he’ll believe just about anything that confirms his pre-existing beliefs. (That makes him a “motivated skeptic” in official terms. This is a trait common to conspiracy theorists.) Scully is a true skeptic, except in the case of her religion. When she sees Father Joe, she doesn’t see a person but a symbol of everything that’s wrong with her religion, something she doesn’t like to question, and her discomfort with her own struggles with the church manifest as puerile judgementalism. She lashes out at Father Joe because his very existence strikes a deep nerve. (At least that’s Dr. Ian’s 5 cent diagnosis.)

It’s possible that Scully’s problematic attitude is what struck many of the fans in 2008 as off-putting. I saw it then, and now, as a dramatic way to explore the contradictions inherent in the character. As for Mulder, he’s fairly consistently impulsive, just as in the series, and retains his sense of humour, by turns dark and absurd. There’s a scene, for example, where we see Mulder shaving off his crazy-guy beard but Scully gets an important phone call in the middle of it. So, we’re treated to the sight of Mulder with shaving cream dripping from his face and wild hair, being utterly serious about a dark dramatic plot revelation. That’s a very X-Files moment.

The villains, such as they are, are a group of Russians performing insane medical procedures, the most visible of which is played by Callum Keith Rennie, in full-on sweaty, stubbly bad-guy mode. The great Canadian character actor can be brilliant (check out his turn in Hard Core Logo or, of course, in Battlestar Galactica) but this role gives him little to do but snarl and overact. We never really get invested, as viewers in the rescue of an FBI agent we don’t know, and worst of all, the key character of Skinner (played here again by Mitch Pileggi) is reduced to essentially a cameo.

So, it’s not a perfect film. (Very few films are.) But its presence fills all the space I needed filled, with regards to seeing Mulder and Scully one last time, and provided a sense of closure. I had no problem leaving this film thinking of Mulder still out there somewhere, and Scully being “Dr. Dana” and caring about her patients at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows. I, personally, was done with the X-Files at last in 2008. Now, it seems, we’ll have more. This is a good thing, and will surely give the fans what they want. But I think I already have what I need from the gentle, warm, wise way in which Anderson and Duchovny, along with Chris Carter, added wonderful finishing touches to their characters here in I Want to Believe.

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe


A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


1 Comment

  1. “But the backlash against the film in 2008 was palpable, as fans the world over screamed “Where are the aliens?” and “That’s IT??” ”

    Hmmm, kind of a fan straw-man there isn’t it? I had huge problems with the movie, and it had nothing to do with either aliens not being involved or the small scope of the story.

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