The X-Files revisited at 30: I Want to Believe (2008)

The X Files I Want To Believe
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The second X-Files movie proved to be much lower profile than the first – but is there gold in I Want To Believe? We’ve been taking a look.

For five years, we wanted to believe.

X-Files fans the world over, after the conclusion of the series following nine series and a (not so) epic finale called ‘The Truth’, hoped and prayed to all manner of alien gods that we would see intrepid FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully again. The final line of the series was “maybe there’s hope”, but hope was beginning to fade at the point the announcement came: a second X-Files movie was in production.

It had been the plan from very early on. After the relative success of Fight the Future, the first cinematic adaptation that uniquely bridged the fifth and sixth seasons of the show (and two different eras, that of filming in Vancouver and Los Angeles), Chris Carter fully intended to reach the standard seven year run of genre shows during the 1990s network era and take Mulder and Scully into the 21st century as big screen icons.

He discusses with Collider the genesis of the film:

Fox came to us a year after the TV series ended, and said if you want to make another movie, let’s go, and we went. We worked out a story, and they liked it. Negotiations began, then it all broke down over what I will call TV contractual problems. Which took unexpectedly years to resolve. It’s the nature of the business. When it was finally resolved, they called us back and said ‘If you still want to do that movie, we still want to, but you have to do it now. It’s now or never. There is a writer’s strike looming and if you don’t do it now, it might be two years before you get another opportunity. And we think that’s too long. You will have asked the audience to wait too long.’ We agreed. So that is why we did [the movie] five years out, and it’s now six years since the show was on the air.

By the end of the seventh season, everything behind the scenes was tense. Carter and star David Duchovny were embroiled in the legal battle he mentions above with Fox that threatened their relationship, and Fox wanted to keep the series on the air. Gillian Anderson remained as the lead for the subsequent eighth and ninth seasons but Duchovny ostensibly moved on, appearing in a much reduced capacity in Season 8 as Mulder was, perhaps at last given his interests, abducted by aliens himself, and subsequently for reasons much too arcane (and frankly too dull) to explain, went on the run in the ninth.

The X Files I Want To Believe

Duchovny’s big return was for ‘The Truth’, where Mulder goes on trial in a kangaroo military court allowing Carter to put the complex mythology of the series itself on the stand, re-litigating the twists and turns of a sprawling global conspiracy with as many dead ends as revelations. There was, inevitably, no great Truth with a capital T as the show ended, despite the finale title. Mulder and Scully ended the series where they began – in a rainy motel room wondering about the past and future.

Only now they were lovers, parents of a child given up for adoption, and banished from the FBI by sinister, murderous forces within the government itself. The original final scene of ‘The Truth’, just to cap it all off, was meant to be an alien replicant being reported to by President George W. Bush. The X-Files ungainly made a move into theoretical movie adventures with the agents no longer in the Bureau, the X-Files themselves shut down and missing, and their lives in danger. Placing them into a scenario where they are recognisable to more casual audiences was set to be an enormous challenge to Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz.

Come 2008, as The X-Files: I Want to Believe arrives, this is where we find our dynamic duo. Mulder is holed up in a new basement, a study inside his reclusive home, while Scully has returned to her original training as a doctor, working in a Catholic hospital. In some ways, it could be seen as a natural evolution for these characters – Mulder becomes a bearded eccentric surrounded by scrapbooks of conspiracies, Scully goes back to medicine and a relatively normal life. On the other hand, without the FBI, something feels missing. “I worry about you” Scully tells him. “And the effects of long term isolation.” Mulder, in that classic middle aged man way, doesn’t see a problem. “I’m happy as a clam.”

This is bravado. The picture on his door, of his younger sister Samantha who disappeared when they were children, reminds him that he always needs a quest. He still wants to believe in an age where interest in conspiracy, the paranormal, is waning. Mulder’s place in relation to The X-Files mirrors the show’s place in relation to popular culture. Slightly past it’s prime, still looking for relevancy, still hopeful that it has something to say. So when the FBI come calling, after a convicted pedophile with presumed psychic powers makes a grim discovery that could help in the search for a missing FBI agent, Mulder and Scully do what they must: head back to Washington as consultants in the latest in a long line of spooky cases.

I Want to Believe, though burdened with the weight of reintroducing two characters no longer in the iconic function audiences knew them, dials into the core nature of the two leads – science vs faith, belief vs scepticism, except in this case Mulder and Scully are challenged not by vast, labyrinthian alien conspiracies but a far smaller, intimate, much chillier case in stark surroundings. The difference from Fight the Future, set heavily in Texas, amidst arid plains, hot skies, corn crops etc… I Want to Believe takes the agents to wintery West Virginia, a land of ice and snow, dark roads and moonlit surroundings. Vancouver was used, again, as a filming location, to recreate the aesthetic of the first five seasons. Early efforts to throw the press off the scent of the plot, while shooting, even saw a prop werewolf’s head makes the papers, tricking tabloids into thinking lycanthropy formed the heart of the second big screen outing.

Many fans took issue with the nature and scale of the plot. Many felt it was not cinematic enough, more akin to a ‘monster of the week’ outing stretched to feature length. I Want to Believe leans closer to Carter’s adjacent series Millennium in tone; a show devoted, initially at least, to profiling the darkest serial killers roaming the United States. Here, Carter and Spotnitz are less focused on arcane mysteries and sinister government forces than they are reflections of the black human soul, particularly in Father Joe (played, in bizarre yet effective casting, by Scottish comedian Billy Connolly), a priest who committed the worst form of child abuse but now demonstrates an idea that recurs in Carter’s fiction – a preternatural ability to see the killer’s crimes, which he claims are being sent to him by God. For Scully, a devout Christian, this is beyond the pale.

Carter talked, incidentally, about the unorthodox casting of Father Joe:

I had Billy Connolly in mind when I wrote it. We didn’t know if we would get Billy Connolly. I almost didn’t get to meet him because of a problem with transportation. But, planes, trains, and automobiles, I actually got to sit in front of him, telling him what a big fan I was of his, and I thought he could do anything. He was honored, I think, and flattered. He took the script, which I wasn’t giving out to people, and I gave it to him without all the forms we usually make people sign. He took it with him to New York, read it on the plane, and wrote me the nicest note which I will have framed on my wall: ‘When do we start?’ It was that simple.

What has aged less well, ostensibly, is the nature of the villainy at the heart of I Want to Believe. Callum Keith Rennie plays Janke Dacyshyn, the husband of a man, both Russian emigres, who was one of the dozens of altar boys Joe abused as a child. Dacyshyn’s plan, as an organ transplanter cum modern day Dr. Frankenstein, is to keep the dying Tomczeszyn, his lover, alive by harvesting body parts from victims. He even goes as far as replacing the man’s head onto the body of a murdered female FBI agent, replete with painted nails. Carter’s handling of a homosexual relationship and, albeit in a strange manner, a transsexual change was considered by some clumsy, even before LGBTQ issues arrived in the mainstream of the public square.

It was deemed a strange choice but perhaps, much like the rest of the film, deserves reevaluation. I Want to Believe drips with atmosphere, even when it remains in a strange limbo between the original run of the series and the more conventional revival seasons to come a decade later. It digs into issues of faith, religion, belief and the presence of miracles without the need for grand theatrics. Roger Ebert, reviewing at the time, remarked how it “works like thrillers used to work, before they were required to contain villains the size of buildings.” The fact I Want to Believe competed against The Dark Knight the same weekend, ultimately disappearing without a trace and no doubt hampering hopes for a third motion picture, is proof positive. I love The Dark Knight, but I Want to Believe – past it’s place in popular culture and telling a smaller, contained story – stood little chance against it.

The X Files I Want To Believe

The truth is, I didn’t get I Want to Believe at first. I remember emerging from a Birmingham cinema in 2008, having watched the film with one friend up on the series’ lore and another who wasn’t, feeling disappointed. It lacked the excitement of the series. With almost every interesting member of the broader supporting ensemble dead or irrelevant to the story, it missed something – the film barely features Mitch Pileggi’s boss Skinner (even less so than Fight The Future) and completely eradicates John Doggett and Monica Reyes, Mulder and Scully’s ‘replacements’ in the ninth season, not deigning to even mention them. At the time, perhaps in the shadow of changing cinema trends and a higher value on existing franchise, it all felt too low key.

Yet I misunderstood what Carter was doing with I Want to Believe. Freed of the mythology that often worked like a cross to bear, he and Spotnitz had the liberty to heave Mulder and Scully back to a simpler time, one before their romantic attachment (briefly focused on here but only background) and the complexity of their work, back to a story devoted to the central debate within their archetypal natures. Scully has to believe in what Father Joe, as repellent as he is, can do in order to save lives. She has to reckon with why God would give a man with such darkness in his heart the visions he does. It is more her story than Mulder’s, despite the poster he bears in his apartment with the title under a UFO sighting.

Spotnitz discusses his own belief in what the film concerns:

I’m very interested in faith, and the question of faith. But when it came time to resolving this movie, and coming up with an ending, we were at an impasse. We actually went to script not knowing how to resolve our personal differences. The ending that we came up with, which I think is really the only ending, even if you are a believer, is that you must find god through faith. It’s not going to be proven to you. That’s what I believe as a non-believing spiritual person. If there is a god, it is going to require your faith to find him. That’s what was so beautiful about the movie to me, and beautiful about the character Father Joe, this kind of monstrous person, who it is up to your own thoughts to decide if he found redemption, and about Scully’s journey.

It was, for some time, considered the swan song for Mulder and Scully. A post-credits shot sees them breaking the fourth wall, waving to camera as they row across the ocean toward, what could have been, some kind of happy ending. It was not meant to be. The X-Files would make a grand return to television in 2016, almost a decade after the cinematic sojourn of I Want to Believe. However, in the middle of that decade existed a rather important date in the world of The X-Files, and a road not taken in how Mulder and Scully might have met it…


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