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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (review)

I Believe

[spoiler free!]

Yes, this is “just” a big episode of the show, but it wouldn’t be The X-Files it weren’t. The X-Files was always about being small and quiet and thoughtful and intellectual: c’mon, our protagonists were an academic and a medical doctor; their badges and sidearms were incidental. They were never action heroes. That’s why we loved them — they were real and nerdy and passionate and engaged in their work. And we loved the show because it was scary, but in a small, quiet, thoughtful way that wormed its way into your brain and set down roots there.
Maybe there’s an argument to be made that The X-Files doesn’t belong on a big screen if it can’t be bigger and louder and explosionier than it was on the small screen. But I don’t want to see that X-Files movie. It wouldn’t be The X-Files.

So I like I Want to Believe. A lot. But I can see that lots of people won’t. It’s not a “summer” movie: nothing blows up, no one bites out a snarky insult before landing a left hook across the villain’s jaw, no treasure is found, no one flies off into the nebula at the end. This is science fiction drama with the emphasis on the drama… and in fact, those who cannot recognize science fiction if there are no spaceships and no aliens and no laser blasts won’t see it here at all. For there are no monsters in I Want to Believe except the all-too-human kind, and no demons except the all-too-familiar ones that plague us all. Like doubt. If there’s a villain here, it’s doubt. Which you might have guessed from the title, in which the “I want” has to be stressed with a kind of desperation. Because doubt here seems stronger than faith, seems more likely to win out: doubt in ourselves, doubt in others, doubt in God, if you feel the need to believe in a god.

Scully still does, here. Mulder still doesn’t. But they believe in each other, still, even now. They’ve both left the FBI. She’s working as a doctor in a Catholic hospital, where her faith is tried on a regular basis, not just by patients with terrible diseases but by an administration that doesn’t always see God’s will in the same way that she does. He’s something of a recluse, spending his days clipping newspaper articles about mysterious phenomena, and not doing much else, it seems. But when an FBI agent goes missing, and the Bureau brings in a psychic to help them find her… well, Mulder’s expertise is required, much as the entire agency seems to shudder at the prospect of bringing him back even as merely a temporary consultant. And then he drags Scully back into the work, too…

Much of the joy of this flick come in the sense of visiting with old friends we haven’t seen in a while. Mulder’s sense of humor has gotten darker, Scully has gotten more judgmental: they’ve hardened into being more themselves than ever; they’ve changed, but in ways you expect people to change as they get older; they’ve moved on in plausible ways. And their relationship has changed, too, moved into a new status quo, and yet still feels fluid and dynamic; it’s still changing. In fact, it’s threatened by this case they’re suddenly working on together, not by external forces but by their own individual demons that they haven’t quite reconciled with each other’s and with the relationship. Stars David Duchovny (House of D, Connie and Carla) and Gillian Anderson (The Last King of Scotland, The House of Mirth) still have some of the most potent chemistry two actors have ever had together onscreen, and it manifests itself in ways that continue to be uniquely X-Files, in a push and pull of faith and doubt in each other that lends this quiet monster flick surprisingly depth.

Ah, yes: monsters. While devotees of the show are catching up with Mulder and Scully, happening around them is a horror movie for grownups that nonwatchers of the show can enjoy on its own merits. Billy Connolly’s (Open Season, Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties) psychic, the one who gets himself involved in the mystery of the missing FBI agent, slowly unfolds as a disturbingly creepy presence. And what has happened to the missing agent, and then to another woman who goes missing, is both deeply rooted in the kinds of B-movie nightmares we’ve come to expect from The X-Files and also uniquely anticlimactic in the way that the TV show often was, as if to suggest that what Mulder and Scully and we have seen here is just the tip of the iceberg, and not a situation that can ever be resolved in a mere 45 minutes of story, or here, in an hour and 45 minutes.

That was always the most sinister thing about The X-Files: it rarely indulged us with a completely satisfying resolution. That’s why it stuck in your head: it never felt like it was over. That’s why this will linger with you long after the movie is over. Because it doesn’t feel like it’s over.

[stick around through the end credits for a little bonus]

MPAA: rated PG-13 for violent and disturbing content and thematic material

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
  • Ryan

    I really don’t think this script/story was interesting enough that you can qualify people’s disappointment in this movie as stemming from the fact it isn’t a summer-action-blockbuster. I loved the X-Files TV show (although the resolution was meh) and for me, if they are going to make a movie, there needs to be some purpose: Make me see the franchise, or characters, or story in a new way…or have some new adventure that had to be told.

    This just felt like it was going through the (e)motions…and as you imply…most of the value is derived from watching Duchovny and Anderson fall back into their roles with ease. In other words, nostalgia is too much of a selling point.

    I love sci-fi, I love the X-Files…but I would advise people to wait for this one on Netflix.

  • MaryAnn

    But how can it be nostalgia is their relationship has changed? This isn’t the same old thing… it’s progressed.

  • I didn’t like this one at all. Sorry.

  • Ryan

    [I]Much of the joy of this flick come in the sense of visiting with old friends we haven’t seen in a while. Mulder’s sense of humor has gotten darker, Scully has gotten more judgmental: they’ve hardened into being more themselves than ever; they’ve changed, but in ways you expect people to change as they get older; they’ve moved on in plausible ways. And their relationship has changed, too, moved into a new status quo, and yet still feels fluid and dynamic;[/I]

    You said it yourself, they may have changed…but the joy comes from visiting old friends and seeing how they have moved on. To me that qualifies as exploiting nostalgia. Nostalgia to me is the desire to see familiar characters…even if they are in different circumstances or surroundings. In the end, it is still Scully and Mulder again.

  • Ryan

    epic failure on my part to use HTML correctly. Apologies!

  • Thank you so much for this review. There’s a sea of the scathing out there [haven’t seen the movie and will have to wait a week or so to get there] and the substance of them all seems to be “why isn’t THE X-FILES more like IRON MAN? THE DARK KNIGHT? WANTED?”

    Most of the reviewers are running down the picture for the very qualities that hooked me on the series from the start. I love genre stuff, but as an adult, it’s got to be richer than the genre or it’s not worth my time. “Genre” has come to mean “formula” and not “distinctive mileu/universe”, and most horror or sci-fi doesn’t interest me a whole lot because most of it refuses to enrich the genre framework…

    I was hooked on X-FILES {and also MILLENNIUM which followed} and remember thinking after the first three episodes “this is too good and entirely too intelligent and wise to last”. Because what compelled me was the HUMAN aspect — the scripting as well as directorial and acting choices were about human experience within the plot devices. There was a bravery in deliberate ambiguities, and even more bravery in the creative team’s choice to let the deeper human questions take precedence.

    [Witness the whole arc with Agent Scully’s cancer — the process through which she and Mulder went through until the science-fictional MacGuffin that cured her was human drama, IDENTIFIABLE to anyone who’s ever walked a terminal-diagnosis road with a loved one, and had precious little ultimately to do with whether or not little green men might be involved. The dramatic tension there was human loss, the struggle to hope, the struggle to let go, etc.]

    The reason I loved the X-FILES was that the human drama was so solid — there were never easy answers given in the last reel, and that was appropriate — because whether or not we like it, life almost never provides us with them. Horror or sci-fi can only transcend their genre constraints when the human drama is still provocative, identifiable, and based in the truths of our common human experience.

    With THE X-FILES, the logline may have been “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE” — but in a real sense, what worked about it was that “the truth is IN HERE” — in us, and the quest to find it within ourselves rarely gets us the easy answer, the predictible paint-by-Syd-Field-numbers resolution.

    Am glad to see a review that understands this.

    As always, I love your reviews. It’s so refreshing to see criticism that refuses to stay on the surface.

  • FYI, you listed the movie twice in the 2008 rankings.

  • JoshDM

    For there are no monsters in I Want to Believe except the all-too-human kind, and no demons except the all-too-familiar ones that plague us all. Like doubt. If there’s a villain here, it’s doubt.

    Aww, you said “no spoilers”, MAJ. Boooooooo!

  • troygirl

    Mr. Eubanks, your statement was utterly brilliant. The human element in the series did elevate it above others, along with its high production values. Most of all, even the non-romantic types could find Mulder and Scully fascinating even when the idea fairy disappeared near the beginning of season 7. Gillian Anderson was and is a briliant actor, so I am willing to see the film for her performance, if nothing else. Why? San Francisco’s best theatre company, ACT, put on a production of _The House of Mirth_. It induced snores. This tragic novel is one of Wharton’s best.
    Several moths later, the film version starring Gillian Anderson went into limited release. I have never before or since seen so many people crying uncontrollably during and after a film. GA made the movie-she was faithful to the character even when the script failed to do full justice to a masterpiece, Somehow I think XF2 will be the same.

  • Ryan

    You might want to see the movie before you get all happy about it’s similarities to the show E.D. Eubanks. Amanda Peet may not be bringing quite the human drama you expect =P

  • And yes, Ryan, you’re right — I haven’t seen it.

    It’s just struck me [in the process of being enough of a fan to read the reviews] that most critics/fanboys have seemed more interested in the razzle-dazzle [and might well have disliked the very qualities I praise when the show was in its initial run].

    Really, my purpose for commenting at all on a movie I haven’t seen was to thank MaryAnn for looking into those values she thinks made the series compelling, and that she saw those values largely represented in this film.

    When I see it, I may have a vastly different opinion about the final product itself — but trusting our dear FlickFilosopher’s opinion in pretty much every review of hers I’ve read, I feel better about the movie’s prospects for succeeding for me than the pile of negativity I’ve read might suggest…

    No offense, I hope. It IS just a movie, after all. And all a matter of taste.

  • And, yes, troygirl, HOUSE OF MIRTH was wonderful. I own a copy and it’s wrenching.

    Ms. Anderson is very much worth watching, whatever it is she chooses to do. I’m a theatre actor/director/teacher and am pretty picky about performance. I’ve always been mesmerized by the emotional truth she brings to whatever she’s undertaking. Wish, actually, I could see her in DOLL’S HOUSE at the DonMar Warehouse next season.

  • First of all, rarely do movies get me teary eyed. I do not cry at movies, I watched Titanic on Titanic on TV at home. That induced some teary eyed shenigans on the part of my eyes but I’m not that sensitive. Don’t get all mopey about the X-Files not having a resolution, that was a beautiful aspect of the whole TV show to begin with. I want to see this movie, don’t ruin it by giving it bad reviews from the start.

  • Oh yeah, this blog has a weird way of wrapping text around so that you can’t see typos. Is there a way to fix this?

  • As a Senseless ‘Shipper Phile, I enjoyed this movie simply because I enjoy the characters. Mulder/Scully have been the best characters in scifi/thriller genres in the past 20 years.

    The critics may hate the movie because of the main plotline (we’ve seen this story before, both in real life and in classic gothic horror), but it’s the secondary and tertiary stories (Mulder and Scully’s relationship, and Scully’s struggle to save a dying child) that make this film work.

  • Hdj

    Pretty much everything you said Mj almost assures me I’m going to like this movie. You didn’t say things like ” Felt like the last 2 seasons” or ” They didn’t seem like they remembered they’re tv show personality’s”. If any of those applyed to this movie , I would of known, it was going to suck. But you sounds like you liked it for all the right reasons, and I can’t wait to see it.

  • Mina Rhodes

    Was absolutely terrified this film would be awful, considering the way critics have savaged it. But Ebert’s near-four-star review and MaryAnne’s gave me lots of hope.

    And the film was superb. Can’t wait to see it again!

    Now people are accusing it of being homophobic (which it isn’t at all). *sigh*

  • PaulW

    I agree that this film wasn’t homophobic at all. It’s more… um… what the phobia for two-headed dogs…?

  • MaryAnn

    Homophobic? What? There’s one throwaway reference to a couple of male characters having been married in Massachusetts. I thought that was a wonderfully casual acknowledgement of the fact that, you know, the world is becoming a little more enlightened.

    Bob wrote:

    FYI, you listed the movie twice in the 2008 rankings.

    Noted. I’ll fix it.

    JoshDM wrote:

    Aww, you said “no spoilers”, MAJ. Boooooooo!

    Saying that there’s no monsters except the human kind isn’t a spoiler, honestly. The movie never gives any hint that there will be. It’s not a matter of suspense at all.

    Supernetuser wrote:

    Oh yeah, this blog has a weird way of wrapping text around so that you can’t see typos. Is there a way to fix this?

    I have no idea what you’re talking about. What text is weirdly wrapped, and if you can’t see it, how do you know there are typos?

  • Jim Stark

    I’m glad people watched the film and weren’t offended by it, but what this thread seems to be is fairly liberal-minded people debating upon whether they saw it as offensive. What about all the people who would never post on this board? What message are they left with?

    I found it offensive because there was no balance to the gay issue, which was clearly brought up as one of the many issues in the film. For stem cells, we got both sides–the healing and the horrific. Even pedophilia had tones of forgiveness as well as those characters that would never forgive. It’s not a good group for homosexuals to be lumped in, and the best of the “other side of the issue” we got was a mass murderer/Frankenstein doctor looking lovingly for an instant at his abused lover who’s head was on a female body.

    I’m sorry, but that’s revolting, and fits well within the Celluloid Closet. I wanted to like the film, and was waiting for something to make me forgive this issue or provide balance, but it never came. I’d like others familiar with the film or book Celluloid Closet to please tell me how they reconcile this film into the progressive, or even non-offensive category.

  • Jim Stark


    Sorry about that. Now that’s offensive. If a moderator wants to delete that, that’s totally fine.

  • MaryAnn

    Wait: you’re suggesting that because it is mentioned *in passing* that a character who does bad things is gay, this is a sweeping condemnation of homosexuality that all right-thinking people should be offended by?

    Why? There is no caricature of homosexuality on offer here. There are no homosexual overtones to the villain’s crime. There is only a way to connect one bad guy the FBI is looking for to another, in a way that would not immediately leap to mind for most people, and so becomes a small matter of surprise/suspense.

    You might has well suggest that this movie makes all people with a certain rare blood type look weak, because see how easily they get kidnapped!

    I actually found it quite refreshing how casually the matter was introduced and dispensed with, as if it were something of no great concern or cause for worry.

  • Jim Stark

    There is a caricature, because this film occurs within a cultural and historical context that continues a trend. There are overtones, because it occurs in a film where sexual abhorrence is a main part of the plot, and repugnance of the crime can be tied to sexuality. This is further shown through the shock-value of the gender mixing. How is that supposed to make the audience feel, and how might they inter-relate the issues in this film? It’s a film that is another in an historical trend. I’d suggest reading or viewing The Celluloid Closet. There’s also an extensive discussion here, where I’d like to hear your opinion at more length because there are many more opinions being expressed:


  • Russ

    I saw IWTB opening day, but IWTB’s North American and overseas commercial failure so far is rather disappointing (in terms of now ending any chance of a 3rd movie), but also not really surprising either. I blame Fox (the film company, not Mulder) for being such cheap asses with the budget and for the delay in getting the film made and for their choice of the film’s terrible release timing (a week after TDK film) and very poor advance marketing and also Chris Carter for the film’s weak script, that he had 6 years to work on. I wish he and Frank had also collaborated on this project with former XF writing colleagues James Wong and Glen and Darrin Morgan.

  • M

    Finally! Another original fan who also liked the movie. I was starting to feel pretty alone out there. I’m not the same person I was six years ago so as you’ve said, I quite enjoyed seeing who Mulder and Scully are now. Since the last few seasons of the TV series left most everyone very unhappy, I’m glad the creative team was able to bring it around and give at least this fan emotional closure on the whole thing.

  • MaryAnn

    There’s also an extensive discussion here, where I’d like to hear your opinion at more length because there are many more opinions being expressed:

    I wouldn’t dare deny that some people are feeling offended — because obviously they are — but I just don’t see it. And I think I’m pretty attuned to these things.

  • MBI

    I was an original fan, and to me, this movie very much felt like the end, because it was atrocious from beginning to end. I was surprised to find that it was the work of original X-Files writers, because it felt like an entirely separate screenplay that had Mulder and Scully awkwardly wedged into it.

    Is this what happened to the hottest couple in TV history? What happened to the sexual tension? I saw them in bed together and it didn’t even dawn on me that they lived together until scenes later! Is this quarter-assed Silence of the Lambs retread the best Chris Carter could come up with?? I feel betrayed.

  • ignorant peasant

    I just started watching X-files two years ago, so i can’t be considered an original fan. But i don’t see why people dislike this movie so much – it’s exactly what it was advertised as. I very much enjoyed it, and i’m so glad i’m not the only one! I was beginning to feel lonely.

  • Jim Stark

    “I wouldn’t dare deny that some people are feeling offended — because obviously they are — but I just don’t see it. And I think I’m pretty attuned to these things.”

    My boyfriend wasn’t offended, either. I think the difference is I was trying to watch the film after this, in order not to be offended, and nothing happened to provide balance. GLAAD put forward a press release this week due to the film. I think the difference is, I want to like the film, and people who are not offended just don’t seem to be able to look at the other side, even if they acknowledge others that watched the film feel badly. I so desperately want to like it…I want to believe, but no one that is not offended has been able to explain to me satisfactorily how I can accept this film. They can only explain that they accept it. And those that accept it have not talked at all about the film in context of culture, history and film. I want desperately for someone to tell my how this film is OK, because I don’t like suddenly feeling disillusioned after all these many years.

  • MaryAnn

    nothing happened to provide balance.

    What needs to be balanced, and how would you do that?

    people who are not offended just don’t seem to be able to look at the other side

    What is the other side? What’s offensive here?

    no one that is not offended has been able to explain to me satisfactorily how I can accept this film.

    You haven’t explained why you cannot accept this. What, specifically, about this movie and these characters is homophobic?

    I understand that there is a larger cultural context in which gays are not treated fairly onscreen. I’ve written about that plenty of times on this very site. But I just don’t see it here. I honestly don’t. I don’t understand the “sexual abhorrence” you’ve mentioned in regard to this film. I only think I can possibly think to see that you might be offended by is, perhaps, an implied connection between a boy being molested as a child becoming a man who is gay… and I think you’d have to really, really stretch to see than as an implication. What am I missing?

  • M

    Jim, I’m not sure if this is what you are looking for, but I did try to explain why the homophobic flag didn’t fly for me in the second half of my latest post. I hesitate to copy the relevant points here due to the length.

    While watching the film, I did think the story lines of the gay characters were going to cause discussion so I did give the issue special attention during the viewing. But, and I can only speak for myself, I came out of it not thinking that the movie was completely negative in a one-sided manner.

  • Russ

    This mostly disappointing project would’ve fared a lot better as a direct to DVD effort to test the waters. The US film business is all about profit and if XF2 doesn’t make any, it’s probably finished as a film series. While the budget was a very low $US 30 mill, the cost of prints and marketing for North America and overseas would be equal to (or even a little higher) the film’s budget.

  • Jim, I too struggled a bit with the fact that a gay man’s head was being transplanted onto a woman’s body; I didn’t see homophobia in the relationship between the two men at all, even though they were villains, but I did see some ignorance in what could be a conflation of homosexuality with transgender, whereas sexual orientation and sexual identity are, in fact, separate matters.

    HOWEVER, all that said, the point was also made that the man had a very rare blood type (AB negative, the rarest kind), and that the women were targeted because they wore medical ID bracelets. I’d be curious to hear the justification provided by Chris Carter for using women as victims; of course, women-in-peril play better at the box office than men being stalked and killed, so it was probably just that simple. BUT, I do think that the narrative provides an inoffensive logic for why these specific victims, regardless of gender, were targeted: they advertised themselves as having a matching blood type.

    Anyway, thank you, Maryann, for this review. Far too many have been dismissive of the movie for not being a big action/adventure piece (some blame lies with the marketing, which has promoted the film as, well, a big action/adventure piece) — but I’ve seen it twice now, and it was even better the second time around. The first time I was so enraptured by Mulder and Scully being back on screen that the plot was totally secondary; upon second viewing, I paid much more attention to the plot (which, even in more favorable reviews, has often been dismissed as silly and flawed). I was shocked by how meticulously put together the plot actually was, and how it all flowed into the film’s key themes. For instance, Father Joe’s visions — dismissed by many reviewers as “vague” — are clearly not from the third-person perspective; rather, he is witnessing moments through the eyes of his own former victim. Are his visions then redemptive, or are they simply penitential punishment? Is he, in fact, a collaborator in the sense that his own criminal act against this man when he was a boy could have contributed to such an amoral sensibility?

    I look forward to the movie being released on DVD, when I can watch it many more times and probably not find any more certain answers to these questions — because, well, it is X-Files, after all…

  • MaryAnn

    a gay man’s head was being transplanted onto a woman’s body

    This never struck me at all. And in the movie’s defense, wasn’t that supposed to be a temporary stopgap until a more appropriate body could be found?

  • Yes, it was supposed to be a stopgap measure. I guess part of my point is that while initially I was kind of unhappy with what seemed to be the conflation of homosexuality and transgender, upon just a little bit of thought I realized that the movie actually provides its own rationale as to why these women are being chosen, and it has nothing to do with transgender.

  • Pharlain

    Just reiterating what others have said but thanks for this review. I felt like most of the reviewers didn’t really get it. And their points are very valid. For a lot of people it’s not worth ten bucks to see a two hour X-files episode, but for me it really was. The first X-files movie, which I loved, was always a bit blockbustery for me and not enough like the series. This was exactly what I wanted.

  • Elen

    I walked out of the movie very disappointed.

    1)I was struck by the oddity of the one man looking longingly at the body of a woman under water as a possible replacement for the body of of his lover.

    2)There was no real explanation as to why the man in question is strong enough to attack a woman for her body — literally — and then is in a hospital bed — if the “transplant” wasn’t taking very well -why was he out there hunting for another?

    3) Who’s paying for all this?

    4) As one who has to wear an ID bracelet, I’m aware of the fact that it may indicate AB- blood, but I have never known anyone to get an ID bracelet for his specific purpose. So, this would lead me to think, if I was hunting bodies, that I wouldn’t target those with ID bracelets who would have defective bodies. I would work at a blood bank.

    5) Why do they say “the agent is alive” – right after her head has been found? Um, obviously not. Amd, what im the heck is he doing walking around with it anyway?

    I could go on. Honestly, the movie just really irritated me on so many levels — and could have been done so much better.

  • helen

    AB- blood is the rarest blood type in many countries but I don’t see why the women would have worn medical bracelets displaying this fact?

    AB- people can receive blood transfusions from other blood types – O-, A- and B- so surely it wouldn’t be vital to wear an ID bracelet to warn medical people (which would surely be the most common reason for someone to wear one). I might be wrong but that annoyed me.

    The medical bracelets could have showed the girls had epilepsy or diabetes or other medical conditions anyway couldn’t they?

  • Peter

    This is one of the worst films I have ever had the misfortune of seeing. Not only does it isolate it’s intended audience and fan base it does nothing to engage new ones. The screenplay is so weak and full of holes it’s laughable. A doctor researching stem cell research on Google, are you kidding me, are we supposed to buy that? 58 minutes into the film and it still hasn’t established itself. Trashy dialouge between Mulder and Scully. What idiot picked this script up and okayed it. It never ceases to amaze me the garbage hollywood is churning out today, it gets worse and worse. The characters are so flimsy and cardboard cutout it’s cringe worthy.

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