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]