This 'X-Files' Puts the Normal in Paranormal
Friday, July 25, 2008
In an ever-narrowing nostalgia gap, where old television shows no longer have to wait a generation for hipper minds and fresh actors to come along and revivify them, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have returned to themselves as former FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. The tendency is to go with it, go right ahead, believe.
Viewed without skepticism, "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" is a taut, well-acted, thoughtfully organized, not very scary, not very hard to figure out serial-killer mystery revolving around two 40-something adults with trust issues. They still drive a Taurus, and their adventure takes place over a few gray, snowy days in NoVa and WeVa. (British Columbia, once again, reprises its "X-Files" role as a wet, overcast Anywhere.) Described thusly, the movie sounds like a low-budget yawner from an off night at Sundance.
Even as I want to believe that I enjoyed it for what it is, I have this eerie sixth sense that most anyone who ever dwelled in a 1990s Yahoo chat forum devoted to the show is going to walk away from this movie disappointed, in one way or another, because of what this "X-Files" does not possess:
It doesn't have the original show's elaborately embroidered conspiracies and alien theories. (You really can watch it cold, with zero X-filler required.) Other than a few old-fashioned camera moves, it has no special effects (to my eye, there's not a single trick of CGI, which I propose is a plus). It doesn't have ghosts, chupacabras or mysterious black helicopters, even though director/creator Chris Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz do alight upon a new, au courant kind of creepazoid: pedophile priests!
In deference to the rabid tendencies in spoiler-phobic fans, let's go light on plot description: It's six years since we left Mulder and Scully. There's been a lot of control-alt-delete going on with them. Mulder now avoids arrest on federal conspiracy charges by sitting in a rural Craftsman bungalow, surrounded by all the dim lamps, mission-style furniture and flying saucer posters he had back in the day. He's bearded, and he spends time clipping inane items out of newspapers, so you know he's a little more woo-woo than he used to be, because who in his right mind reads newspapers?
Scully is a pediatric surgeon now, at a nice Catholic hospital, which frowns on her eagerness to try a stem-cell cure on a particularly sick child. The point is, she's busy, her hairstyle is prettier than ever, and she's left behind all things X, a life she derisively calls "chasing monsters in the dark." A serious-looking FBI agent (Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner) shows up needing her help on a case involving an abducted agent. The feds need someone who's an expert in listening to psychics. They need Agent Mulder.
Scully claims to not know where he is; we all know she does.
Happily (but ever so morosely), Mulder and Scully are soon on a helicopter to the FBI building in Washington, where, while waiting, the camera zooms in on portraits of President Bush and J. Edgar Hoover -- a cheeky way of reminding us that paranoia is forever trendy. Sadly, this is one of the few attempts at the kind of humor that wickedly defined the original show.
A malnourished-looking Amanda Peet plays Special Agent Dakota Whitney (was she named at a Babies R Us?), who is in charge of the case. So far all they've got is a severed arm. A priest who lives in an apartment complex for sex offenders ("Stay out of the activities room," Mulder advises) keeps having visions of the kidnap victim's whereabouts.
Of course only Mulder believes him. "I can't look into the darkness with you anymore," Scully tells him. Oh, sure she can, and does.
This particular darkness they're looking into has a whiff of "The Silence of the Lambs" and a bit of "Turistas" to it, but probably wouldn't be gross enough to pass muster on a garden-variety episode of "CSI." An hour in, you start to worry that Carter and company have acted rashly in banning their beloved gray spacemen. You feel bad for wanting more, because in another era, this film would be a pleasant treat. There's just enough of that old push and pull between Scully's heartbreaking need for scientific proof in all things, and Mulder's desperation to find answers in the supernatural, to make us realize how much we've missed them.
People will complain (and already have) that "I Want to Believe" looks cheap and easy, barely rising to the level of a usual episode back when. Doubter that I am, I actually took it as a sweet bit of epilogue, made by and for adults. Even the show's "shippers" (those devoted fans who hung on every unspoken flicker of a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully, hence the nickname) may be surprised by how grown-up our paranormal sleuths have become. With simple sanity and lack of flash, Mulder and Scully make it clear: Our summer movies are part of a big conspiracy plot to trash our minds. I want to believe Mulder and Scully are correct.
The X-Files: I Want to Believe (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violent and disturbing content and thematic material.