Monday, August 4, 2008
X Marks the Underwhelming, Poorly Written, Homophobic (!) Spot
At the beginning of The X Files: I Want to Believe, the first new adventure for Mulder and Scully since the series ended in 2002, we follow two parallel events: a frightened young woman, chased by menacing men; and a team of FBI agents seeking something out in a snow field, assisted by a strange old man (Billy Connoly). The inter-cutting is more confusing than scary, and the final revelation in the snow, as Agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) digs with her bare hands, strangely unassisted by the team of men holding pick axes (apparently standing there just so Xzibit's Agent Mosley Drummy can bark, "Hold the line!") is decidedly underwhelming. It's an arm. A partially frozen arm. In the snow. It's what Dexter finds on an off week-- we waited six years for this? Sadly, this sub-par opener sets the tone for the rest of the film, a slow-moving, convoluted whimper of a movie-- when fans were clamoring for a bang. Soon we're back with our heroes, oft-expressionless Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and gravely skeptical Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), no longer with the FBI but inextricably drawn into the snow field goings on because-- well, because there's no movie otherwise. It's nice to see the two reunited on screen, along with some sly winks at all the die-hard "X-Philes" in the audience: Mulder's bowl of sunflower seeds, a photo of his abducted sister Samantha tacked on the wall. (If only the film had contained more of these unobstructive but enjoyable in-jokes, I might have been more forgiving.) They're soon on the case, naturally, trying to track down a missing FBI agent with the help of the aforementioned (supposedly psychic) old man, a pedophile priest desperately seeking redemption. Naturally, the Catholic Scully is particularly hard on him; I wish the movie had gone a little deeper with this subplot, since so many real-life Catholics have been repulsed by the church-wide sex abuse scandal. Instead, we get a standard-issue procedural lacking the sense of urgency that a race to save a missing agent deserves; Peet and Xzibit's bland characters do little but service the plot (the latter's character may as well be named Agent Angry Black Guy), and if the film needed FBI agents, why not Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish's Doggett and Reyes, from the later years of the show? (That's right, I just wrote that I would have preferred Annabeth Gish. In a movie I paid to see.) Actually, I wish there had been more returning characters, but I suppose that would have been tough since so many fan favorites-- Cigarette Smoking Man, Krychek, even the Lone Gunmen-- went off to that Big Sci-Fi Convention in the Sky. The best parts of the movie are those focusing on Mulder and Scully's relationship-- more intimate than ever, for all you S-on-M action junkies-- and their continuing struggles with issues of faith and trust. Duchovny is serviceable as Mulder, while Anderson shines again as the more complexly drawn Scully. Her subplot involving a dying boy is relatively affecting, avoiding any undue treacliness; unfortunately, the script does neither star any favors. From ham-handedly obvious dialogue-- "I feel a connection to this boy," Scully declares in blatant defiance of the Show Don't Tell rule-- to plot holes large enough to fly a UFO through, The X Files:IWTB seems like the work of someone who's gotten awfully rusty when it comes to Screenwriting 101. While Scully briefly alludes to Mulder hiding out since fleeing charges in the series finale, she fails to mention how she managed to get off the hook entirely, rising to chief surgeon while Mulder grew a Grizzly Adams beard in a remote cabin. Also left unexplained is why, exactly, a Catholic hospital let Scully engage in a highly controversial stem cell research procedure. (We know it involves "stem cell research" because the phrase "stem cell research" is uttered around 49 times.) To make matters worse, series creator Chris Carter-- here the writer/director-- makes the dubious decision to cast a Sinister Gay Couple as the villains: when Xzibit asks "Guess who he's married to in the state of Massachusetts!", I wanted to chuck my X Files lunch box at the screen. (Also, one of the two men was abused by the priest as a boy. Thanks for perpetuating that spurious connection, Chris.) In the end, the Big Reveal is as murky and lackluster as the rest of the movie, though-- spoiler alert, I suppose-- the movie finishes strong with a hopeful little coda involving Scully. Maybe it's our fault for not watching Harsh Realm, but Carter seems out of practice when it comes to writing and producing a good story. Like any series, The X Files produced some turkeys, but at its best, it was thoughtful and compelling entertainment that could alternately thrill, amuse, and provoke. I Want to Believe barely does any of those things; throwaway gags involving W. and the end credits are the best things in the film. I chuckled as I got a last look at Mulder and Scully, but after this strained affair, I'd prefer the two ride into the cult phenomenon sunset for good.