Movie Review – The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)


I am a casual fan of The X-Files TV series. Although I was a regular viewer for much of its run, I haven’t seen all of the episodes and am unlikely to ever do so. I didn’t start watching the show until it was in its second season and in common with many other casual fans, I stopped watching soon after David Duchovny left the series. I always preferred the “monster of the week” standalone stories to the ongoing “aliens are among us” arc and located the heart of the series in the fraught relationship between Duchovny’s Fox Mulder and Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe was made with people like me in mind. The movie covers the show’s usual territory of belief vs. skepticism and the reality of paranormal phenomena and assumes a basic familiarity with the main characters and their past history as FBI agents. However, the plot is a standalone story and no pre-existing knowledge of the series’ internal mythology is required to understand everything that happens. Mulder and Scully’s relationship is central to the film and even at times aggressively pushed to the foreground.

The movie should please diehard series fans. It is the reunion of Mulder, Scully, and the audience that fans have been waiting for. Mulder and Scully are still the same complex characters and the story plays out like any episode of the series. There is closure, though in true X-Files style, it is qualified closure. This is the series finale, six years late but better late than never.

This is not a movie for people who are not at least casual fans of the series. While there is nothing in the film to alienate non-fans, there is also little to interest them. There is no reason to see this film if you are not already emotionally invested in Mulder, Scully, and the world of The X-Files. Unlike its predecessor film The X Files (1998), which had significant independent merit as a science fiction feature film, I Want to Believe is essentially a reasonably entertaining long episode.

I apply the “reasonably” qualifier because the film suffers from a series of plotting issues ranging from relatively minor to decidedly major. I am not concerned here with the fabulist elements of the story; in the X-Files world, the fantastic is real. I am concerned with the lapses in logic and credibility in the realist elements of the story.

[The rest of this review contains numerous major spoilers. If you have not seen the film and intend to do so, please finish this review after you get back from the theater.]

Mulder and Scully are called in by the FBI to consult on a missing person case that involves a purported psychic. They interact with two agents, one open to belief and one resolutely dismissive. These characters are undeveloped and the dynamic is boring, but I can overlook those flaws because the FBI story is essentially tangential. It is much harder to overlook lazy writing that requires the otherwise competent and professional agents to act in an astonishingly incompetent and unprofessional manner solely to achieve a particular plot point. There were other ways to get there.

Moving up the seriousness scale is the subplot about Scully, now practicing medicine at a hospital, and her terminally ill child patient. There are no conventional treatments for the child’s illness, but there is a radical experimental procedure. Scully proposes following this experimental course of treatment, her colleagues and the hospital administrators object that it is unproven and extremely painful, she pulls rank on them and return to her office to run a Google search on the procedure, personally performs the first of several operations on the following day, and subsequently overrides the parents’ objections to continuing the operations by declaring “but what if it works?” with a tremor in her voice and a tear in her eye.

The mechanics of this subplot are patently absurd. If they can be excused at all, it is only as a didactic tool within the context of the film: Scully’s “I want to believe” moment to complement Mulder’s “I want to believe” life plan. But again, there were other ways to get there.

Most seriously, I Want to Believe raises the very serious and tragically realistic issue of the use of extraordinary medical procedures to treat patients with degenerative neurological diseases and by analogy, the comatose and the terminally ill, yet treats the issue in a superficial and self-righteous manner. The main story is a modern day Frankenstein tale involving murdering people to harvest their organs with the ultimate aim of transplanting a dying man’s head onto a healthy body. Because the subplot is told parallel to this story, I initially hoped that the film was building towards a gutsy, thought provoking challenge to its audience’s complacencies about modern medicine. It was not. The film’s consistent affirmation of Scully, coupled with the portrayal of the people who disagree with her as stock medical drama villains, fatally undercuts any implicit, nuanced comparison between her acts and those of the “monster of the week.”

The American Medical Association’s Hollywood watchdogs made themselves ridiculous last month by vociferously complaining about the antagonist in The Incredible Hulk chomping on a cigar throughout the movie. The AMA would have been better served by conserving its energy to confront The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Scully’s medical ethics are, to say the least, problematic; her professionalism compromised by her emotions. The ramifications of her actions are more important than a cartoon villain’s unlit cigar.

1 star

edited July 30, 2009 to add: I had a conversation this week with two diehard series fans that convinced me I misjudged this film’s appeal to its core audience. They expected much more from this movie than a reasonably entertaining long episode, and were not pleased to be asked to settle for less.


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