Movies

Close Encounters of the Woo-Woo Kind

Mulder and Scully reunite in The X-Files: I Want To Believe.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Click image to expand.
David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in The X-Files: I Want To Believe

Here’s an alternate subtitle for the new X-Files movie, The X-Files: I Want To Believe (20th Century Fox): I Want To Care. I know that the long-running Fox TV series attracted a passionate following; some of my smartest friends were addicts. For a good chunk of the ‘90s, liking The X-Files was a hip thing to do, and the show became the object of some technological firsts: the first modern TV series to be released on DVD and arguably the first to build a fan base through the newfangled Internet. But the actual show always bored me stiff: those murky Vancouver locations, the earnest debates about faith and science, the dependable-as-clockwork appearance of something gross right before the first commercial. Most boring of all was the show’s “deep mythology,” the multiseason story arc about an alien invasion covered up by decades of governmental conspiracy (trying to care, trying … failing).

Unlike the first X-Files movie, released in 1998 at the height of the show’s success, I Want To Believe almost completely ignores the deep mythology. It’s the big-screen version of the series’ stand-alone “monster of the week” episodes that alternated with the development of the mythic arc. First a creepy, paranormal-seeming phenomenon stumps the FBI; then they call in special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) to investigate; and in the end, the most far-out explanation imaginable turns out to be the correct one, confirming the merits of Mulder’s woo-woo belief system over Scully’s skeptical one.

In the six years since we’ve seen them, both Mulder and Scully have left the agency. She’s a pediatric surgeon at a Catholic hospital; he’s a reclusive conspiracy theorist, holed up in his home office clipping newspaper articles about freak occurrences. But the disappearance of an FBI agent unites them in an investigation that has a psychic angle: A defrocked pedophile priest, played by Scottish comic Billy Connolly, claims to be experiencing visions of the missing woman.

The nefarious plot behind the agent’s abduction is so far-fetched I’m itching to spoil it. But I’ll limit myself to observing that, if ever I’m dying of a rare brain disease, I hope my surgeon won’t go home and frantically Google treatment options, as Scully does at one key moment. (Couldn’t she at least log on to Medscape?) The problem with the movie’s semisupernatural crime plot, though, isn’t that the resolution is completely outlandish; it’s that the outlandishness is insufficiently grounded in pseudoscience. If you’re going to posit stuff this crazy, you’d better have some solid-sounding bullshit to back it up.

But plenty of viewers will be more or less indifferent to the question of who’s dismembering whom. There’s a whole subset of X-Philes known as ’shippers, who pore over the minutiae of every episode for evidence of an emerging relationship between Mulder and Scully. (They’re opposed by the Noromos, who hold that there should be “no romance” between the two.) The show’s creator, Chris Carter, who co-wrote and directed I Want To Believe, seems to be trying to please both sides at once by putting in a romantic angle but keeping it as juiceless as possible. In the six years since we last saw them, the couple has gone from chaste near-kisses (and a child conceived through mysterious means) to a comfortable, if eccentric, union. They’re not married (as Scully points out irritably to one character who calls Mulder her husband), but they appear to be living together in secret, perhaps to protect Mulder from his enemies.

You’d think that Carter, a master of the long-term narrative tease, would understand the difference between the delicious tension of Mulder and Scully not knowing what they are to each other and the flat-out annoyance of an audience left in the dark as to their status. In a scene at least an hour into the movie, as Scully lies in bed pondering the case, Mulder’s head suddenly pops up behind her shoulder, causing an audiencewide “Wha?” After nine years of episodes in which a shoulder pat constituted major erotica, seeing these two casually chatting in bed (He even makes a wan offer of sex! Which she amiably refuses!) is a major letdown. Did we really just fast-forward through six years of long-deferred passion to arrive at boringly consummated couplehood? For all this movie’s deficits, Duchovny and Anderson still look and sound great together. A lot more fun should have been had with a pair whose pillow talk consists of lines like, “I forgot to mention, the pathology reports came back on that severed arm.”

Gloomy lapsed Catholics also abound in Brideshead Revisited(Miramax)—not pedophile priests, but the dissipated members of the Marchmain family, Anglo-Catholic aristocrats whose high style and staggering country estate seduce upper-middle-class aspiring artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) in the period between world wars. Julian Jarrold’s adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel is the first feature-length version of the story, and it can’t help but labor under the burden of the 1982 adaptation for Granada television, which starred Jeremy Irons and remains a monument to the British genius for long-form TV.

I’m not quite of a mind with Slate’s Troy Patterson in finding the new movie “vomitously stupid”; rather, it’s a gorgeous, lulling, thoroughly unnecessary exercise in high-minded Anglophilia. In compressing the sprawling story, screenwriter Andrew Davies has excised most of Waugh’s lyricism and all of his wit, with the result that the characters spend a great deal of time staring significantly at one another while the audience stares at their clothes. The well-dressed starers include Ben Whishaw as the Marchmains’ dissolute middle son, Sebastian; Hayley Atwell as his troubled sister, Julia; and Emma Thompson as the family’s rigid matriarch. Atwell looks luscious, and Thompson does her best with an unfairly caricatured role, but the best thing I took away from this Brideshead was a reminder scribbled at the bottom of my notes: “Rent the miniseries.”