Saturday, July 26, 2008

The X-Files: I Want To Believe (Chris Carter, 2008)


It is both a virtue in a way, and a flaw in a way, that The X-Files: I Want To Believe, in fact, is - very much so - like an episode of the television show stretched out to two hours.

It's a good thing because the film is refreshingly unlike a movie. Movies are laden by formula and an ingrained, mannered sensibility of character building. It is endemic in all movies; even the most artistically sound and singular are want upon themselves to fashion and adhere to the precision of movie dialogue.

In IWTB, the dialogue has a refreshing impropriety and coarse intimacy to it. It is intelligent (for example, it manages early on to sneak in a very X-Files-y moment of convoluted medical gabber) but it is also inculpatingly casual, with a spontaneity and liveliness that you don't see in most movies, especially summer horror films. Most screenplays are approached as means to build characters without history. Being characters without a history, the lives they portray and personas they represent must essentially function as allegorical for larger dramatic or thematic (or commercial) concerns, and never as purely self-serving personalities, not dictated by the mood and tone of the surrounding film. That is, movie characters work very hard, harder than we realize, to remove themselves from the mundane and represent a totality of a persona and the totality of the functional purpose and attitude of a film. They are not meant to be "lived in" human beings but fitted pieces in the "entity" of a film.

IWTB is not afraid to have its characters inhabit the familiar and say the unmediated. Mulder and Scully are presented with edges completely unrefined, the tics and ragged celebrity of that most mundane of realities - the actor behind the character - revealing itself in the comfort with which David Duchovney and Gillian Anderson, never having become megastars of the silver screen, slip back into these roles as, well, the aged, distantized Mulder and Scully of 8 years in the future from the end of the show, looking back at the characters (lives) they once played (lived) with the self-aware gravity of Clint Eastwood putting on boots again for Unforgiven. And while this privilege of the gravitas of familiarity is partly due to the fact these are television characters and personalities we are already familiar with, this aspect of the film is rooted in the low-key ordinariness the film insists on in presenting its story. The film has an air of authenticity that works well with the true-to-life concerns and emotions the film presents us. It reveals the lurid and desperate behind divine miracles and mad scientists, and, most impressively, it revels in the disharmony and ironies that lie between Mulder and Scully, which could only have concievably shown themselves once the characters were 8 years free of the formulized dichotomy created between them throughout the show. For example, Scully's emphatic religious investment in her Catholic roots is a conflicted mixture of naivete and spiritual conviction as presented in the show, but it never is so practically contextualized and intellectually considered as it is here in this movie, now free from the operatic dynamics of a television drama.

Throughout the film, characters say candid, messy things in the midst of very non-mediated, unrefined verbal exchange. In a way that is kind of naked and thus kind of genuine, Mulder and Scully are made here to struggle with the personas they created for 9 long years and let die for 8 longer ones. Similarly, the new character of Father Joe also is a character created so deftly to feel "lived in," never signified and isolated as a "figure" outside of the unsignified, untempered earthiness of our two protagonists. He is not "the mysterious man with a dark past." He is a convicted pedophile with a convicted pedophile roommate, who watches reruns in his dark room adorned with the paraphernalia of Catholic self-admonishment. Two scenes that exemplify the shy naturalism of the film are: Mulder's plea to Scully in a hospital locker room, in which he blurts out, "That's okay, Scully. I'm okay with that!", an alarmingly unromantic but very honest line that very uneloquently communicates the undissipated obligation to ongoing principles the character of Mulder had been pursuing for 9 hearty seasons, and second, the confrontation scene between Scully and Father Joe, in which they both lay all their cards on the table with off-putting, frustrated heedlessness and distressed defensiveness. I cringed when TV spots for the film ended with Scully forcefully saying, "Don't give up!" - presumably to Mulder, I thought. I assumed we'd get a "morose Mulder" arc. But no, the perceived sentimentality of the utterance ended up not being Scully speaking at all, but her quoting the phrase with the same ironic incredulity I gave the cliched mantra. She is asking Father Joe why he said that phrase to her, the reason which he is also unsure of. All he is sure of is the fact that he succumbed to a weakness his God had given him, and how is he to answer for it in God's mercy? What kind of atonement can God really give for a man so despicable, to others as well as to himself? The fact that the film finds a rather satisfying answer to this question, allowing compassion for this sick man but never letting him completely off the hook, is a testament to the intelligence and humanity with which this film was composed.

I've sensed a general dismissal of Chris Carter as a director. I'm not buying it, completely anyway. The film is superbly well-crafted, and while he does fall victim to the sort of gawky formlessness of TV directing, there are sustained scenes here that are incredibly well done, and Carter achieves striking texture, detail, and visceral/sensoral expressivity with his camera even outside of the film's major set pieces. Take two scenes: one, the first few moments of Scully and Mulder's bedroom scene, and the tenderness in the way Mulder is made to emerge naturally into the frame; and two, the moment in the secret laboratory when the woman caged in the box suddenly feels - as she is not in a position to see - herself being wheeled away, likely to her doom, and we the audience, by the way Carter chooses to film the scene solely with the limited vantage point of the poor woman, also are forced to merely, horrifically, only feel this impersonal, unsympathetic movement toward certain doom. And Carter's swervy, orbit-forming camera is perfect for charging this admittedly talky film with the dramatic electricity necessary for it to work.

That's not to mention the always atmospheric, often gorgeous use of the snowy locale:

The film is just a risky undertaking from all angles, and you can't help but admire it. The story is low-key, there's little action (luckily the film cruises on its haunting, very 'X-Files'-y mood and atmosphere), and it takes issues that could've easily, in another film, been cookie-cutter and pertinently judged good or bad within the story (religion, stem cell research, pedophilia, homosexuality, FBI politics, Scully's weaknesses, e.g. her almost-selfish yearning for wholesomeness) and either treats them matter-of-factly or weaves them into the film's motifs of neuroses, trauma, weaknesses and "impulses," and the therapy and courage in "wanting to believe."

Despite all that good stuff bubbling beneath the surface of the film thematically, and my finding quite underestimated directorially, I do rate it about the same as that other franchise picture that came out a week before. And this fact very much has to do with the idea of franchise. The Dark Knight, as I see it, lacks the dramatic detail of this film and treats its themes and provocations with a more cookie-cutter approach, but it develops and follows through with its themes with conviction, even if it means pushing Batman (and the franchise) to the background. I liked that about The Dark Knight - it left Batman alone because it had to finish off what it had to say about Gotham, the Joker, Two-Face, and the antinomian moral praxis they represent. IWTB is clearly concerned foremost with "Mulder & Scully" and the closure they can provide. Thematic closure is left to Mulder and Scully, their emotional elucidation, and the finality of their relationship. The capper dealing with Scully's medical subplot was good, but it's not enough. What is lacking is the same sense of revelation regarding its other major plot point: the case they are investigating and the role the "villains" play in the larger film.

"They're Russian scientists!" being all we know is just woeful underdevelopment. The film makes no attempt to elaborate thematically on the black market and these underground medical experimentations, and they remain unconvincingly integrated into the film. The nature of the villains and their play in the grand thematics remains a subtext that does not permeate into the text. Much can be made out of the rather daring and thoughtful decision to make the abducting team an assumed homosexual couple, as well as one of them being a past victim of Father Joe's abuse. A further emphasized history to the two abductors and their relationship would have been chock full of thematic hooks salient to the film: What are the considerations to be made to them in light of the factors they are assumed to be acting under (childhood trauma, love, self-suffering)? Ultimately, though, evocations of their past would all be conjecture because the film does not pursue any thread with these characters past the obligatory. The fact that the film doesn't feel the need to flesh this out reveals the film lacks the conviction to tie all its threads back to its themes like The Dark Knight does. Instead it is satisfied in just pleasing X-Philes with the maturation of the Mulder and Scully relationship, which reveals a lack of scope in the film's conception.

That said, the emotional developments it makes with the characters of Mulder and Scully are fantastic. The way their relationship in this film so matter-of-factly summarizes their dynamic throughout the show (to put it most simply, Mulder = crusader, Scully = lacks his conviction but really pulls through in the end), without sacrificing wit and these characters' cultivated personalities (Mulder's "I'm trying to ignore you" line, Scully's bristly and gung-ho initial response to Father Joe), is very impressive. It manages to achieve uninhibited personality and dramatic gravity simultaneously, which is reason enough for a fan to be glad this movie was made.

The story is not mindblowing, but it has a gruesome nature that has grown on me - the more I think about the dog in the film, all the prosthetics, the crazy medical gadgets and tubes and liquids, Father Joe's confusion over the survival of the FBI woman, and the rich, morbid history of Frankensteinian science, I begin to realize how creepy and macabre the film is and how effectively it is realized in the film.

Accusations at gratuitous topicality have been directed at the film. I think these criticisms unfair. Gay marriage, for example, is not really a topic of the film. So then, can we label its mere presence in the film as a cheap stab at topicality? I'm not saying the film has very much to say about homosexuality or gay marriage, but it is a case of tricky rhetoric that it integrates this plot point without belaboring it as anything worth heedless assumations (working similarly to the ambiguous sexuality of the uncle in George Ratliff's Joshua). If anything, the problem with the movie is it doesn't have anything more pointedly political and "hot button" to say about the role gayness - or Russian-ness - plays within the commentary of the story. As it stands, though, I find it serves as very daring narrative texture.

The film is a very subdued allegory commenting on conservative thought unwilling to strive for true understanding, or too willing to make judgments without the goal of genuine justice or hope shining through in the end. At what point - at the lowest denominator - is gay marriage or stem cell research made to be a touchy, hot potato issue? When consideration of the ideas are left at: "Gross, how icky and unconventional! It cannot matter or make a difference enough to justify changing my way of life and way of thinking." This type of conservative thought is not just narrow-minded or even necessarily bigoted - the nicest, warmest people might harbor these feelings. Instead, one can see it as just hopelessly negative, pessimistic, miserable. In the case of the film, the possibility of true, supernaturally divine redemption for a man of tortured sexuality, or the possibility of a radical medical treatment for a boy of tortured biology, is left regarded as overly fantastical - idealistic, unsystematic nonsense that will have no part in this investigation, this hospital, this mindset. Let us just accept the damnation, meaningless convictions, and sickly death of all the suffering parties involved. Mulder and Scully are just grasping at straws.

Another criticism often leveled at the film is "preachiness." Any messages the film wears too comfortably on its sleeve are balanced out by the minutiae and matter-of-fact considerations the film creates for its characters: a pedophile insipidly looking for forgiveness by - duh of course! - mailing the Pope; a Russian schmuck trying to save his dying partner by going to morally shady compatriots; or, to get away from homosexuality, a couple of alternative thinking idealists living and hiding together as soul mates without the need of a marriage ceremony to tell them so. Or, as provided to us by a serviceable Xzibit performance: an unextraordinary, by-the-book, thinks-inside-the-box FBI agent totally forsakes Mulder and Scully when they need his help the most, despite all their sacrifices to the FBI and their coming back at their request to help them with this case.

The film distills the liberal ethos of the show in ways the show never has. "Let me talk to someone with some balls!" is something one would think would be heard very often in the complex beauracracy of the FBI, and while it is often a pivotal point in The X-Files the show, it is always under a somber pall of dramatic toitiness. In the refreshing sense of retrospective this movie provides, we get Scully speaking raw and impolite, not attempting the sorts of pretension we would hear from these characters in the show. Thinking back on the show's mythology episodes, the overarcing ideology was always about the military industrial complex and government abuse of power, with public society purely as victims. This movie is about small people, defining of overall society, abusing their roles, feigning righteousness or know-how, trying to take the easy way out of things, and, very simply, being small.

Father Joe and Dakota Whitney are great characters. Whitney, in particular, is a striking compounding of everything the series has had to say about the dignity, bravery, and risk of being an FBI agent. Her final scene is a devastating wiping out of all stakes. Carter's decision to linger on Peet's fall is a very powerful moment... partly playing up Peet's character's sacrifice to the stakes at hand, but mostly making us see her own personal stakes (her career, her work, her womanhood, the respect she savors evoking from others) evaporating before her very eyes.

The X-Files: I Want To Believe - 7/10

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