The X-Files: I Want to Believe

In theaters.

Note: This isn’t so much a review as it is a navel-gazing meditation on what The X-Files once meant to me and how that meaning has faded. I tried to write a real review, but I wasn’t able to disentangle my reaction to the movie from my one-time infatuation with the TV show, and I finally gave up. Consider yourself warned.

“Trust no one” was the line most associated with The X-Files back when it was in its prime. That phrase reflected its convoluted conspiracy-oriented mythology, not to mention larger premillennial fears, so that was the phrase that magazines and the like used when talking about it. But for me, that was a misrepresentation, for much of the show’s drama comes out of the fact that Mulder and Scully both have someone they do come to trust: each other. The truly archetypal X-Files phrase appears on Mulder’s iconic flying-saucer poster in block capitals: “I want to believe.”

But the poster, too, is misleading because when Mulder most memorably speaks those words, early in the first season, he isn’t talking about little green men. He’s under hypnosis, regressed to his most traumatic childhood memory, the abduction of his sister. Scully listens to a tape of the session, during which Mulder recalls that as Samantha disappeared, a voice in his head told him that he shouldn’t be afraid and that his sister would return one day. “Do you believe the voice?” the hypnotist asks, and Mulder replies, “I want to believe.”

It was that phrase in that context that made me fall in love with The X-Files. In four little words, it encapsulated the agonizing tension between hope and fear, emotion and logic, intuition and rationality, and that was the heart of the show for me—not external paranoias, to which I was indifferent, but internal struggles, with which I identified passionately. At its best, The X-Files was a parable: Did I believe in the possibility of peace, the power of love, the attainability of truth, the existence of God? Watching, I would tell myself, I want to believe, and feel comforted in my doubts.

When I learned that the new X-Files movie was using that beloved line as a subtitle, I was pleased for a moment and then strangely displeased. It took me a while to pinpoint why, but it’s partly because that phrase doesn’t belong in lights outside a multiplex. There the words are too bald, too bold—a loud public bleat replacing a quiet private prayer. But beyond my misgivings about its volume, the phrase doesn’t mean as much to me now. I guess I’ve more or less reconciled myself to what I can believe and what I can’t, and moved on to other areas of self-flagellation.

I wasn’t going to see the movie. After years of revering the show, rewatching episodes again and again, I stopped watching abruptly after the seventh season finale, when Mulder was abducted. (David Duchovny left the show but rejoined Gillian Anderson occasionally as a guest star.) The very idea of a Mulder-less X-Files (or a Scully-less X-Files, for that matter) made no sense to me. Their yin-yang relationship, their bond—that was The X-Files. I had no interest in pursuing the increasingly nonsensical mythology without the pair of them. What was the point?

But this past Friday afternoon, when I got out of work early (a longstanding summer tradition in publishing), I found myself walking down to the big theaters in Times Square and buying a ticket to the new X-Files movie anyway. I still don’t know why. To be blunt, it’s just as mediocre as I expected: a ponderous, inconclusively supernatural plot; shoehorned allusions to the TV show; analogies that feel forced rather than organic.

One of the real pleasures of The X-Files used to be the openness of the text: there were numerous ways to read the twisted mytharc, the opaque conclusions, and Mulder and Scully’s partnership. But I Want to Believe turns ambiguous subtext into clumsy text, making everything feel facile and labored and less interesting.

The effect is worst in the portrayal of Mulder and Scully. Fans used to argue endlessly about whether their relationship is romantic, and whether it should be, but however it is defined, their bond—based on mutual respect and trust and loyalty—is enormously compelling and special, practically the platonic ideal of an egalitarian male-female relationship (even, perhaps especially, if it isn’t, you know, platonic). But I Want to Believe turns their beautiful partnership into something painfully ordinary, complete with a paint-by-numbers breakup-reconciliation arc that I didn’t believe for a moment. It’s depressing.

As far as I’m concerned, distorting Mulder and Scully’s relationship hopelessly mars the movie, but it certainly doesn’t help that the “X-File,” of sorts, is inconsequential and stupid and off-puttingly (rather than intriguingly) grotesque. It doesn’t make any sense that this would be the case for which the FBI would pull Mulder out of “retirement.” There’s too little at stake. I know the filmmakers wanted to do something mythology-free (which is fine with my: nearly all my favorite episodes are non-mytharc), but surely they could have come up with a paranormality with more weight, more import, than a possibly psychic defrocked priest with visions of a kidnapped agent. Why would the FBI have to resort to consulting Mulder for that? It’s like calling in a Nobel prizewinner to teach a kindergartener her ABCs.

Besides, the attempt to make the show accessible to people who weren’t obsessed with the TV show is pitifully naive. Let’s face it: If it’s not even particularly relevant to me, someone who loved the show, how can it be relevant to someone who never cared in the first place? I mean, I wanted to feel something—maybe the creepiness of “Eve,” the terror of “Irresistible,” the poignancy of “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” the poetry of “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” the drama of “Pusher,” the pathos of “Paper Hearts,” the morbid humor of “Bad Blood,” the elegance of “Tithonus”—but all I got was an empty, embarrassing sense of nostalgia. And maybe that is fitting, in a sad, ironic sort of way: After all, it was The X-Files that taught me that just wanting to feel something isn’t enough.