19 December 2008

Thoughts On: The X Files: I Want to Believe.

X-Files: I Want To Believe is a puzzler of a TV-to-film project. Its only true antecedent is Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Both are earnest films full of puzzling story and character choices. Worse, they proceed from a basic miscalculation about what made the TV show work.

Just as, back in the day, Star Trek: The Motion Picture grew from the baffling conclusion by Paramount execs that the original Star Trek television series was popular primarily because it was science fiction, and not because of its surprise cast chemistry and fun, space opera plots, X-Files: I Want To Believe comes from a similarly numb misreading of its one time popularity. The difference here is that those doing the misreading here are Chris Carter, the series creator, and Frank Spotnitz, one of the series' leading writers.

Carter and Spotnitz have a fair attachment to the characters and themes in X-Files 2 (as I'll take to calling it now). This can be witnessed by the film's simple existence. What they don't seem to recognize, or care for, is that the show was largely built around--wait for it--cast chemistry. X-Files 2 is about the romantic pair we might call "Sculder" living out their lives together, and yet it devotes most of its running time to keeping Duchovny and Andersen apart, or, worse yet, making them miserable in each other's company. This might not be so bad if the film were anything other than a standard FBI procedural with semi-occult underpinnings, a very domesticated animal indeed.

All of this is prologue and simply to explain why nobody went to see X-Files 2 in the theatres and why few people are renting it on DVD now (if the wall of dusty cases at my local Blockbuster are indicative of anything). Had its trailers and publicity had a tongue-in-cheek action romp or even a straight up horror film to tout, X-Files 2 would've done much better, I'm sure. It at least would've been a mild curiosity. In this incarnation, it's not even that.

In its production values and with its intimate, even claustrophobic storyline, X-Files 2 plainly IS television. It may deal with some very heavy, appropriately cinematic themes, and the acting is pretty darn good by all concerned, but it those things by scripting character arcs that are 100% in the mould of unsatisfying (i.e. inconclusive) episodic television. What's more, if one compares X-Files 2 to the known breeds of X-Files episodes, we find that it falls neatly between two of the least satisfying types: the "grim, slow-moving, procedural" episodes, and the "crisis of faith" episodes.

(Here's even worse news: BOTH characters are having crises of faith in this one!)

(In TV geek terms, that's like watching a Futurama episode about Lela and Nibbler to find out that the "B" story is about Lela and her parents.)

I have the first four seasons of X-Files on DVD, and am proud to own them. Almost half of what they contain is very entertaining. Later seasons also had some truly fun, truly corking riffs, even as the mythology episodes (my least favourite) descended into outright nonsense. I could name an easy half dozen episodes that could've stood in as a better template for a one-off film like this. I doubt even the hardest of hardcore fans desired more misery and distance for their cherished "Sculder". I don't think anybody would've hated a true "Monster Of The Week" horror outing, a la "Home", or a post-modernist scramble through cliché, like "War Of The Coprophages."

They would've said the same thing: "What are they making that for now?" But then at least they could've added, "It was cute".