The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Chris Carter’s series The X-Files was one of the most popular science fiction television series in history. It was one of the Fox Network’s first major successes other than The Simpsons or Married… with Children. This film marks the series return to the screen since it ended in 2002. Unlike the first film and much of the series, this one makes little mention of the popular ‘mytharc’ story line that fueled most of the series. There is little mention of aliens or conspiracies, and the film instead takes on a more criminal and spiritual tone.

The Paranormal Procedural Crime Drama

The genre of the procedural crime drama is one that has always been popular. Fundamentally, it is the more scientific and process-driven grandchild of the mystery genre. It is Murder She Wrote with a badge. The X-Files has always fallen into this category as well. Its reliance on arc-based story telling has distinguished it from other such pieces, but fundamentally it has always been a detective show. There is a crime, a detective investigates the crime, finds suspects, rules them out through deductive reasoning, and finds the culprit. The difference between this series and, say, Law & Order, is that the monsters involved often are monsters, and not murderers or rapists.

This film is very much like that. Abandoning the series larger UFO arc, the film details a series of disappearances and murders. The truth of the matter is gruesome and stretches into science fiction but isn’t necessarily vampires and aliens. It is definitely X-Files material, but with a much more realistic set of circumstances. The other place where the road diverges from conventional stories involves the FBI’s use of a psychic in their investigation. Even with this as a central point in the film, police have used psychic in reality to famous results. This isn’t anything especially noteworthy. It belies the desperate nature of the investigation and facilitates the involvement of former Agents Mulder and Scully.

Religion and the Paranormal

The television series was never shy with religion. It dealt with religious and spiritual matters repeatedly. Dana Scully is Catholic, and this has come into play several times as she has tried to cope with the wide range of things she encountered over the nine years of The X-Files. In this film there are two distinct religions being played on. The first is the conventional religion of Dana Scully in the form of her Catholic beliefs and her practice as a doctor in a children’s hospital. For Scully, her religion and her new job have given her stability and meaning in the wake of her FBI career.

The other involves Fox Mulder’s belief in paranormal phenomena. Saying that outright does not belie the deep nature of his belief. His understanding of these things are based upon a number of precepts– things that he factually know to be true, things that can be deduced through logic and rationale, and things that he has heard from others. These things lead him to believe that the universe is far more diverse and unusual than we routinely give it credit for. To him a higher power is something that takes something away from you, like aliens took his sister. This has made him suspicious of the kind of higher authority Dana Scully’s conventional religion represents. It also has made his repeated belief in paranormal activity look desperate, as if he is looking at the world with a confirmation bias hoping that one day he will be able to save his sister, even though he knows that she’s dead.

In the end, both characters have someone they want to save. Scully wants to save a young boy with a rare and terrible medical condition. Everyone in her new life– the priests and doctors at her hospital– want the boy to die in peace. Scully can’t bear the thought. She, like Mulder, stretches for meaning. She desperately seeks guidance on how to proceed. To treat the boy using experimental therapy would be a long, painful process for him and may not save him. Dana, like Mulder, has a motivator from her past. Mulder brings up the loss of her children as possible subconscious motivation for her quest to save the sick child. She, like her former partner, reaches for answers, looking desperate, possibly drowning in her own confirmation bias.


Scully ultimately finds her answer at the place in the film where both her and Mulder’s religions converge. The psychic the FBI is using to help in the case is a former Catholic priest– Father Joseph Crissman. The fact that he is a priest surprises the former agents, but Mulder is immediately suspicious. The agent who summoned them then reveals that Father Joe was a convicted pedophile who was living in a dormitory for sex offenders. This is a highly unusual choice for the writers. The pedophilia is a timely issue, to be sure, but also alienates and discredits the character in a way that is almost never seen. The most likely place that one might see such a character would be on other similar works like Law & Order– and on that show the pedophile is almost always the offender and not a foil.

Father Joe represents both religious followings. On the one hand, he is a priest— devout in his religion and bound by the same beliefs as Dana Scully. On the other hand, he is wrought in darkness and claims that he’s had psychic visions– clearly placing him in Mulder’s corner. This conflict goads Scully and she lashes out at him throughout the film, attempting to understand Father Joe and to perceive what his goal and intentions might be. Ultimately, despite his crimes and repeated discrediting, Father Joe’s spontaneous comment to Scully, “Don’t give up,” pushes her to try and save the boy.

Monster of the Week

During the series, many outcast characters were featured. They ranged from troubled people with extraordinary powers to mutants and freaks who cowered in the shadows afraid of the world. These characters were often treated with pity and humanity and that was one of the series’ hallmarks. In this film however, a more common type of outcast is vilified without remorse. The writers should be commended for writing Father Joe as a pedophile priest. While it could be seen as a shameless ploy, it actually makes him a highly complex and troubled character. Instead of simply being a monster, he is a ‘fallen angel’ who is seen as becoming an instrument of God’s work. The fact that he is also homosexual could be called incidental, but other factors prevent that from being the case.

Two of the culprits in the film are Russian immigrants running a highly illegal organ trafficking laboratory. They are conducting hideous experiments to some unknown end. One of the men was a child raped by Father Joe many decades earlier. He is now in a homosexual relationship with the other, and is his conspirator and benefactor of the experiments. Another FBI agent points out that the two men are ‘married in the state of Massachusetts.’ This presents a number of issues. First, it suggests that simply by being molested as a child, the man grew up predisposed to be homosexual as if it were a learned behavior. Also, it represents a chronic pattern in literature and media to represent all insane and demented people as gay. In this film, all three homosexual characters are criminals and two of them are serial killers. The other is a pedophile with crazy psychic visions. It would’ve still been believable worked thematically if none of them had been homosexual.

Serial Film

Many critics who’ve reviewed this film derided its timing and ‘plodding’ storyline. To the contrary, the timing and pace of the story are elegant and measured. They match the pace of the series and bring a sense of thoughtfulness that is void in most modern media and film. It has only been a few years since The X-Files was on television, but in that space of time television has changed dramatically. It is refreshing to see a film where characters were recalled from previous media and treated with respect. The film doesn’t shy away from Mulder and Scully’s relationship, it touches on some important strings from the series without diving into its mytharc. It is relatively clear of gimmicks and pointless cameos. This is a film that makes sense as an addition to its series and presents its topics, characters, and story in a mature, thoughtful, and engaging way. Those things alone make it worthy of note and writers of similar franchise revivals should pay attention.

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