In a memorable scene in The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) reenter FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. for the first time since The X-Files left the airwaves in 2002. Waiting in a hallway they notice a portrait of George Bush that hangs on the wall. Knowing looks of alarm and disapproval cross their faces as the signature six-note musical theme of the television series is heard for one of the only times in the film (aside from the opening credits), and the camera pans right to reveal a matching portrait of J. Edgar Hoover. In a movie surprisingly free of overt references to current events, this scene is a reminder that The X-Files was a political barometer of the 1990s, a show that purveyed a relentlessly dark and subversive view of government as a vast conspiracy against the American people. Serious fans in need of a post-9/11 fix of anti-government paranoia are likely to find themselves still jonesing after leaving the theatre. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Frank Spotnitz, who co-wrote and co-produced I Want to Believe with director and X-Files creator Chris Carter, confirmed that the two consciously steered clear of the grim political mythology that characterized the TV series.
Yet despite their best intentions, the boys sometimes just can't help themselves. Granted, I Want to Believe does not present the FBI as fully complicit in the axis of evil; the bureau even seems willing to "forgive" Mulder his past misdeeds and welcome him and Scully back into the fold. (At the conclusion of the TV series, Mulder was secretly detained by the government in a Guantanamo-like facility on trumped-up murder charges. Tortured and denied all legal rights, he was convicted by a kangaroo tribunal and sentenced to death before making his escape and going underground. Little wonder that Mulder insists in I Want to Believe that it is not he but the government that needs to be forgiven.)
But as it turns out, the FBI acts like a magnanimous big brother only because it unexpectedly needs Mulder's expertise concerning paranormal phenomena. When flown to Washington in one of the infamous black helicopters that were symbols of government oppression in the old show, Mulder and Scully learn that the FBI is as incompetent, inflexible, cynical, and self-serving as ever.
After an FBI agent is abducted, the bureau opportunistically makes use of Mulder just as it does Father Joseph Crissman (Billy Connolly), a psychic ex-priest and convicted pedophile, whose visions may provide clues to the agent's whereabouts. Unsurprisingly, the bureau fails to earn the trust of either the citizens who assist its efforts or those whom it purportedly serves. In fact, the bureau considers dropping the case when its missing agent turns up dead (its bureaucratic imperative is at an end), even though a civilian is still missing and presumed to have been abducted by the perpetrators. Only the persistence of Mulder (who refers to himself in one scene as a "non-cop") and Scully, acting on their own without government authorization, eventually leads to the apprehension of the two suspects responsible for a series of murders, and, more importantly, to saving the life of a victim. In the end, the FBI predictably discounts Mulder's interest in the paranormal, covers up his contribution to the investigation (along with that of Father Joe, whom the bureau publicly defames as an accomplice to the crimes), and takes full credit for stopping a dangerous foreign conspiracy involving illegal traffic in human organs. The FBI not only fails to save the life of one of its own agents but manages to get a second one killed. With the singular exception of its maverick Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), who acts out of personal loyalty to Mulder and Scully, the FBI does nothing to solve the case; its methods and protocols only retard its satisfactory resolution. Another job well done at J. Edgar's old haunts.
If I Want to Believe portrays the government as incompetent and self-serving, rather than as the TV series had it—malign and conspiratorial—the film nonetheless remains focused on the difficulty in distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys in the contemporary political scene. Far from being haphazard and meandering (as a few critics have suggested) the movie is carefully structured around two parallel stories. The main plot involves two perpetrators, Janke Dacyshyn (Callum Keith Rennie) and Franz Tomczeszyn (Fagin Woodcock), who have serially abducted, murdered, and dismembered several victims. The same-sex pair, who are legally married in the state of Massachusetts, rely on a team of Russian scientists to perform a series of "full-body" transplants that prolong the life (or, more accurately, the head) of Tomczeszyn. The latter, who suffers from cancer as a result of radiation poisoning, manages to extend his life by having his head serially grafted on to the bodies of his victims (mainly young women), who share his AB negative blood type. Tomczeszyn heads a firm that legally deals in the transportation of human organs, but he and his partner also appear to be engaged in the illegal trade of organs harvested from their murder victims. Father Joe, the ex-priest, believes his visions provide him with a psychic link to one or more of the victims abducted by the murderers; but as it turns out, his real spiritual connection is with the perpetrator, Tomszeszyn, one of 37 altar boys whom the convicted pedophile sexually abused in the past.
A second seemingly minor subplot involves Scully's efforts at Our Lady of Sorrows Hospital to save the life of Christian Fearon (Marco Niccoli), a young boy suffering from Sandhoff disease, a fatal degenerative neurological disorder with no known cure. Over the objections of Father Ybarra (Adam Godley), the hospital administrator, and Christian's parents, Scully attempts a radically new "and extremely painful" therapy that draws on the newest breakthroughs in "stem cell research."
Though they may seem unrelated, the two subplots tell the same story: a tale of the Promethean effort to transform, adapt, remake, and preserve human life outside traditionally defined "natural" limits. At its best, the film imaginatively explores the great promise and the tremendous dangers of the brave new world of bio-technology. Dacyshyn and Tomszeszyn are meant to embody practices that violate the "natural order" of things: gay marriage, gender reassignment, trade and transplantation in human organs, stem cell research, vivisection, hybrid speciation, the indefinite prolongation of life. By contrast, Mulder and Scully seem to represent the traditional heterosexual couple who respect the limits of nature and who heroically save an innocent soul from the clutches of what the papers call a "modern day Doctor Frankenstein" at the risk of their own lives. Unlike their dark counterparts, Mulder and Scully do not resort to kidnapping and murdering young women in order to maintain their relationship or prolong their own lives. Nonetheless, Mulder and Scully are more representative of the brave new world than they or we might like to believe. Scully confesses to Father Joe that she and Mulder are not married, though they have lived together for several years. And although they have had a "son" (William), whom they've given up for adoption, they have never been sure if he was conceived through "normal" sexual relations. Fans of the show will recall that William may be a human-alien hybrid created by a conspiratorial syndicate via a sinister combination of genetic engineering and in vitro fertilization.
Moreover, Scully, despite her professed faith in the Catholic Church, eagerly embraces the cutting edge of (presumably embryonic) stem cell research and the most radically experimental forms of medical technology in her attempts to save the life of a dying boy. Were she to take on faith the Church's view that life begins at conception, she would have to concede that her attempts to save the life of her patient depend upon sacrificing the "lives" of those embryos from whom the crucial stem cells have been gathered. In any case, she refuses to allow the hospital to release Christian Fearon to a hospice and insists upon an untried medical procedure with little chance of success—but with the certainty that her patient will suffer agonizing pain.
Suggestively, the advanced stem cell research she relies on for her new surgical procedure appears to have been pioneered by the very same Russian medical team that carries out full-body transplants on Tomszeszyn. Mulder and Scully can, of course, fall back on their long-standing emotional and spiritual connection with each other to win our sympathies, but there's no reason to believe that their homosexual counterparts are any less fanatically devoted to each other—indeed, we witness a tender bed-side scene between the two in which Dacyshyn assures his failing partner that he will live, that he's "going to have a fine strong body again." The two couples thus represent two images of the very same phenomenon: the human endeavor to master nature and prolong human life. The parallels between the two couples thus work to erode the questionable distinction between what is or is not natural, and between those who live according to a natural order and those who challenge its authority.
The pivotal figure that conjoins the two plots is Father Joe. When we first meet the ex-priest, he significantly lights up a cigarette, a gesture that visually connects him with the arch-villain of The X-Files, the Cigarette Smoking Man. (Father Joe's long grey hair and terminal lung cancer are additional links to the Cigarette Smoking Man of the series finale.) The ex-priest is tormented by what he calls "monstrous appetites," desires he never asked for, and which he believes must come from God. In fact, he claims that he only ever wanted to "serve God," and he now seeks divine forgiveness for his sins and reengagement with the Church. In a remarkable scene, he spontaneously bleeds from his eyes after he envisions the body of the young woman tormented by the very person Father Joe abused years before. His painful visions turn out to be the penance he pays for his own "unnatural" desires. Pedophile and priest, psychic and saint, Father Joseph is that quintessentially ambivalent figure in whom the flesh and the spirit, good and evil are thoroughly mixed. And it is he who prophetically tells Scully that she "must not give up," which, she will learn, means she should pursue her Frankensteinian efforts to save the life of her dying patient, Christian Fearon.
At the close of the romantic era in early 19th century Europe, a number of writers and artists who had once been enthusiastic supporters of the French Revolution lost faith in the capacity of mankind to remake the world according to a new ideal of human freedom. The terror of the Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, the endless wars that marked his reign, and the repressive counter-revolutionary period that followed the Congress of Vienna made it difficult for these late Romantics to sustain a faith in liberal ideals or in the possibility of meaningful political reform. Lord Byron, Georg Büchner, and Mary Shelley did not so much turn away from politics as apply the bitter political lessons of their age to the cosmos as a whole. Rather than understand the corrupt ancient regimes of Europe as the source of human unhappiness and servitude, they projected a Gnostic vision of the universe as malignantly organized. In post-9/11 America, Chris Carter's conspiratorial view of government as a plot against the people has, like the visions of the late Romantics, become something of an indictment of the cosmos. The defects of a corrupt and incompetent government would seem to inhere in the nature of things. As Father Joe would have it, it is God (or if you prefer, nature's God) who authorizes those "monstrous" or unnatural desires that set loose evil in the world. And yet, for all the metaphysical darkness that pervades I Want to Believe, the film ends on a hopeful note: Scully takes heed of Father Joe's cryptic message, also sent by the divine powers: "don't give up." However harrowing the possibilities and however monstrous the risks, she's willing to accept the Promethean challenge and ventures forth once more to try and save the life of young Christian.
Michael Valdez Moses is Associate Professor of English at Duke University, author of The Novel and the Globalization of Culture, and co-editor of Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1899-1939.