Monday, August 04, 2008

I Want to Believe

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in 20th Century Fox's The X-Files: I Want to Believe

The Guardian's David Cox has written a persuasive defense of The X-Files: I Want to Believe, that almost makes me appreciate it a little more. I still find it a middling effort, but Cox brings up some very incisive points:
...the brand's originator, Chris Carter, has abandoned the much-loved phantasmagoric world he created, with its ever-ambiguous narratives. In its place, he seems at first sight to be offering no more than a humdrum, body-parts-harvesting serial-killer procedural. Why? The clue's in the title, or rather the subtitle. It isn't "The Truth is Out There", because Carter has clearly decided that, after all, the truth probably isn't out there and that whether it is or not is no longer the point. Nowadays, there's something more important than tilting at mystery. It's something we've lost sight of, and our salvation depends on getting it back.

The X-Files TV series and it first film spin-off were born of an era of pre-9/11 innocence. Their mission was to titillate the comfortable by conjuring up fanciful perils. Nowadays, we have no more need of fictional chimera: we face real threats a-plenty, ranging from terrorism to economic collapse and climate change. When it comes to dealing with them, however, we're paralysed by a loss of faith. We no longer believe in our leaders, our media, our values, our way of life or even our fellow-citizens. As a result, we are sinking into apathy, cynicism and despair, instead of confronting our demons.

It's always interesting to see how films are a reflection of our times, or are not often appreciated during their own time. One of the most famous examples is Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, which was not a success for the director at the time, but is now considered a classic. Looking back on it, It's a Wonderful Life is a surprisingly dark film, one that was ultimately just too dark for the upbeat atmosphere of 1946 post-war America.

Maybe, in the same vein, I Want to Believe is simply too bleak for our time. Not dark in the Dark Knight sense, but in the sense that we need something extraordinary to believe in, but we don't always find it. It is a film that longs to find something to have faith in but doesn't always find it.

The ending is ultimately upbeat, but to what end? As Cox says in his article, "faith doesn't deliver truth." We never know if that faith pays off in the end. Maybe we as a culture want to see the fantastical in our world so much that we ignore films that don't deliver instant gratification in that vein. We are a culture of absolutes, not ambiguity, and any film that does not deliver that clear-cut black and white is something to be avoided. Which is a shame I think, because the best films are the ones that challenge that rigidity and live in the gray areas - neither Mulder or Scully but somewhere in the middle between naivete and skepticism.

I Want to Believe
is no classic, but it lives squarely in that gray area that we as a culture have avoided in droves, desperately seeking the absolution that everything is going to turn out OK, that our faith will be rewarded. The X-Files offers hope but no absolution - an admirable feat but one, in the end, that doomed it to box office failure.

2 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

Yep, I generally agree with this summary judgement. I loved many episodes of the evocative television series, but found both films convoluted, disjointed and ultimately unsatisfactory.

Matthew Lucas said...

I may have to see this one again, because this is another one I keep coming back to. I was very underwhelmed by it, but the more I think about it the more I feel there is going on under the surface that I'm not giving it credit for. It must have done something right if I'm still thinking about it two weeks later.