Status: In theaters (opened 7/25/08)
Directed By: Chris Carter
Written By: Frank Spotnitz and Chris Carter
Cinematographer: Bill Roe
Starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, and “Xzibit“
Chris Carter is a man with strong beliefs, particularly with regards to some hot-topic current-day issues, and he’s not afraid to share them with his audience. In this second X-Files movie, he takes the opportunity to present some of these beliefs front and center. For the most part, this film explores some of the issues arising out of these beliefs in a manner that is more mature than, say, the “are you good or evil?” quandaries presented in The Dark Knight, although it does dip below the thoughtfulness line and into browbeating territory on a few occasions.
For example, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), now a retired FBI agent who has fully dedicated herself to a career in medicine, works at a Catholic hospital. This provides for a very topical conflict between the decision to use experimental stem cell-based treatments on her young dying patient, in a last-ditch effort to save his life, or stepping back and allowing “God’s will” to determine the boy’s fate. This is a timely and interesting conflict, and it’s presented in a manner that feels appropriate. Scully’s method of going about her salvation attempt, though, is a storytelling cop-out of laughable proportions: she Googles “stem cell research,” prints out some of her findings, and proceeds with an operation that apparently consists of injecting stem cells or something into the patient’s brain. You’d think a surgeon would have access to a bit more information that wouldn’t require her having to resort to such informal—not to mention unreliable—ways of learning about new medical research; then again, you’d also think that screenwriters aiming to make a point would do a little more research into the course of action they’re trying to advocate, to at least present it more realistically.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we’re presented with a much more fully fleshed-out conflict in the character of Father Joe Crissman (Billy Connolly), an excommunicated Catholic priest who is trying to atone for that most stereotypical (and again, timely) of Catholic priest sins: “buggering 37 of his alter boys,” as Scully puts it—herself a woman of faith, resulting in a nice internal struggle with her scientific skepticism, dichotomous to her external struggle with Father Joe, who claims to have a psychic link with an FBI agent who’s recently gone missing. (As an aside, I found the choice of the number 37 for Father Joe’s victim tally to be rather odd and humorous, considering its fame from Clerks; I can’t help but think that this was not totally coincidental.) The disagreements between Scully and Crissman are multifaceted echoes of arguments that we hear currently rippling through our culture: faith and its promise of redemption, the difference between beliefs and evidence, and the challenge of looking at others on a more granular scale than “good” or “evil” (as our current president—who also gets a brief nudge in this film—so often and so childishly tends to do).
The circle is closed by the FBI’s request, through Scully, for Fox Mulder (Duchovny) to return from exile and assist them in interpreting Father Joe’s premonitions. Agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) is familiar with Mulder’s prior work with the X-Files, and seeks his expertise in locating her missing coworker. Scully is able to deliver the message to Mulder, since they are still very much in touch with each other; initially it seems like she keeps him sequestered in her basement, but we later find out that the two of them are in a romantic relationship of somewhat ambiguous terms. This, too, is handled maturely; there is no dialogue from either one attempting to summarily define the basis of their situation, but rather we see that it is complicated and adult in nature and are left to infer the details from there.
In the midst of all of this moral and relational ambiguity, the actual plot of the movie almost gets lost. Mulder finds himself tracking down evidence that leads to an illegal Russian organ-harvesting ring of a very perverse nature, and there are further complications and twists as the multiple story threads spiral together in a satisfying—if somewhat overly coincidental—fashion. The story told here is tight and somehow manages not to drag, despite all of the extraneous points Carter’s and Frank Spotnitz’s script attempts to make. (There is another one involving the primary antagonist that seems to be saying something in favor of gay marriage, but then makes the questionable—and offensive to gay men—implication that homosexual males in a relationship secretly have a desire for one to be female; saying any more about this would give away more plot details than I’d care to, but it will be apparent to what I’m referring if you see the movie.) It might sound like all of this directorial belief-sharing might get in the way of the movie’s story, but instead it is used effectively to drive the plot while also actualizing the characters with realistic shades of gray.
Things are kept exciting by clever interweaving of simultaneous storylines. We’re often left with two or three cliffhanger-style scenes at once, rapidly cutting between them as each progresses. This has the effect of multiplying the edge-of-your-seat nature already inherent in the subject matter, which never feels too forced. Rather, most of the gruesome scenes are handled with a delicacy that is unexpected in this genre, and speaks well to Carter’s sensibility as a director in general. The most disturbing images in this film are seen from a distance, or in passing, sometimes feeling like mere glances out of the corner of the viewer’s eye. This not only adds to the intrigue of what’s being shown, but also helps to avoid focusing the movie’s attention on it; instead of devolving into a gore-fest as the details of the plot are revealed, the focus remains firmly on the characters involved and what their motivations are for doing what they’re doing.
Two random points of note: Mulder is involved in a foot chase at one point, and as he catches up to his suspect he is profusely sweating. It occurs to me that I cannot recall the last time I saw a character sweat after running in a movie—in fact, this is always something that annoys me in the back of my mind. Nice to see that somebody else pays attention to things like this, too. Also, the end credits sequence is downright off-putting and very out-of-place, and if you stay until the very end it gets just plain cheesy. You’ll see what I mean.