I Want to Believe

A thoughtful exploration of Catholicism and the problem of evil — in a sci-fi flick? Matthew Lickona looks at the unlikely X-Files.

There was nothing else playing. Well, almost nothing. We’d seen Dark Knight already — my brother, my father, and I — and the theater in my hometown, where we were gathered, wasn’t carrying much of interest. Nothing except maybe X-Files: I Want to Believe — a rapidly tanking, poorly reviewed sequel to a just-okay movie that came out ten years ago and grew out of a television series that had outlived my once-feverish interest in it by about three years. Hm.
Against that was the review from Duncan Shepherd, the contrarian movie critic for the paper that provides my day job. As the years have worn on and the fare has worn thin, the Black Dot has become Shepherd’s most common assessment — but lo! For X-Files, three stars! And there was this, from his review:
This modest entertainment, under the authoritative direction of series creator Chris Carter, has plenty of speed and stamina; it has palpable suspense; it has honest shocks; and it has a unifying and a resonating theme of perseverance: Mulder in his lifelong pursuit of the Truth that . . . Is Out There . . . Scully in her quotidian treatment of a terminally ill child, the ex-priest in his quest for redemption, and even the villains in the lengths to which they’re prepared to go in their self-serving villainy.
We took a chance, and I’m glad we did. What’s more, now that the film is out on DVD, you should, too — at least, if you’re at all interested in the artistic exploration of Catholicism. As we left the theater, my brother asked me, "Do you think Chris Carter converted in the interim?" He wasn’t entirely serious, but I took his point. More than anything (and this may be why the series’ fans were less than enthusiastic), this is a film about Dana Scully, a Catholic struggling with the problem of evil — and with evil itself. "I want to believe" was Mulder’s old mantra, and he was talking about aliens. But here, it’s Scully’s, and she’s talking about God.
A brief intro for the uninitiated: The X-Files was a 1990s television series about two FBI agents, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, who investigated paranormal phenomena. Mulder was the true believer; Scully — scientist, doctor, and Catholic — was the skeptic.
At the film’s opening, Scully is out of the FBI game. Why? For one reason, as she tells Mulder, "I’m done chasing monsters in the dark. . . . I don’t want that darkness in my home." (Mulder’s excellent rejoinder, delivered late in the film: "I don’t think it works like that. I think the darkness finds you, wherever you are.") Now, she’s a doctor at Our Lady of Sorrows (!) hospital, overseeing the care of a terminally ill child. But she’s reluctant to give him up to a hospice, and here she bumps up against the hospital administrator — who happens to be a priest. "We’re here to heal the sick," he reminds her. "Not to prolong the ordeal for the dying. . . . Unless you’ve come up with a cure, we’d ask that you let the boy go in peace." Hard words, but not unreasonable. In fact, entirely reasonable. A priest as the voice of reason — who knew?
And it gets better: Set against the reasonable priest is another sort of priest — Father Joe. He gets called a psychic, but he’s closer to a prophet. Father receives visions he can’t explain, and says things he knows not why. One of those things he says to Scully: "Don’t give up." But Scully doesn’t want to listen to him, because the priest is a pedophile (albeit a repentant one). Her Catholicism is part of the reason she reacts so violently against him, and small wonder: She’s doesn’t want the darkness in her home, and here it is, shepherding the flock. Their initial exchange:
Scully: "What were you praying for in there?"
Father: "The salvation of my immortal soul."
Scully: "Do you think God hears your prayers?"
Father: "Does he hear yours?"
It’s that sort of response that made my brother wonder if Carter had converted; he got the character of the priest so well. Father Joe hates his sin, hates his twisted desire. But he doesn’t hate himself so much that he imagines himself beyond redemption, and he has no patience for anyone heaping judgment upon him or his visions. Faith in Christ means believing that salvation is possible for even the most wretched sinner. And while, in a clever allusion, he can’t make his visionary gift work with Scully the Doubter present — "He could do no miracles there . . ." — he still speaks with the sort of authority that made the crowds wonder at Christ’s teaching. "All I ever wanted was to serve Him," says Father, and serve Him he does, drinking the bitter cup to the dregs.
Getting back to the contest between faith and reason: Father Joe’s visions concern two kidnapped women, and as the story progresses, he gets enough right that Scully can’t easily ignore him. When he tells her not to give up, she takes it as a sign that she should attempt a radical, risky, and painful course of treatment that might save her patient’s life. It’s a leap of faith, venturing out in the darkness on the strength of a prophet’s testimony. (And it’s worth noting that even after she takes the leap, her faith is tested.)
This is the real drama of the film, the story at its wonderfully human heart. No aliens, no conspiracies, just through-a-glass-darkly signs from the Christian God. But the creepy X-Files part of the story — the part about the kidnapped girls and the body parts in the frozen lake and the cut-rate Cerberus — is not simply there to keep things moving. Nor is it a MacGuffin, designed to distract the viewer from the Point. Scully, even as she perseveres in faith, is placing her reliance on medical science. Put crudely, she wants to (maybe) save the child by sticking stem cells into his brain with a long needle. In some sense, this is opposed to the notion, expressed by the sick child’s parents at one point, that "we want to put our faith in God now."
The question arises: Where do we draw the line when it comes to human intervention? When do we step back and say, "We can go no further; the patient is in God’s hands now"? The film doesn’t try to provide an answer, but the story’s bad guys do seem to manifest that such a line exists. Scully and the bad guys are close enough that they draw from the same research, but still, something separates them. Unfettered Science is maybe not always a benign, salvific force.
X-Files: I Want to Believe is not a perfect film. There are some tortured exchanges between our protagonists, and a lot depends on Scully’s ability to notice the number on a snow-covered mailbox, at night, from inside a moving car. But it is a remarkable film, not least because of its portrayal of the life of faith.
Post script: If you do rent it, stay with it through the credits.

Matthew Lickona is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader and the author of the 2005 memoir Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic. He lives in La Mesa, California, with his wife and children.


Matthew Lickona has been a staff writer for the San Diego Reader, a weekly newspaper, since 1995. From 1999-2008, he wrote Crush, an interview-driven column about wine and the wine industry. Since 2006, he has written Sheep & Goats, a review of worship services around San Diego County. He also writes regular cover stories for the paper. In 2005, Loyola Press published his memoir Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic. The book chronicled his efforts to engage the Catholic faith of his youth, and to make it more fully his own. His work has appeared in Here Comes Everybody: Catholic Studies in American Higher Education, Faith at the Edge: A New Generation of Catholic Writers Reflects on Life, Love, Sex, and Other Mysteries, and the forthcoming Young and Catholic in America: Sex, Sacraments, and Social Justice. One of his favorite pieces ran in the quarterly magazine Doublethink: a pop-culture reverse gloss on Pope Benedict XVI

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