'The X-Files': That '90s Show. By Kurt Loder

Scully and Mulder in search of whatever.

Who didn't love "The X-Files," especially in the excitement of its early seasons? Each show was put together like a little movie, with witchy scripts, brooding photography, Scully and Mulder rootling around in the foggy woods. For a while in the mid-'90s, it was one of the best things on TV.

I was thinking about this while watching the new "X-Files" movie, which, I'm afraid, offers little else of its own to think about. Die-hard fans of the old series may be puzzled to find that the film (subtitled "I Want to Believe") is very light in the "X" department. There are no new mutations of the show's esoteric "mythology," and no monster-of-the-week cheap thrills, either. There's a modest dollop of paranormal activity — a psychic, big deal — and even that is presented as rather iffy. The truth may still be out there; the question is whether anyone apart from Fox Mulder still cares.

The movie opens in snowy West Virginia (snowy British Columbia, actually — why didn't they just set the story in Seattle or something?). A woman is attacked in her home by two scary men and dragged off into the night. Come daylight, we see a long line of FBI agents trudging across a field of ice behind a shambling gray-haired man who appears to be looking for something. When he drops to his knees, the agents gather round and begin digging. They soon unearth a human arm, minus the rest of its human. Aliens? People-eating ice creatures? Don't get your hopes up.

The gray-haired man is Father Joe (Billy Connolly). Joe is a complicated man: a defrocked priest, a convicted pedophile, a freelance psychic and an Irishman to boot. He's also a prominent cog in the movie's narrative design. This is a story about belief — "Belief," I mean. Joe still believes in a heavenly beneficence, despite his altar-boy-raping proclivities. Soon he's thrown together with ex-FBI agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), who believes in very little, and exiled FBI agent Mulder (David Duchovny), who'll believe pretty much anything. Scully left the Bureau in disgust and has gone back to doctoring at a Catholic hospital. When a blustery FBI agent named Drummy (rapper Xzibit, saddled with a name I find hard to believe myself) approaches her in search of her old partner Mulder, she reluctantly agrees to seek him out in the remote cabin where he now lives, alone with his beard and his flying-saucer poster. Soon the chase is on. Keep those hopes curbed, though.

There follows a series of killer-snowplow encounters and a creepy maniac who loiters underwater in a public swimming pool (very odd). Bereft of any interesting extraterrestrial overtones, the movie is basically a murder mystery of a rather gruesome sort. In fact, with its sadistic foreigners and grisly surgical shenanigans, it resembles nothing so much as one of the "Hostel" pictures. Longtime "X" fans are unlikely to rejoice at this; "Hostel" kids, on the other hand, would surely be bored by the movie's lack of pure, bare-fanged bloodlust. In any case, the actors are too good for simple slaughter porn. The leads seem not to have aged much at all — Duchovny retains his tousled charm, Anderson is still a redhead. And the invaluable Billy Connolly brings notes of weary self-loathing to his performance that probably weren't all present in the script. "X-Files" creator Chris Carter, here directing his first feature, wobbles occasionally (he goes out of his way to score the lamest Bush joke in the short but populous history of that genre), but his excesses are finessed by cinematographer Bill Roe, a veteran of the TV series, who brings a chilly snap to the outdoor scenes and an infernal glow to the hideous lab sequences.

There are a few old-school "X-Files" touches. Bureau buddy Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) puts in a late-inning appearance. Scully and Mulder natter a bit about their doomed love child ("I think our son left both of us with an emptiness that can't be filled," says Mulder, possibly against his will). And there's a passing reference to Mulder's long-lost, alien-abducted sister, Samantha, who's still long-lost. These are just sops to "X-Files" fans, though. The movie has no real idea what it wants to be, and its confusion is illuminated by one of the most hilarious lines of the year. Attempting to assess what they've learned from this lackadaisical adventure, Mulder says to Scully, "If Father Joe were the Devil, why would he say the opposite of what the Devil would say? Maybe that's the answer."

What was the question again?

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Step Brothers," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "X-Files: I Want to Believe."

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