When Gillian Anderson first reunites with her “X-Files” co-star David Duchovny in this, the second spinoff movie from the sci-fi TV series, she finds him much as she did in the pilot episode 15 years ago: with his back to her, crouched over a crowded desk. On the wall is the same fuzzily photographed poster of a flying saucer that hovered above that desk for nine seasons, emblazoned with the now-iconic credo, “I Want to Believe.”
This nostalgic opening gesture is quickly replaced by a rude awakening. Duchovny wheels around to reveal that his character, Fox Mulder, tireless tracker of inexplicable phenomena for the FBI and perennial thorn in the bureau’s side, is looking, well, tired. His firebrand insolence is still in there somewhere, behind an unkempt beard, but it has been subdued by one too many years of fighting uphill battles.
Chris Carter, the director of “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” and father of the cultish Fox Network show, wants to assure us from the outset that nothing, and everything, has changed. This was Carter’s M.O. throughout the winding trajectory of his series, which was forever morphing in personality while keeping Duchovny’s Mulder and Anderson’s agent Dana Scully locked in a state of philosophical (and sexual) tension. He was the believer, she the skeptic; he softened her with alien abduction theory, she blinded him with science.
Even at its stride, “The X-Files” was a load of malarkey. But it was thoughtful malarkey and compulsively watchable. One could say the same about the first two-thirds of “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” before it spins out of control and into a delirious plane of awfulness.
In his efforts to resurrect some of the spooky-ooky chill of the series, Carter has sacrificed the self-kidding regard toward his FBI protagonists that it took the better part of nine years to cultivate.
“The X-Files: I Want to Believe” evokes the gloom and earnestness of many of the early episodes as it finds its once-feisty duo in the more reflective mode of middle years and at a self-protective distance from their former occupations.
As in countless aging-investigator thrillers, Mulder is summoned out of retirement by the very agency that sent him packing. It seems a female FBI agent is among the women being kidnapped in a wintry patch of rural West Virginia, where bodies and body parts are turning up under the ice and snow. The divining rod for these ghoulish discoveries is Father Joe (Billy Connolly), a defrocked priest with a history of sexual abuse and a facility for psychic visions.
Scully, who now works as a surgeon at a Catholic hospital (Our Lady of Sorrows, nudge nudge), was always a wrestling act for Anderson, who had to fight against the character’s morose, doubting-Thomas side, not to mention prosaic literary tendencies. Anderson loses the match here: Scully has ossified into one of the most humorless characters to suck the life out of a summer movie.
Perhaps the grimness comes from her frustrating professional life. As she fights to save the life of a boy with brain cancer, Scully learns a lesson that Mulder gleaned from his years as the FBI’s house pariah: No paranormal phenomenon is half as crazy-making as a boss who stands in the way, in this case, Father Ybarra (Adam Godley), the hospital head who thwarts Scully’s experimental surgery.
Between Father Ybarra’s obfuscation and Father Joe’s pederastic past, one might suspect the filmmakers of an anti-Catholic Church bias. Despite its title, however, “I Want to Believe” is not so much interested in setting up a dialectic between clashing belief systems as it is in delivering a socko FBI procedural. In both instances, it falls woefully short.
By the time Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz throw in cartoon Russian villains and a risible plot point involving same-sex marriage, it’s hard to figure where they, or their movie, is coming from.
“X-Files: I Want to Believe.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for violent and disturbing content and thematic material. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. In general release.