Even in the estimation of its ardent followers, “The X-Files” has rarely been a model of consistency, if only because creator Chris Carter’s vision is so audaciously complex that it sometimes collapses beneath the weight of its own ambition.
At its best, it is cerebral pulp fiction, deftly combining elements of Carter’s religious faith with his predilection for paranormal fantasy and maddeningly intricate conspiracy theories. In its lesser moments, it is convoluted and unfocused, undone by its myriad twists and needlessly baffling turns.
The good news is that “I Want to Believe,” the second feature spun off from the television series, plays like a solid stand-alone episode, broad enough to ensnare the uninitiated without alienating the show’s loyal base.
Those expecting a full-cast reunion may be disappointed, but the sight of Mulder and Scully, back on the FBI beat to crack a seemingly impenetrable missing-persons case, should soften the blow.
Given the cloud of secrecy that has enveloped the film since its inception, I will refrain from divulging details, except to say that Mulder (David Duchovny) has grown a modest beard since his acrimonious departure from the FBI and has lost none of his passion for armchair meditations on the unexplained.
Scully (Gillian Anderson) is more firmly rooted in the present, practicing medicine and still struggling to reconcile her devotion to science with her spiritual leanings.
Carter and longtime co-writer Frank Spotnitz quickly thrust the two back on the job to solve the abduction of a fellow agent, aided by a disgraced priest (Billy Connolly) who claims to experience psychic visions.
What follows is a serviceable slice of “X-Files” lore that works best as an unsettling procedural rich in the grisly details Carter relishes: men shedding tears of blood, sawn-off body parts eerily preserved in an iced-over river. That Mulder and Scully never quite make sense of it all is understandable.
While those details lend an ominous tone to the proceedings, only some of them are adequately explained. The rest, I suppose, serve as proof of some otherworldly force at work in our lives.
Or so Mulder would have it. Six years after the TV show’s open-ended finale, Duchovny’s compulsive truth-seeker remains quick-witted and charismatic, just as his relationship with Scully remains frustratingly complicated. “I Want to Believe” surrounds them with an engaging story, but one can’t help wondering whether the definitive “X-Files” movie isn’t still out there.
The X-Files: I Want to Believe ***
Written by: Frank Spotnitz and Chris Carter
Directed by: Chris Carter
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes