The X-Files: I Want to Believe offers the viewer many mysteries to contemplate -- and only one of them is on-screen; as David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson return to roles and a franchise that last graced our TV screens in 2002 (and was last on the big screen in 1998), your mind swirls around the behind-the-scenes facts as fiercely as it does around the events playing out before your eyes. As reclusive, retired ex-FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (Duchovny and Anderson) help the FBI with an abduction case, you're not following the plot as such; instead, you're thinking things like Hey, didn't this show get canceled six years ago? Haven't Duchovny and Chris Carter, the star and director of this film, both sued the studio behind it? Who, out in the movie going audience, is really clamoring for this movie? If you're an X-Files fan, is this film's freestanding creepy tale, with no link to the weird and convoluted mythos Carter came up with for the show, going to satisfy whatever itch you may still have for the franchise? And if you're not an X-Files fan, is the idea that this film stands alone enough reason to come to the franchise now?
When The X-Files debuted in 1993, Clinton was in the White House, Miley Cyrus was in diapers, and Jurassic Park was in theaters; times, obviously, have changed. The X-Files: I Want to Believe begins with the abduction of a female FBI agent, cross-cut with a FBI search of a snowy field. Agents Whitney (Amanda Peet) and Drummy (Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner) are led by psychic Father Joseph Crissman (Billy Connolly) to a severed male arm buried in the snow. Whitney tracks down Dana Scully, now working as a doctor at a Catholic hospital, in the hopes that Scully can connect the FBI with Mulder; Mulder is disgraced and even wanted by the FBI, but the suggestion is that Mulder's past work in the bizarre and unusual cases known as the "X Files" will give him an insight into working with a psychic. The FBI doesn't really trust Crissman, and with good reason -- he's a convicted pedophile who's been exiled from the church for years.
Bearded and brusque, Mulder reluctantly comes in from the cold; Scully also comes along for the ride, even though she's dealing with a young patient with a terminal illness who may have a chance at survival with a radical experimental stem cell therapy. As other women disappear, Mulder and Scully work the case alongside Whitney and Drummy, uncovering a bizarre conspiracy that's kidnapping very specific people for a very specific cause. ...
And watching The X-Files: I Want to Believe, I kept thinking: Really? This is all you have? Co-written by series creator Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, the film doesn't even attain the loopy, inspired bizarreness of old-school episodes like "Squeeze" or "The Host" or "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"; when the big plot is revealed, it seems almost pedestrian, as if Stephen King had given a re-write pass to a CSI episode to slick the procedural up with a little gore to make it shinier.
Duchovny, as Mulder, is fairly wasted -- or, rather, not given much room to move in the constraints of the plot. (It's sad when the biggest moment given to an actor in his character's arc for a film is when he shaves.) Anderson's arc as Scully seems specifically crafted to let her brood and nurture as opposed to run about in pursuit of the bad guys, possibly to keep Anderson from looking too bored on-screen. Connolly's work is certainly engaged -- you never fail to believe in his character -- but it's never really engaging. (Did Carter and Spotnitz, looking for a plot device to cast doubt on their film's psychic, really have to make Connolly's character a pedophile? Aren't there subtler, more intriguing ways of doing the same thing?)
The X-Files: I Want to Believe is also marred by bad guys who are simultaneously smart enough to engineer a multi-person kidnapping ring but dumb enough to make traditional movie villain errors like not checking to see if the person they've tried to kill is actually dead, or running a few errands while the person they want dead is lying there unconscious. (And again, do Carter and Spotnitz have to mention that the two male lead suspects in the kidnappings are "... married in Massachusetts"? It's as if someone suggested "Kidnapping and dismemberment isn't creepy enough; let's make them gay kidnappers!") Screen time devoted to the traditional back-and-forth between Mulder and Scully -- his hunt for truth in the darkness against her need to find faith in the light, and all of that stuff -- is screen time that could have been used to make the villains of the piece more compelling, or, at the very least, more interesting.
Carter, Duchovny and Anderson have all said they'd be willing to do another X-Files movie; whether audiences want that as much as they (and their business managers) do remains to be seen. Considering that Fox settled out-of-court when both Duchovny and Carter sued over allegations of price fixing for the syndication sale of the series, the idea that Fox, Carter and Duchovny went from litigation to production is another great demonstration of how truly insane modern franchise-mad big Hollywood seems to be. There are questions about faith and ethics and redemption in The X-Files: I Want to Believe, and plenty of chases and grisly visions of crazed pseudoscience. Carter and his team want to give us reasons to believe; I just don't think they gave us any reason to care.