The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Like many popular TV shows, “The X-Files” stayed on the air a few years longer than it should have, finally stopping in 2002 even though most of its viewers (and one of its cast members) had long since given up on it. But with the new “X-Files” film, subtitled “I Want to Believe,” Chris Carter and company have made the opposite mistake: They waited too long to come back.

Surely all but the most passionate ardor for the iconic paranormal series has cooled by now, leaving only a few particularly devoted X-Philes eager to see Mulder and Scully resume their work of holding cryptic conversations while shining flashlights at things. I loved “The X-Files” and watched the series right up to the end, but while it’s nice to see my old pals again, “I Want to Believe” is mediocre both as an “X-Files” movie and as a standalone mystery thriller.

Carter, the show’s creator, who directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with series veteran Frank Spotnitz, wisely chose not to explore the show’s complicated mythology in the film — a concession to the fact that a movie aimed only at devoted “X-Files” fans would, at this late date, make very little money. Instead, “I Want to Believe” is what we used to call a “monster of the week” story, an unconnected tale about a missing FBI agent and some nefarious bad guys that could, in theory, be enjoyed and understood even by “X-Files” novices.

Unfortunately, those novices are probably going to say, “Really? That’s it? What was all the fuss about?” Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), now living as a paranoid hermit and a doctor, respectively, are called in to help when an FBI agent goes missing and a defrocked priest (Billy Connolly) claims to have had psychic visions relating to the case. FBI Agent Whitney (Amanda Peet) admires Mulder’s work on the X-Files cases and wants his advice on this possible fraud, while her partner (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner) is already skeptical and insists they’re wasting valuable time listening to the priest.

What follows is an uninspired reworking of the series’ running themes: faith, religion, personal demons, and obsession. It feels exactly like a two-part TV episode, to the extent that you can even tell where the commercials would go. (The story generally follows Mulder and Scully’s investigation; when we cut to a scene of the bad guys doing bad things, it’s to lead up to something horrible, at which point we break for a word from our sponsors.) Nothing about it is so large or cinematic that it had to be told on the big screen — in fact, several actual episodes of “The X-Files” felt bigger than this.

There are quite a few parallels to “Beyond the Sea,” a Season 1 episode that was, to my mind, one of the best of the series: scary, dark, and thoughtful, all at once. Like the film, that episode had an alleged psychic offering clues about an abduction, with Mulder and Scully at different places on the credulity spectrum. Mulder gets hurt and Scully yells at the psychic, not wanting to believe him but believing anyway. The difference is that “Beyond the Sea” is brilliant, while this film is mediocre.

I wouldn’t call it “bad,” though. Duchovny and Anderson slide easily back into their roles as believer and skeptic, and their chemistry is still strong, a reminder of what a great TV duo they were. The direction and editing are solid, too, particularly during the suspenseful scenes. Nothing about the film feels sloppy or rushed.

But if they were going to have a reunion six years after the series ended and 10 years after the last theatrical film, shouldn’t they have come up with a better occasion than this weak-sauce story? There are no shocking revelations or bizarre twists, and most of what we eventually learn about the FBI agent’s disappearance is telegraphed early on. As a TV episode, it would be unmemorable but OK. As a theatrical feature requiring paid admission and a two-hour time commitment, uh, not so much.

C+ (1 hr., 42 min.; PG-13, a little mild profanity, some violent images.)