Cold case

The second X-Files movie is a surprisingly lifeless exercise

The second X-Files movie is a strangely lifeless exercise

Fox Mulder (David Duchovny, left) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) return to the big screen to investigate paranormal phenomena in The X-Files: I Want to Believe. ((Divah Perah/20th Century Fox))

The most pleasantly familiar thing about the new X-Files movie is the scenery. The snow-covered trees, heavy clouds and rugged mountain roads couldn’t be any more British Columbia. That the first dateline in the film reads "West Virginia" couldn’t be any more X-Files.

The film culminates in a climax that’s so hurried and half-baked, it’s hard not to feel that the real ending is, like "the truth," still out there.

The series (1993-2002), which followed the paranormal adventures of FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), was never particularly successful at disguising its Canadian locations, which may have been one reason why The X-Files got better ratings here than it did in the U.S. Thus, the decision to shoot The X-Files: I Want to Believe in the Vancouver area – the home base for the first five seasons of the series, widely considered the show’s golden years – seemed a sure indication to fans that they’d be in store for a quintessentially spooky experience.

Anticipation was further raised by the secrecy that surrounded the film, which was co-written and directed by the show’s creator and chief myth-spinner, Chris Carter (himself the subject of much speculation during his five-year hiatus from film and television). Few details about the movie’s contents were made public — as Carter told Wired.com in an interview this week, "We were determined to spoil the spoilers." Carter did state that the movie would feature a standalone narrative — unlike the previous film outing, The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998), which was another installment in the show’s elaborate and often frustrating "mythology." The news that this new X-Files story would not involve alien double agents, the Cigarette Smoking Man or the mysterious substance known as "Black Oil" saved viewers hundreds of hours’ worth of DVD cramming. (Carter has, however, released The X-Files: Revelations, a collection of episodes that pertain to the new movie.)

Carter faced a huge challenge if he expected to satisfy devotees of the show and potentially draw in enough newbies to warrant a third big-screen installment. How Carter failed so thoroughly may be a greater mystery than anything actually contained in this muddled movie. Indeed, after those first snowy views and a tense sequence that crosscuts between an FBI search on a frozen lake and a woman’s violent abduction, The X-Files: I Want to Believe makes one bad move after another. The film culminates in a climax that’s so hurried and half-baked, it’s hard not to feel that the real ending is, like "the truth," still out there.

Another missed opportunity is the chance to more deeply explore the relationship between Mulder and Scully, who maintain a bond despite having been out of the FBI for many years by the time this story begins. (They are romantically linked, albeit in their usual ambiguous manner.) Scully is back working as a doctor in a Catholic hospital, the perfect place for her to continue her internal battle between science and faith. With his scraggly beard, Mulder looks ready to finally become the fourth member of the Lone Gunmen (the show’s recurring trio of conspiracy theorists who also acted as comic relief). When the bureau asks Mulder and Scully to help find a kidnapped female FBI agent, they return to their old ways with a mixture of excitement and wariness. Scully is particularly concerned when she sees how Mulder reacts to this opportunity. "I can’t look into the darkness with you," she tells him. "I don’t like what it does to you or to me."

Scully and a team of FBI agents uncover a secret in The X-Files: I Want to Believe. ((Divah Perah/20th Century Fox))

But darkness — the metaphorical rather than the literal variety — is in shockingly short supply here. The driving force in the early part of the film is Father Joe (Billy Connolly), a priest and convicted pedophile who claims to have holy visions about the missing agent. That Carter and Frank Spotnitz’s script neglects to do much with such a potentially rich and contradictory figure is particularly disappointing — especially given the verve that the perpetually shaggy Scottish comedian and actor invests in the character. The discovery of severed body parts doesn’t add much intrigue, either — though the Silence of the Lambs-like travails of another abductee and a half-decent chase sequence through a building site briefly create some of the great tension found in the show’s most suspenseful episodes. Sadly, all it comes to is a batch of mystifying nonsense that has something to do with gay Russians, a two-headed dog and the ethics of stem-cell therapy.

I know, I should have put "spoiler alert" ahead of that last sentence — trust me when I say that I’m not spoiling anything. Beyond the pleasure of seeing Duchovny and Anderson back in action and back on form – with their complex and often wry working dynamic, Mulder and Scully were one of TV’s great partnerships – The X-Files: I Want to Believe offers little to either the longtime fans or newcomers. Carter refuses to budge out of his aesthetic comfort zone, which means the look of the film is badly dated; the decision to stay PG-13 also means that the show’s penchant for grisliness is kept to a demure minimum in the film.

The direction suggests that Carter has grown rusty or even indifferent when it comes to the task of creating his trademark gloom and menace. It’s a shame that the production didn’t involve another of the show’s other key writers or directors, like Kim Manners, Rob Bowman, Vince Gilligan or Darin Morgan. Given the lack of enthusiasm that informs the whole production, you’ve got to wonder whether Carter ever caught himself thinking – as a weary Scully says here — "I’m done chasing monsters in the dark." The X-Files: I Want to Believe doesn’t make anyone else feel like doing it, either.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe opens across Canada on July 25.

Jason Anderson is a writer based in Toronto.