If the first “X-Files” movie landed in the midst of the TV show’s run and near the height of its popularity, the second — far more modest in scope and ambition — comes six years after the program signed off. Both, however, share a common trait: Namely, neither would qualify as a better-than-average episode of the series. Director/franchise creator Chris Carter gives devoted fans plenty of small moments to swoon over, but the appeal should be limited beyond those fervent loyalists. So while the opening should be reasonably robust, this remains a movie primarily reserved for those wanting to believe in it.
A few niggling details — including Carter’s lawsuit against 20th Century Fox — had to be resolved before the movie could happen. Nevertheless, the passage of time did wonders for “Sex and the City,” and pent-up demand will doubtless prompt initial whoops and hollers here. Because the series’ arcane alien-invasion mythology became increasingly impenetrable in the latter stages, there’s also something to be said for returning to basics.
The execution, though, is another matter. Released amid the kind of security normally reserved for nuclear launch codes (and no spoilers here), the plot is initiated largely by a baffling missing-persons case that results in former FBI agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) being summoned from professional exile.
Mulder, of course, was once assigned to investigate unexplained cases, paired with skeptical partner/medical doctor Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Pressed back into service, they interact mostly with two existing agents (Amanda Peet and rapper Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner) and a fallen priest (Billy Connolly), who may be experiencing psychic visions.
Moving rapidly into the main story, Carter (who also wrote and produced with longtime collaborator Frank Spotnitz) still grasps the inherent spookiness of things that go bump in the night — or, in this particular setting, in vast, white fields of snow, where much of the action transpires. The problem is that the mystery isn’t as compelling or satisfying as it should be, and a “B” arc involving Scully separates the central duo at times without adding much to the narrative. Indeed, when Peet’s character offhandedly references some of Mulder’s past adventures, it’s hard not to wish you were watching one of them.
First glimpsed with a slightly rabbinical beard, Duchovny hasn’t lost his facility for delivering wisecracks, and Anderson can rattle off medical gibberish with the best of them. As for their chemistry, history has exacted something of a toll, not that it will matter much to those who once sighed breathlessly whenever the two so much as brushed fingertips.
Never ones to miss an opportunity, the brass at Fox were savvy to push for the movie now — and in a package that minimizes financial risk by eschewing pyrotechnics to focus on the show’s creepy essence. (As always, composer Mark Snow’s score goes a long way toward making a walk to the mailbox seem fraught with peril.)
Still, the warming glow of nostalgia only goes so far, with one’s level of forgiveness likely dictated by where they reside along the “X-Files” fan continuum — ranging from those who can rattle off the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s personal data to casual viewers of a few episodes. At either end of the spectrum, though, in searching for a great “X-Files” movie, that truth remains out there.
(Editor’s note: Lowry is the author of two 1990s companion guides to “The X-Files.”)