There are aliens in The X-Files: I Want to Believe, but they are not from outer space.
Instead, they come from Russia: a band of demented medicos, descended on West Virginia to participate in some freaky Frankenstein shenanigans - and that's too bad.
Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) still has that old UFO poster on his wall, though it's a wall in his house in the middle of nowhere. He's a recluse with a beard and bitter memories, in mopey exile, retired from his job as an expert on paranormal phenomena at the FBI. So the plot of Chris Carter's second film spun off of the hit cult TV show is decidedly terrestrial, and grim and unpleasant, too.
A convoluted, unconvincing mishmash of hot-button social issues - stem cell research, Catholic church sexual-abuse scandals, pedophilia, gay marriage, organ harvesting - The X-Files: I Want to Believe reunites Mulder with Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), his pretty, pragmatic partner of all nine TV seasons. It's been six years since the series signed off, 10 since the first film.
While Mulder seems to be doing nothing now but clipping articles out of newspapers, Scully has gone to work at Our Lady of Sorrows Hospital - she's a surgeon, full of angst and self-doubt over how to treat a young boy with a rare and seemingly fatal brain disease.
Enter Father Joe (Billy Connolly), a defrocked priest with claims of psychic abilities. Two hard-nosed, skeptical FBI-ers - Dakota Whitney (a no-nonsense Amanda Peet) and Mosley Drummy (Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner) - aren't sure what to make of this long-haired, noxious gent, but they enlist Father Joe's services anyway when a fellow agent goes missing. And when he leads the search party onto a snowy field, drops to his knees and comes up with a severed arm - well, it's time to get Mulder over here to check out this Father Joe and see if he's for real.
Gloomy and serpentine, with a pointless chase sequence and a couple of big revelations about what Mulder and Scully have been up to on a personal level, The X-Files: I Want to Believe will make believers of no one who's not already a diehard X-phile. Duchovny, who's moved on to offbeat indie work (playing a randy cad in Showtime's Californication), looks alternately peeved and vexed, and shrouded in melancholy, for most of the film.
Anderson, who's turned Brit in a number of TV series and films, including Bleak House and The Last King of Scotland, is compelling in her white lab coat and surgical scrubs, and she brings some real tenderness to her tete-a-tetes with Mulder. Her character's doubts about ESP and the paranormal linger still, but so does Scully's attachment to Mulder - and her faith in him.
Faith, as the title suggests, is the operative theme in The X-Files: I Want to Believe. But X-Files creator Carter throws out such a hodgepodge of stalker and serial killer cliches, dotting the landscape with black crows and snarling dogs, and moves the action along in such stop-and-start bursts, that whatever point he's trying to get at remains puzzling, vague and, well, unbelievable.
The X-Files: I Want to Believe ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Chris Carter. With Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny, Billy Connolly, Amanda Peet and Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner. Distributed by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, disturbing imagery, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.