Networks have stopped broadcasting threat levels, Larry King has started doing UFO shows again, and there's an "X-Files" movie in theaters.

Journalism rule of thumb: two's coincidence, three's a trend story, so strap yourself in for my cockamamie theory about the inverse relationship between real and imagined threats.

Here goes: Humans have a natural appetite for paranoia. If there is no obvious, urgent danger, we exercise this appetite by indulging in contrived conspiracies. Thus, the apparent peace and prosperity of the 1990s produced "The X-Files" and its mythology built around government cover-ups of the paranormal.

On the other hand, when we feel that a crazed jihadist with a suitcase bomb may be in our midst, we have actual threat to occupy our minds, and the need for contrived conspiracy becomes superfluous, even annoying. Which is why the series rapidly lost its hold on the popular imagination after 9/11.

I guess War on Terror paranoia remains, because "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" felt, well, intensely superfluous and annoying.

It opens with exiled, retired Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) summoned by the FBI (in the person of Amanda Peet) to help solve the disappearance of an agent, kidnapped near her home in West Virginia. (This is itself a mystery, since West Virginia has apparently moved to the Canadian Rockies.)

The FBI's only lead is a defrocked priest (Billy Connelly) who's now a psychic. He puts the FBI on a puzzling trail of body parts, none belonging to the missing woman.

Skeptical agents think the priest is a fraud, Mulder thinks he's genuine, and that plays out as you might expect.

The body parts angle, though, leads to a unexpected, incredibly lurid exploration of medical ethics as they relate to organ harvesting and stem-cell research. Scully now works as a surgeon and is treating a dying boy with experimental procedures. Her situation brushes against Mulder's grotesque investigation into discarded arms, legs and heads (the movie somehow pulled a PG-13 rating, but it should be an R, and I'd keep kids away from it).

Speaking of heads, there's a moment where writer/director Chris Carter pauses to mock a portrait of President Bush, but this backfires a little. The movie is obviously sympathetic to Scully's use of stem-cell therapy, but it also gives us a barbarous spectacle of amoral physicians callously using human tissue for industrial purposes. This sends a different, unintentionally conservative message (shades of "The Island").

None of this will make much a difference to what remains of the hardcore "X-Files" fan base, who will remember the movie for the way it both resolves and prolongs the romantic tension between Scully and Mulder. *

Produced Frank Spotnitz and Chris Carter, written and directed by Chris Carter, music by Mark Snow, distributed by 20th Century Fox.