We may not see it often, but Gillian Anderson has a wonderful face for movies. It's long, with big features that don't give a lot away. She would have been a huge star in the 1930s and '40s, when the good screenplays had snap and a half-awake director would have made the most of her smolder and intelligence. Instead, her career has been bound up, in one way or another, with Dana Scully, the FBI agent whom Anderson has been playing on "The X-Files" since the early 1990s.
Anderson gave a devastatingly seductive performance eight years ago as Lily Bart in "The House of Mirth," and it promised a long, bright life after the show. Oh well. Now she's back again as Scully, a mystery that seems beyond even her sleuthing. "The X-Files: I Want to Believe," a second film based on the show, requires her to say things like "A young agent's life is at stake," "It's over," and "I'm taking a chance on a radical and extremely painful medical procedure." Dana, so is the audience.
The movie reunites Anderson and David Duchovny, who seems a little happier to be playing Fox Mulder again. He gets to fight off attack dogs, get shot with a tranquilizer, and watch people fall down elevator shafts. Duchovny's seemingly sleep-deprived humor makes sense as Mulder, a kook vaguely embarrassed by his kookiness. But you have to wonder whether he and Anderson will be consigned to live on as the Shatner-Nimoy of their generation.
The show's creator, Chris Carter, directed and co-wrote "I Want to Believe," but this time doesn't have the duo do anything other worldly. They're not chasing aliens, just leads on a missing FBI agent. Scully has quit the bureau to practice medicine full time. Mulder appears to have quit to practice growing the Unabomber's beard. But the FBI - represented by Amanda Peet and rapper/ride-pimper Xzibit, naturally - needs them. The agency has been relying on the hunches of a clairvoyant pedophile priest, played by an under-the-top Billy Connolly, to catch a predator. The priest might be connected to the victim. He may have known her captors. He might want to see someone about his bleeding eyes.
Regardless, if that's all I had to go on, Mulder and Scully's believer-skeptic routine might start looking pretty good to me, too.
Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz have stapled together an arbitrary plot out of yesterday's news (cancer, Russians, gay marriage, stem cells, clergy sex abuse) in a way that drags us back to the lousy thrillers of both the 1980s and last spring. I thought April's "88 Minutes," with its steaming pile of Pacino, would be the last time a movie would cook up a homosexual nutjob. Oops. "I Want to Believe" comes up with two.
The movie is less like an episode of "The X-Files" and more like the trashiest installment ever of "Law & Order: SVU." Benson and Stabler have seen some loony stuff but nothing this sick. And certainly Benson has never brought the house down, as Scully does, by surveying a crime scene and saying, "I've got work to do here." Even the putdown of our current president is out of line. George W. Bush may be responsible for a lot of messes, but this movie's not one of them.
The whole thing feels like atonement for the pretensions and preposterous dead ends of the last "X-Files" movie and the show's diminished final seasons. "I Want to Believe" isn't so much for the fans, who will always have reruns, or the actors, who will always have residuals, but for Carter himself, who like George Lucas seems unduly obsessed with his signature franchise well past its actual value.
The truth is, indeed, still out there. And when Carter finds it, may he heed its wisdom: Let go.