David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, in

Dir. Chris Carter
(PG-13) ★ ★ ★

Ten years after the first big-screen adaptation of the cult hit FOX series and a full six years after the series ended, this summer’s follow-up The X-Files: I Want to Believe came later than most fans had hoped for — perhaps too late. Upon its release in July, it was greeted with a shrug from audiences and derision from critics, scoring a mere 32% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 47 on MetaCritic. It deserves better.

It is neither a great film nor a great addition to the X-Files canon, but it is effective, well acted, and contains richer themes than one can expect from most Hollywood films. Show me another mainstream thriller that unleashes its monsters to pose questions of redemption and faith.

The story reunites Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), no longer with the FBI but asked by the bureau to consult on an investigation into the disappearance of an agent. They formerly specialized in cases involving the paranormal and are needed to evaluate the credibility of a man who claims to have a psychic connection to the case.

The psychic is Father Joseph Crissman (Billy Connolly), who claims the visions are a gift from God, an opportunity for him to repent for his sins — he is a convicted pedophile. Scully, a Catholic and a medical doctor, doesn’t believe him, but something he tells her hits close to home and she is not sure what to believe.

A subplot involves Scully’s treatment of a young boy with an untreatable neurological disease. This storyline has no connection to the film’s central mystery and is a bit of a narrative sore thumb, jutting in awkwardly. Its purpose is to further the film’s theme: Scully develops a painful, experimental treatment for her patient that is opposed by her colleagues and the hospital’s administrative priests — “I have taken it up with the highest authority,” Father Ybarra (Adam Godley) warns her, “as should you.” But she believes that a message from God has told her to risk the procedure to save the child: a cryptic message from the pedophile priest.

Would God choose to speak through such a disreputable man? Has He spoken to her as she believes He has? Chris Carter’s direction and screenplay (co-written by Frank Spotnitz) lean towards overwrought sentimentality, but Anderson’s performance makes the hospital story work; she gives it the necessary weight and conviction.

Mulder has a different kind of faith: He believes in the paranormal, in the existence of extraterrestrials. Scully is empirical, a scientist, and believes what she can see, but in her religious faith she has more in common with her partner than she perhaps realizes. Though they argue about the truth, they both believe that it’s out there.

The story shapes up as a grisly case of surgical experimentation — I won’t go into the details. It’s the kind of ghoulish plot you’d find in an about-average episode of the X-Files series, though by divorcing itself from the unwieldy alien mythology that devoured the program over its nine seasons on the air the film gets the chance to breathe, to focus on its characters and themes. It gives us an interesting supporting cast, including Connolly as the disgraced priest and Amanda Peet as an open-minded FBI agent, though I could have done without Agent Mosley Drummy, who as played by rapper Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner does little more than scowl.

The film was more successful in foreign markets than in domestic ones, and its worldwide box office gross of $68 million more than doubles its modest production budget. In addition, I suspect many fans of the series who passed on the film in theaters will come to it on DVD, as I did, giving perhaps some meager hope that a third X-Files film isn’t out of the question. Unlikely, but I want to believe.

Note: The X-Files: I Want to Believe is rated PG-13. It includes multiple decapitations, an impalement, assaults, murders, kidnappings, and disturbing, graphic depictions of forced surgery. Frost/Nixon is rated R. According to the website Kids-In-Mind.com, it includes a grand total of five F-words. The MPAA thinks the X-Files movie is more suitable for young teenagers. Let your sanity guide you; the MPAA’s has gone astray.