Familiar, Rousing Ingredients in Big-Screen 'X-Files'

From novels by Thomas Pynchon and Umberto Eco to movies like "The Truman Show" and TV programs like "The X-Files," conspiracies have filled the air as the millennium approaches. "The truth is out there," an "X-Files" logo proclaims, and it appears some audiences hope to find this in the fictions they consume.

The widely popular "X-Files" series has captivated untold millions since its 1993 premire. While much of its success rests on obvious attributes like attractive stars and eye-catching special effects, it taps into deeper concerns with its suggestions that paranormal forces play a strong but hidden part in contemporary affairs, and that our untrustworthy government(s) are more deeply embroiled in this than they'll admit to us ordinary citizens.

The show occasionally touches on philosophical and even spiritual issues, moreover, opening up fascinating possibilities for its future growth. So far, though, series honcho Chris Carter has chosen to play with those possibilities rather than explore them with the open-minded imagination they deserve. The same goes for the "X-Files" movie he's concocted with director Rob Bowman.

The familiar ingredients are all on display: David Duchovny as Mulder, the FBI agent energized by a childhood alien-abduction scene; Gillian Anderson as Scully, his rational-minded but warmly sympathetic partner; series regulars like good guy Mitch Pileggi and ominous guy William B. Davis; Mark Snow's whistling-by-the-graveyard theme music; and lots of plots, subplots, and subsubplots about everything from viral plagues and alien colonization to deadly cornfields and bug-eyed monsters.

This is more than enough material for two hours of summer-movie fun, and "The X-Files" delivers said fun reasonably well. The action scenes are bigger and bolder than their small-screen counterparts, especially when the story travels to the icebound locations that perennially lure Carter and his colleagues. The screenplay reveals partial answers to a number of unsolved mysteries raised by the show over its five-year history. And there are a few hilarious gags.

And yes, series fans, the almost-romance between Mulder and Scully comes delightfully close to blossoming, although more can't be revealed without spoiling one of the movie's most clever moments.

With all this in its favor, "The X-Files" is poised to become a solid warm-weather hit. Still, it's worth pausing to ask whether it couldn't have been more than just a rousing entertainment. By restricting their movie to the same narrow groove as the series, they forfeit their chance to compete with truly imaginative science-fiction classics like "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," which take more chances.

Already a major pop-culture phenomenon, the "X-Files" groundswell will surely grow even larger as moviegoers line up at multiplexes. Once the thrills and spills have ended, though, the movie will fade from most memories as quickly as one of Mulder's elusive UFOs vanishes from the star-filled sky.

* Rated PG-13; contains much action-movie violence and plot elements that could be disturbing for young children. David Sterritt's e-mail address is sterrittd@csps.com

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