Film: The Big Picture: It's the end of the world (again)

For the apparent sophistication of its methods, and the chilly sobriety of its design, the film of the X-Files deals in some very primary, obvious pleasures. The paraphernalia of its scientists and technicians is rejoiced in. The antiseptic space suits and visors; the black, fleshy rubber gloves resembling aubergines with fingers; the important looking cranks and dials all these serve the same purpose that the laboratory equipment in James Whale's Frankenstein did for 1930's audiences.

A scene in a morgue in which Mulder (David Duchovny) unwraps a corpse like a Christmas gift, untying the string and peeling back the cloth wrapping, reminds you of the very literal morbid curiosity which the show inspires: a brief autopsy with Scully (Gillian Anderson) exposing the body's crisply honeycombed organs and prodding around in its jelly-like skin, make good on the promise. Real enthusiasts may wonder how they can apply for some of the jobs listed in the films end credits - is there a training scheme for Alien Blood Consultants?

The X-Files television series initially fed the inbuilt human hunger for the unknown, and has since gone on to satiate that appetite to the point of being obsolete. More brain-sucking shape-shifters, Sir? More mutant extra-terrestrials with IV lines to your subconscious? Another sinister government conspiracy? No, really, I couldn't touch another thing.

The problem is that the show has not learnt from the example of Twin Peaks, which demonstrated that you can sustain mystery and suspense over a long period of time provided you leave certain areas undisturbed: on top, a thin wedge of normality, and at the bottom, a crust of unquantifiable evil which can never be entirely explained or dispelled, no matter how vigorous the attempts to do so. The X-Files has created a multi-layered universe, but it is one in which every layer is gradually revealed to comprise the same ingredients - covert political plots with alien connections. It has made the conspiracy theory cuddly. Fans of 1970's conspiracy thrillers such as Klute and The Parallax View may argue reasonably enough that this is like an existential text preaching the glory of the afterlife.

The film version of the X-Files is littered with recurrent themes, in- jokes and favourite characters from the series - the Well Manicured Man, who is English and therefore automatically creepy, and the Cigarette Smoking Man, whose 100-a-day habit immediately marks him out as eccentric in a purified modern America. Or rather, an America which feigns purity but is, the film suggests, just a test tube into which viruses are introduced on a whim by wealthy old men and their slimy green benefactors. These days, no blockbuster worth the title courts anything less threatening than full-scale apocalypse, and The X-Files buys into this, though to little purpose. The prospect of the end of the world is nothing compared to the moment when Scully has a plague-carrying bee caught under her jacket collar. A bee-sting, illness and fear of death are all things we can draw upon; only those viewers who remember the Ice Age are likely to be unsettled by the film's threat of global extinction.

Individual scenes and ideas, taken out of context, are more likely to impress. The picture begins tremendously with an anonymous, blinding white snowscape onto which the title "Texas 75,000 BC" is projected. The malevolent species, which will come to jeopardise earth in the late 20th century, announces its presence here to a pair of cavemen. One of them is slashed to ribbons; the other, realising it is better to attack first and grunt later, gets in quick with a shard of flint. A black, glue-like marmite oozes around his feet and worms appear rippling under his skin. He is not going to be around for New Year's Day, 74,999 BC.

The colours which the director, Rob Bowman, and his cinematographer, Ward Russell, have selected for this prologue give it a heightened artificial sense - the glacial blue of the cave walls, the rich flames of the cavemen's torches, the deep berry red of their internal organs. Bowman and Russell return to this effect later, when Mulder witnesses an explosion: his face is bathed in reds and oranges supposedly from the fire, while the electric blue of the wet street around him remains placid and unbroken. It's the same colour scheme sanctioned by Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy, but all the more tantalising in The X-Files for its sparing use as relief from a palette of mould greens, morgue greys and cadaver blues.

The picture doesn't make any notable concessions to film as a separate medium from television, which is a measure of how cinematically inclined the series was in the first place. Most of the movie is comprised of close- ups and head shots, but always in the shadows and always lit from beneath. The screenplay by the series creator, Chris Carter, isn't driven by the momentum of a movie, either. It's more like a standard episode padded out with a bit more stalking around corridors and a few more set pieces.

For a creation which prides itself on its complexity, there doesn't seem to be a lot going on, either on the surface or below it. Mulder and Scully investigate the possibility that the terrorist bombing was engineered to destroy the bodies of two virus victims. A shifty writer (Mark Landau) accosts Mulder and supplies him with handy scraps of information which lead him to formulate his conspiracy theory. Various government bodies do terrible things, then cover their tracks by removing the witnesses, or building playgrounds over the evidence. At many points, you wander if this is all you are going to get. There is a makeshift chase sequence - take a cornfield at night, two fugitives and helicopters with search lights and you've got your own ready-made North by Northwest set piece. But there are no sub-plots, no engaging supporting characters: struggling with the limited permutations of the Mulder/Scully partnership, Carter has them kiss - almost. And only after Mulder has given a completely out- of-character speech dissecting Scully's function in his life for those unfamiliar with the series.

Mulder and Scully's relationship is intriguing precisely because it teeters on the verge of expression or articulacy. But some things lose their magic when they are held up to the light - the apparently inexplicable can be exposed as something quite hum-drum. To ensure its survival, the X-Files needs to uncover not answers, which can invariably be so banal, but questions - lots of them and each one a lunge into the future.