TV series have often been good vehicles for explorations of the paranormal. Episodes on the subject from classic shows as Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone still air regularly, decades after they first appeared. The X-Files, currently in its fifth year on prime time, has developed both a cult and a popular following because of its distinctive treatment of its material. The show's creator, Chris Carter, has now produced and co-written a feature film with the same title.

As the series's 20 million obsessive fans (called “X-philes”) already know, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) are FBI agents who investigate unsolved cases, an assignment that often brings them into contact with phenomena that can only be explained by paranormal or supernatural causes. Mulder, who claims his sister was kidnapped by aliens, believes in extra-terrestrial beings, UFOs, and a vast government conspiracy to cover it all up.

By contrast, Scully, a physician by training, is skeptical of such far-fetched notions and tries to use science to account for that which appears to be inexplicable. Neither her own possible abduction by aliens nor the growth of a mysterious cancer inside her skull can shake her rationalist principles.

Unlike previous TV series about the paranormal, The X-Files creates an atmosphere of pervasive paranoia which assumes that authorities routinely lie to the public and that murky cabals continuously plot against the general interest. Ever since Watergate, fears of this type have been widespread throughout our culture. It seems that almost every week another reputable figure endorses a conspiracy theory that once was considered marginal. For example, paranoid explanations of the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lennon and of the spread of AIDS in the African American community have now become mainstream.

Another unique feature of The X-Files is the way paranoia is made to seem cool. Mulder and Scully exchange hip banter and look as if they would be at home at an alternative rock concert. They rarely become unhinged when confronted with their own powerlessness in the face of these wide-ranging conspiracies.

In this season's last episode, a fire set by a recurring villain, the Cigarette- Smoking Man (William Davis), destroys all the X-files on paranormal activities. The feature film, directed by Rob Bowman and co-written by Frank Spotnitz, picks up the story from there. Mulder and Scully have been reassigned to an anti-terrorist unit in Dallas. A tall government building is blown up, in an incident that resembles the Oklahoma City bombing three years ago. The two FBI agents manage to evacuate the building of almost all its inhabitants before the explosion. The few bodies recovered are connected to a government agency that Mulder suspects is covering something up.

Sure enough, the cadavers originally came from a small Texas town where a boy had fallen into an underground cave and died after contact with a mysterious black substance. It seems that 35,000 years ago two cavemen were also attacked there by a strange creature with black blood.

Mulder is contacted by a maverick scientist on the run from the Feds, Dr. Alvin Kurtzweil (Martin Landau), who was a friend of the FBI agent's dead father. He claims the Dallas explosion is part of an alien colonization plan and that the lethal black ooze is part of the remains of extra-terrestrials who've been on earth since the Ice Age.

At this point the movie introduces a slew of characters from the series. First-time viewers of The X-Files phenomenon will have difficulty figuring out what's going on, and even when they do, there's so much new information to absorb, almost none of the rapid-fire plot twists that follow will have an emotional impact.

The Cigarette-Smoking Man is part of a vast conspiracy called the Syndicate which includes the Well-Manicured Man (John Neville) and a dozen or so other prosperous-looking, elderly white males who seem to have the power to overrule the government. During the series, the Syndicate plotted against Mulder and Scully whenever they uncovered anything involving aliens.

The feature film suggests that all the Syndicate's sinister activities may be motivated by good intentions. For 50 years it's been secretly hybridizing humans with alien colonists, creating a master race that can't be killed by contact with the lethal black ooze. However, Kurtzweil maintains that the Syndicate's purposes are still evil. After it has infected the United States with the deadly alien substance, he claims, it will use the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take over the country and suspend the Constitution.

Mulder and Scully must work their way through this paranoid maze while the Syndicate tries to kill them. They also try to resolve the loose ends of their relationship left hanging from the series. Are they in love, or is their liaison just professional?

Carter has said he created the TV show after reading a 1991 Roper poll that reported that 70% of Americans think JFK was killed by a conspiracy, and that 40% believe aliens have vacationed on earth. The poll also revealed that more than three million people think they've had contact with the extra-terrestrials.

During publicity interviews, Duchovney has described The X-Files as “a secular religious show.” Carter has gone further.

“Even if we don't believe in God,” he declared, “I believe we're all looking for something beyond our own rather temporal lives that is going to shake our foundations of belief.”

Contact with aliens is almost always described as a life- shattering experience. Yet, there's no linking of that kind of event to a transcendent moral code such as found in Christianity. In this regard, The X-Files unwittingly parallels certain New Age spiritual movements that promise connection to the supernatural through personal experience alone, without organized religion.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.

The X-Files is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America.