X-Files

The movie fans have been waiting for is just a big tease.


Joyce Millman
May 30, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

I want to believe.

But I felt my faith shaking the moment Mulder and Scully appeared on screen, playing uncharacteristic "Gotcha!" jokes on each other as they searched a building for a bomb. Scully? Gotcha jokes? I don't think so. It was as if they had been sucked up by some powerful alien force and deposited into a Bruce Willis movie. And I lost my faith completely when William B. Davis, aka the Cigarette Smoking Man, aka Cancer Man, made his entrance and I realized that the larger-than-life presence he usually casts from within my Zenith in the corner of the living room was no more than a trick of the light. He is no many-layered embodiment of evil -- he is merely the luckiest chain-smoking unknown character actor alive.

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I had come here seeking answers: Why did those old guys in expensive suits make a deal with aliens who want to take over Earth? What exactly is the black oil? What happens to Mulder's pet fish when he takes off for Antarctica on a moment's notice? But I found only obfuscation, partial explanations and the ear-splitting big-budget rumble of whirring helicopter blades and explosions.

But, I digress ... You really can't treat "The X-Files" as a movie because it isn't one. It's a two-hour episode of the show, except with better production values and a nicer wardrobe for Scully. It looks like a typical episode, from the opening location/date stamp in the lower left corner of the frame ("North Texas, 35,000 B.C.") to the minimalist lighting (most of it takes place at night or in murky shadows or in caves). It sounds like a typical episode, too, with Mulder (David Duchovny) reciting his usual poetic/flaky monologues and Scully (Gillian Anderson) chewing mouthfuls of rational skepticism. Every so often an endearingly clunky bit of B-movie expository dialogue like "Sir? The impossible scenario that we never planned for? Well, we better come up with a plan!" slips out of some lesser player, just like it does on TV. Yes, the movie is true to the spirit of the show -- it's the biggest, best-looking "X-Files" episode ever. But it's far from the most satisfying.

The movie (which is unofficially called "Fight the Future") continues last season's TV finale in only one respect: The FBI has shut down the X-Files. Mulder and Scully are now plain old feds, reassigned from the paranormal to the normal. But what they find in the rubble of the bombed building puts them back, without authorization, on the alien-conspiracy trail. Here's hoping you caught the past season's two-part episode in which aliens with gruesome facial markings staged mass executions of former abductees as part of a (not-fully-explained) war between alien races; you'll need it for background. (The second part is being rerun on June 21 on Fox at 9 p.m.)

Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that the movie expands on the Syndicate's (the old guys in suits) super-secret agenda to create a race of alien/human hybrid clones. We meet yet another Syndicate member, German industrialist Conrad Strughold (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose master plan is so nasty, even the heretofore suavely conscience-free Well Manicured Man (John Neville) has trouble swallowing it. The alien-virus-carrying bees from the "Herrenvolk" episode make a stirring return. Mulder gets a new conspiracy tipster, a disgraced former Defense Department employee named Dr. Alvin Kurtzweil (Martin Landau) who was a crony of Mulder's late father. And in the most salient development, we learn that the black oil is actually an extraterrestrial virus that was the first life form on Earth. It has mutated into something very bad.

- - - - - - - - - -

But, in the "X-Files" scheme of things, these are really only clarifying
points. None of the answers Mulder has been chasing for five years are
addressed. You won't find out what really happened to his sister Samantha,
whom he believes was abducted by aliens. You won't find out whether Cancer
Man is Samantha's real father (or Mulder's). You won't find out who's
directing the conspiracy and allowing Mulder to see little pieces of it at
a time. And you won't find out the answer to the biggest question of all --
why Mulder?

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"X-Files" creator Chris Carter (who wrote the screenplay, from a story
by Carter and co-producer Frank Spotnitz) has said that he wanted to make
the movie accessible for people who've wandered into the multiplex cold,
while not insulting the intelligence of fans who've been with the show
since its 1993 premiere. If only.

Fans must endure "X-Files for Beginners" scenes like the one where a
drunken Mulder pours out his back story to an incredulous bartender,
rehashing all the "my sister was abducted by aliens, I chase little green
men, the other agents call me 'Spooky'" stuff we've heard many, many times
before. Mulder and Scully are asked to explain themselves to yet another
FBI investigative committee, which handily provides more opportunities for
"the story so far." Déjà vu plot points include Scully being subjected to
alien infection and Mulder slogging through the frozen north like Commander
Peary. And the truth, or at least a part of it, slips through the duo's
fingers (again).

But at least X-Philes won't be the only ones leaving the theater empty-handed. What nonfans won't get from the movie are the many cumulative
pleasures of the show. The very things that make "The X-Files" such great TV -- the
carefully nurtured vision, the underplayed terror, the intimacy between
characters and fans, the slow buildup toward a tantalizing promise of
revelation -- are exactly what make it unsuited to the movies. First, there's Mulder and
Scully's platonic yet wholehearted partnership. They're so intuitive,
they barely need dialogue. And they seem to transcend sex, connecting on a
whole 'nother level. But moviegoers who've never seen the show aren't going
to understand why everybody else in the audience finds their brief tender
moment so funny. (The best thing that could come of the movie is that it
jump-starts the film career of Anderson, whose soulful, brave Scully loses
nothing in translation. As for Duchovny, his finest moments are, as usual,
his deadpan comic ones -- and there aren't enough.)

The movie also gives only the tiniest taste of what is often the most
ingenious part of the series -- over the years, Carter and his co-writers
have posited terrifying alternative explanations for such disparate events
and phenomena as Kreutzfeld-Jakob, or "mad cow," disease (cannibalism at
the processing plant), toxic fumes from a hospital patient's blood (aliens
among us) and workplace violence (the boss is a brain-sucking monster and must
be stopped). And this intelligently woven web of "extreme possibilities"
elevates "The X-Files" above mere creep show. In the movie, Carter and
Spotnitz come up with a pretty good conspiracy-related explanation for the
hantavirus outbreak a couple of years ago, and Kurtzweil's theory about
the Federal Emergency Management Agency belongs in the paranoiac's
Top 10. But these are overshadowed by the Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster
business of the main story -- and that evil alien parasite stuff just looks
like reheated "Alien" and "Independence Day."

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Until last season or so, it's been masochistic fun watching Mulder and
Scully (and, by extension, ourselves) continually denied answers and
closure. The show went deeper into abject pessimism and paranoia than any
other TV series before it, acknowledging that discriminating viewers like
to indulge their (in a phrase from the show) "American appetite for bogus
revelations," too. "The X-Files" came along at precisely the right cultural
moment; free-floating millennial worries and anti-government suspicions
seemed to coalesce around the show and multiply. With each new reported
conspiracy story (from CIA crack in the ghetto to cigarette company
confessions to Friends of Bill/Enemies of Bill shenanigans), it's harder to
figure whether "The X-Files" is driving that appetite for the sinister and
shady, or if it's the other way around.

Recently, though, Carter has been dragging the "mythology" episodes (the
ones that advance the central story line of Mulder's quest for the truth
about a government coverup of the existence of aliens) on and on. They're
often brought out as sweeps-period events, months apart; lately, keeping
all the twists and turns straight is like trying to hold a snowflake in
your palm long enough to study it. There's a fine line between prolonging
exquisite tension and yanking the collective chain, and while "The X-Files"
series is currently right up at the edge, the movie crosses it. Being
strung along for free by a TV show is one thing, but when you leave your
house and pay money for the privilege it's quite another. Frankly, the
movie's denouement -- Mulder finds evidence, evidence is erased -- feels
like a rip-off. We were teased with the promise of answers and what we get for our loyalty
is just another cliffhanger. That, and "Alien" wannabe monsters, a cameo
glimpse of the Lone Gunmen and a couple of actual swear words.

I want to believe. But I see now that my quest for the truth is destined
to continue, through numerous movie sequels and
soundtrack/software/book tie-ins. I've been used, duped by powerful men
whose interests lie only in doing boffo bottom line. And worst of all, the
unthinkable has come to pass: Krycek isn't even in the movie.

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Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

MORE FROM Joyce Millman

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