PG-13, 1998, 121 min.
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Screenplay by Chris Carter
Produced by Chris Carter and Daniel Sackheim
Directed by Rob Bowman
Cast includes: David Duchovny (Fox Mulder), Gillian Anderson (Dana Scully), Martin Landau (Alvin Kurtzweil), William B. Davis (Cigarette-Smoking Man), John Neville (Well-Manicured Man), Mitch Pileggi (Walter Skinner), Blythe Danner (Jana Cassidy), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Conrad Strughold), Terry O'Quinn (Darius Michaud)
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
The new feature-length The X-Files provides a good example of what The X-Files television series is all about. To that end, I was simultaneously intrigued, entertained, bemused, and frustrated—a perfect example of what the TV show tends to invoke in me these days.
If (heavens forbid) you've never seen The X-Files on TV, you'll still get something out of this movie, which provides slick, efficient summer escapism and doesn't require you to be an "X-Phile" in order to understand the plot. On the other hand, even if you are an "X-Phile" who knows all the convoluted plot lines, you're not likely to gain much of an advantage over anyone else. This is a movie where plot pieces are based on events from episodes that, really, could've meant nearly anything a writer wanted them to.
For anyone who doesn't know the general outline of the X-Files premise, the X-Files are bizarre, unsolved FBI cases that usually feature paranormal circumstances. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, who are destined to go down as one of the most famous character pairs in history, play FBI Special Agents Mulder and Scully, a pair that has benefited from an intriguing chemistry that isn't defined by a typical friendship or romance (though the two certainly are close to each other), but by a need to continue their mission in finding the truth, whatever that may be.
Like much of The X-Files TV series' primary focus, Chris Carter's story for this film is paranoid, implausible, and without any concrete answers. And even though the movie tries to address a few questions, it doesn't actually come to any resolution. Really, anyone expecting to find believable circumstances or the answers to all their X-Files questions is probably going into this movie with the wrong attitude. The X-Files has proven over and over again that answers are probably the last thing Mulder and Scully will ever find on their quest. What they usually find instead are clues that lead only to new questions.
The film brings back a number of elements that have been featured on the TV series, including pathogen-carrying bees, possible alien visitation and conspiracy, and bizarre parasites that cause people's eyes to turn to black.
I must admit that I somewhat wonder why we have been given an X-Files feature at this point. The answer: probably because The X-Files is at the height of its success and film studios like to make money. Dramatically, Chris Carter's screenplay covers very little ground that couldn't be traversed in two or three episodes of the TV show. The movie, naturally, has better production values and special effects than any television episode could realistically aspire to (Gasp!—location shooting on The X-Files!), but at the core, this is a story that could've happened any time on the TV series. It's interesting: Now TV producers don't even wait for their series to end before launching them into film franchises.
Like a lot of thrillers, this film benefits from the mentality of cleverly executed set pieces. Scenes like one near the beginning of the movie where an entire downtown Dallas office building is decimated by a bomb explosion. Scenes like the one where the discovery of a mysterious facility somewhere in Texas leads to an attack of the largest swarm of killer bees I can remember in the movies. Scenes like the one where a massive underground facility in Antarctica turns out to be ah, but I won't say.
Overall, this movie is a good way to spend a couple hours at the movies, but one thing that has always annoyed me about The X-Files, and annoyed me in this movie as well, is the ability of a few all-powerful men to manipulate the story's other characters in ways that prompt near-incredulity and frustration.
Are we, for example, to believe that, when these men decide they want to take control of Agent Mulder via the extremely roundabout way of abducting Agent Scully, they have the ability to control or predict a single bee, which manages to hide in Scully's collar for several hours so it can sting her at precisely the right time? So much of the mysterious men's "plan" is determinant on the most spectacular coincidences that I wondered why they didn't just use their apparently divine insight to control whatever in the universe they really needed to take control of.
And who are these men, anyway? They all wear suits and recite vague dialogue that promises to spell trouble. Trouble for whom, aside from Mulder and Scully, we're never really sure. These men, of course, don't have names. (The most important of them are played by William B. Davis and John Neville, who are known merely as the "Cigarette-Smoking Man" and the "Well-Manicured Man," respectively). Mulder always talks about a global conspiracy, but what does that even mean? The conspiracies of The X-Files most often are the conspiracies of comic books; the stylistics surrounding the actions and dialogue of these shady men are far more important than what actually happens.
But to that end, I enjoyed the riddles and mysterious dialogue. Martin Landau turns up in a supporting role as a conspiracy theorist to offer more mysteries, providing Mulder with ominous warnings of what these men plan to do. How he knows and what he says I'm not even going to begin to explain; this is a film that practically defies synopsis.
Yet the plot, surprisingly, is fairly easy to follow, which is a credit to Carter and director Rob Bowman, who make sure we always know where we are, what is happening and why. Sure, none of it can possibly be believed in retrospect, but that's not really the point.
Besides, the questions I have about The X-Files are not related to what various threads this movie will have either tied up or complicated. Asking such questions is futile; we're not getting the answers. My questions are a little more practical. Questions like, just why is it all aliens in the movies are slimy and plastic-looking, like the aliens in Alien? And why is it all aliens feel inclined to chase people through ventilation ducts and make squealing sounds like the creatures in Jurassic Park? And just how can Mulder and Scully survive the frigidness of Antarctica without shelter, and who could or would rescue them? And how did Mulder get to Antarctica in the first place? Did the FBI fund the trip?
Maybe the plot is a bit ridiculous, but I don't really care. The X-Files, like the Star Trek franchise, lives in its own little universe, and must be gauged on a different level of realism. The X-Files is the type of movie where you'll see something amazing on the screen, and then wonder if it really makes sense. I urge you not to spend much time thinking about it, because it's more fun to just go with the flow.
What I most enjoyed about this film was the relationship between Mulder and Scully itself. We learn that the X-Files have been recently closed due to a lack of reasonable progress. Mulder and Scully are back investigating "normal" matters, like bomb threats. The central theme of the film is whether or not Scully will choose to leave the FBI; finding no truth in the X-Files has taken its toll on her. Naturally, this incredible adventure will convince her to stay, but the real drama of the film is in the implications of her departure: it would be tragic, especially for Mulder. These two are symbols of a hopeless struggle against something—we're not sure exactly whom or what or whose interests are represented—that lives to perpetuate a sea of lies. But Mulder simply can't continue the mission alone. The payoff is in knowing that these two people will continue their crusades, no matter how insignificant, futile, and painful their efforts might be.
As a story setting, The X-Files is its own paradox. It claims to have a truth that's supposed to intrigue us, but it probably never will reveal that truth to its two central characters. The quest itself is what is supposed to entertain us, not the possibility of solving the mystery. Some people claim that The X-Files takes an infinitely long attention span to truly understand. I disagree. The X-Files shifts its own perception of the truth so often that it doesn't matter what is true from one day to the next. What matters is that we have Mulder and Scully in the middle of it all, trying to make sense of it, as if they're the sole constant in a twisted universe.
At the same time, it might be nice if, in the event we do get another X-Files movie after the series is over, the filmmakers invest their time in a complete train of thought that doesn't play like a series of set pieces for the middle chapter of a story that has no discernible beginning or end. This X-Files film is certainly entertaining, but not really satisfying in narrative terms.
The taglines for The X-Files read, "The truth is revealed." I doubt it. The truth may still be out there, but a tagline is still a tagline, and probably, in the most important ways, just a lie.