We gave it a B+
Frankly, I dreaded it. I’ve watched every episode of the TV show, and the thing I feared most from The X-Files (Twentieth Century Fox) as a feature film was the if-you’ve-got-something-to-say-then-share-it-with-the-rest-of-the-class mentality that would slow down or simplify the arcana to allow new kids and remedial students to catch up. I’ve put in years mulling over the significance of delicate necklace crucifixes, windows decorated with crosses of masking tape, and black oil flowing over human eyeballs. I’m not paying good money to watch Conspiracies and Alien Mythology for Dummies.
The major accomplishment of this first X-Files movie—written and produced with full X-ish atmospheric nuance by series creator Chris Carter; directed with a nice, unforced expansion to movie size by series mainstay Rob Bowman—is that it works elegantly on two levels. I assume by this time even the Dalai Lama knows about FBI special agents Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and their penchant for dark overcoats flapping like angel wear in Wings of Desire. But Carter and Co. also bring in conspiracy regulars Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis); Well-Manicured Man (John Neville); Assistant Director Skinner (Mitch Pileggi); the three comic-relief paranoia buffs known as The Lone Gunmen (Dean Haglund, Tom Braidwood, and Bruce Harwood); and those shadowy men with the Dutch-master faces known as The Syndicate. If you’re familiar with these players, then their character-specific presentation here is a series of small, satisfying thrills. (We first see Cig Man in shadow, lighting up; the Gunmen are in a close three-shot, as they should be.)
While newcomers will glom that Mulder is the loner-believer and Scully’s the scientist-skeptic (well, usually), the movie offers strokes to loyalists obsessive enough to appreciate that it opens with a shot of two figures coming over a hill in an otherwise desolate landscape with dark overcoats flapping—except it’s 35,000 years ago. The movie grooves on those Waiting for Godot-worthy lines, “Mulder, it’s me” and “Where are you, Scully?” When Scully, working with Mulder on an antiterrorist detail in a federal office building in Dallas, senses her partner’s anxiety, she tells him he’s making his Panic Face. Mulder disagrees. “When I panic, I make this face,” he says, not changing his expression a whit, in true Duchovnian style. Exactly!
Of course, two-plus hours is a lot of File time to fill. There are moments in this overstimulating, data-stuffed story when a serious Phile will wish for the kind of suspended non-resolution possible on the weekly TV show, some diversion in the form of, say, a circus freak or a mutant mother who lives under a bed on a trundle board. No such luck: The film pushes forward, with multiple climaxes. At least Mulder and Scully stay true to their characters.
And for all the beautiful special-effects pyrotechnics (the jolting Dallas bomb sequence, combining haunting references to 1995’s Oklahoma City explosion with the site of JFK’s assassination in 1963, is one of the movie’s most powerful moments), the movie stays true to the show’s character, too. Distrust, anxiety, the dread-heavy need to constantly peel away layers of lies and cover-ups in search of The Truth imbue this honest first feature with just the right overtones of late-20th-century anxiety. Dark, funny, paranoid, self-absorbed, arbitrary, humming with tamped- down eroticism and in love with all things weird, The X-Files launches Mulder and Scully nicely on the trail of many sequels, many opportunities to flap their overcoats, and many chances to almost kiss, maybe. B+—LS
In The X-Files, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), two morosely dedicated FBI special agents, seem to spend most of their time locked into a staring contest. True, they do occasionally blink, at least a bit more often than they smile, but you get the feeling that when they do blink, they’re terrified that they may be missing something. They might, after all, overlook a crucial connection in…the Search.
On television, The X-Files, which I’ve caught maybe a half dozen times, evokes a mood of shivery doomsday chic, a flashlight-in-the-fog vagueness that makes it seem spooky and daring within the cookie-cutter context of prime-time programming. Most TV shows have no ambiguity at all; The X-Files ODs on ambiguity. Stitching together hidden connections between extraterrestrials, Nazis, diseases, and governmental treachery, it’s the apocalypse with station breaks—a gloomy metaphysical hash. Still, I’m not surprised that the television show that looks and feels like a movie has become, along with Seinfeld, the most beloved series of the ’90s. The X-Files is a mystery about everything—and nothing.
Since I have very little knowledge of the show’s labyrinthine details, I was curious to see if I’d be able to follow the movie. The meticulous murkiness of The X-Files goes down easy, though, even for a nonfan. What, exactly, are Mulder and Scully looking to find? An alien? A virus? A conspiracy to cover up an infiltration of alien viruses? The two break into a morgue and examine a body slathered in what looks like otherworldly Vaseline. They meet conspiracy theorists slinking in the shadows of bars, as well as strange old European men who stand around forecasting the end of the world. At one point, the Search leads Mulder and Scully to a stretch of desert on the north Texas border, where, to their amazement, they stumble onto a cornfield. (A mutant spawn of global warming, perhaps?) On the edge of the cornfield sit a pair of glowing white geodesic domes that look like indoor tennis courts, and after our heroes wander into one of them, they’re confronted by…bees! Hundreds of thousands of bees!
Ironically, when you turn the show that feels like a movie into a movie, you lose the atmospheric novelty that gave it prestige on the small screen. The X-Files has been directed in a lushly foreboding, impersonally suspenseful style that might be described as hack Spielberg, and everything in it feels like a relic from the late ’70s. The conspiratorial ominousness, with Mulder and Scully arrayed against a fascist abstraction inevitably described as “they,” is post-Watergate paranoia run amok. The fact that the aliens all have big doughy heads shaped like parking meters, with tiny mouths and outsize black eyes…well, it makes me wonder whether the real conspiracy is how every UFO nut on the planet has somehow been convinced that extraterrestrials will always look exactly like the ones at the end of Close Encounters. The X-Files offers revelation as rerun.
David Duchovny, with his male-model inexpressiveness, and Gillian Anderson, with her harlequin face and unvarying gravity, match up nicely; they’re like the two most serious kids in English class. That said, the film’s lamest moments are the little interpersonal crises between the two. They just about creak with that obligatory feeling you get when a TV show takes time out to remember why its characters really care about each other. “If I quit now,” says Mulder, “they win.” True, and the show would have to end as well. As a movie, The X-Files is studiously lurid and watchable hokum, but that’s all it is. It’s a cosmic nothing. B- —OG