Retro Review Double Feature.
Capping off conspiracy theory month, we’ll look at one of the most iconic series in the genre, The X-Files. With a television run that spanned decades (and was recently given a
second third shot at life) as well as a pair of feature length movies, The X-Files did more to bring the fringe of conspiracy theories to modern audiences than any other series. Sorry, Ancient Aliens, it’s not even close.
Urban Legend or Cold Case?
Much like the series, the films are hot and cold. The first, striking fresh on the heals of peak X-Files popularity, was full of big visuals and bigger conspiracies, but was a film firmly dedicated to long-time fans with only moderate cross-over appeal. The second film, modeled much more closely on the “monster of the week” style of the early show, could stand on its own as a supernatural crime thriller…which was fortunate since Fox studios tied the project up in production hell for so long that The X-Files had lost much of its mass appeal. The first film was a blockbuster which garnered a lot of good press during its run. The second was pretty widely panned and made only a fraction of the originals box office take. Re-watching them nearly two decades later it was interesting to see which of the two films aged more gracefully.
The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998)
Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) were FBI agents tasked with investigating paranormal phenomena until their investigations uncovered a larger conspiracy involving aliens and shadowy extra-governmental powers that were covering up the ET invasion. Reassigned to vanilla field work, their nose for trouble lands them smack dab into another cover-up, where a federal building is fire-bombed in order to dispose of the bodies of several victims who came in contact with hostile extraterrestrial organisms. Back on the case, and back in the cross-hairs of the powerful groups trying to harness the alien organism to create a new world order, the pair of agents race against time to stop an invasion and prevent an outbreak of an alien plague.
Bombastic and Silly
The early X-Files was mordantly humorous and closer in tone to a horror flick than a police procedural. As the show’s popularity blossomed, the weekly freak show pivoted into a sustained arc about aliens and a larger government plot. This movie is solidly in line with the latter-day feel of the show. There’s more drama and political intrigue than humor, and the film completely embraces its rabid conspiracy elements. There’s aliens, secret bio-weapons, black helicopters, clandestine research facilities, and an omnipresent evil shadow government dogging the heroes at every step. The bigger budget that a feature provided allowed series creator Chris Carter to really amp the visuals up to eleven with explosions, creepy government installations, special effect laden monsters, and a film whose plot whisks Scully and Mulder around the globe.
They’ve Gone Hyperactive!
While the performances of the mains stars are solid and grounded in 6 seasons of personal development, everything else about this film feels breathless and rushed. The inclusion of so many disparate conspiracy threads feels like every idea was thrown into a blender in order to make the ultimate tin-foil hat experience. The plot jumps from scene to scene like the fevered rant of an abductee giving testimony, and it relies heavily on a deep and encyclopedic knowledge of the mythos from the show. If you’re a some-times fan or complete neophyte, the film ends up being a black-site word salad punctuated by fun set pieces. Re-watching it after being away from the series for ten years, I felt like I was drowning in factoids. Are these the aliens who took Mulder’s sister? Is this new super-government the same group that canned the X-Files the first time? Who can say? By the end, the only resolution is that The X-Files gets reopened…which is the series version of a character recovering from amnesia.
Tried and True Tropes
Ultimately, this film is just a big budget episode of the show, and doesn’t really do anything much to further the plot. It was a nifty way for Carter to explain how one season ends with Mulder and Scully kicked of their beat, and the next season starting like they’d never been gone. So much of the film is just re-used gimmicks from the show. Scully gets snatched…just like they did in the show. Mulder gets tossed from the FBI…just like they did multiple times in the show. They realize they are alone against a omnipresent organization…just like in the show. Every cliffhanger used in the shows run is repeated here and then quietly wrapped up in such a way that nothing has really changed at all for our characters. It’s all opaque for outsiders and a comfortable rehash of well-worn doctrine for insiders…just like a good conspiracy theory should be.
The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)
After the finale of the original series, Mulder is on the run from the government and living in seclusion, and Scully is working a private practice at a Christian hospital. When a string of abductions in an isolated town leads to a young FBI agent among the missing, their old boss Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) offers to call of the dogs if they agree to come back to the fold and help solve the mystery. They’re aided in this endeavor by a disgraced pedophile priest (Billy Connolly) who has terrible visions of the crime scenes and victims.
The second X-Files movie seems to set itself more modest goals. The big honking conspiracy plot-line was pretty much resolved by the ending of the series, so bringing back the aliens and MIB would seem like a kick in the face for fans who wanted closure. The budget on this film was much smaller, and the story more intimate: two old allies are thrown back together by fate and must save a single life while investigating a crime that has supernatural elements. It’s basically a hard reset back to the spirit of the early show. There’s no wider implications beyond solving a mystery. It doesn’t reopen the X-Files or move the storied friendship/romance of the two main characters forward. Its just two beloved characters getting another shot at doing what made them popular in the first place.
Life After Death
I Want to Believe was not a hit with fans or critics, though intervening years has seen many embrace the quieter nature of the film. The issues explored in the piece are thoughtful and suitably grotesque for the series, involving mad science, unexplained spiritual phenomena and a bitter-sweet ending where one life is exchanged for another. It’s a more mature take on the property compared to the wild action and ideas of the first film. The tone and acting are still spot on, and the more sombre proceedings let us spend more time with our leads and how they interact when not being chased by syringe wielding fanatics. The creepy and desolate vibe is well done, at little like Se7en mixed up with Fargo. With no attachment to the series, it is still possible to enjoy the story for its own merits, though once again there are plenty of shibboleths and inside jokes for long-time viewers.
The only detraction is that this film really feels like an afterthought in the grand scheme of the series. Perhaps if it had followed more promptly on the heels of the series closing, instead of spending 7 years in limbo, it might have rejuvenated interest. Instead it is just another curiosity, an engaging case of monsters and morality that the property was once known for.