The X-Files: Fight the Future
Director: Rob Bowman. Cast: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Martin Landau, William B. Davis, John Neville, Blythe Danner, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Terry O'Quinn, Jeffrey DeMunn. Screenplay: Chris Carter (based on a story by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz).

After Godzilla failed to breathe box-office fire, many pundits forecasted that "X" would mark the spot for the next sure-fire summer blockbuster. Whatever its commercial success, however, there isn't much treasure to be found in The X-Files: Fight the Future, which comes across as dull and derivative as its television source is intelligent and innovative. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson gamely reprise their roles as FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, but their admirably relaxed, flexible performances are stuck in a rigid, plodding Frankenstein monster of a movie, a stiff amalgamation of scenes from legions of other films that never satisfactorily unites into a functional new entity.

I realize that my credibility in writing this may be wholly contingent for some readers on how familiar I am with the premise of the show. I confess that I have only seen two episodes of Chris Carter's paean to the paranormal, though both of the hour-long dramas were satisfyingly ghostly and unapologetically perverse, willing to shuck the bounds of credibility and the limits of the grotesque to achieve Carter's unique, paranoid vision. In fact, one of these episodes co-starred Peter Boyle in a viral-epidemic storyline that was far more coherent and economical, not to mention scarier, than the one we get in Fight the Future.

To make a long story short—though making it coherent is well beyond my capabilities—a young Texan kid (Lucas Black, of Sling Blade) falls into a hole one day while playing with his buddies. He finds a skull in what appears to be a hollowed-out cave or dried-up groundwater reservoir, but no sooner has he happened upon the relic than a puddle of viscous black fluid forms underneath his feet and a brigade of what look like sub-epidermal worms are dashing like lightning up his legs and trunk, all until an inky blackness floods and obliterates his eyes.

That's about it for ol' Lucas, but it's just the beginning for us, drawn in as we are by a regional investigator's phone call to an anonymous party stating that, "You know that impossible scenario we never planned for? . . . We better start thinking of a plan." It's a hokey and agreeable little way to fire us off into AdventureLand—why in movies do the most exacting and powerful groups never consider that their plans might go wrong?—and for a moment it seems that The X-Files will smartly tip its hat to the Ed Wood epics of papier-māché that clearly inspired Carter's alienfests. The casting in a pivotal role of Martin Landau, so freshly and powerfully known to us as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, only reinforces our expectation that The X-Files will lace its creditable heebie-jeebies with some knowing winks at its own lunacy.

All too soon, however, The X-Files dons a robe of shadowy over-seriousness that starts squeezing the fun out of the whole project. We first see Mulder and Scully, their investigations into the paranormal having temporarily been shelved , joining other feds in checking out a bomb-threat to a federal building in Dallas. It was during this sequence that I began my long slide into disappointment at Carter and director Rob Bowman's shockingly low-level creativity: when Mulder finds the bomb, he also happens upon one of the Great, Tired Movie Devices, the explosive device with the red digital minute/second read-out. We also get the expected close-up of that counter hitting "00:02" and "00:01," and the inevitable dog-whistle beep when the damn thing's ready to rumble. I expected The X-Files to breathe some new life, or at least some eerie new fog, into the summer action-movie genre . . . so what was it doing slumming around with the most over-used device in any Simpson-Bruckheimer trashfest?

Before the film is over, we also see a series of human incubuses straight out of the Alien series; a subterranean creature encounter that traces exactly the Return of the Jedi Rancor Pit sequence; the crop-duster/enemy-attack helicopter from North By Northwest; and even a reprise of the "creatures beneath the ice!" idea from Smilla's Sense of Snow, pilfered I assume from the novel since no one in the natural or supernatural worlds seems to have seen that film. What's with all the hodge-podging? Given the extreme pressure on the X-Files group to deliver a hit and enable a franchise, coupled with the need to dilute the show's insistent originality for a more mass-market audience, perhaps it is unfair of me to rake the film so much across the coals of uninspiredness. Still, for a show that bases itself entirely on the idea of an Unknown, the appropriation of the most-overused warhorses of the whole action-suspense section of the local video rental is a particularly and poignantly dispiriting spectacle.

I don't want to spend too much time on the plot of the film, but the real conflict begins once a federal investigative board (led by the always welcome but under-used Blythe Danner) decides to pin the blame for the Dallas building's explosion on Mulder and Scully. The reasons for this are never convincingly articulated, nor do they seem to gel with the image Bowman gave us early on of Scully and Mulder's participation in the bomb search. The very arbitrariness of this initial gesture, then, gives no hope that the rest of The X-Files' plot twists will be any less random, and soon we are following Duchovny and Anderson into cornfields, alleys, and other barely-lit locales with no real reason for why we're going there, or even how we got there. Such carelessness to geographical detail severely hurts the film during an escape sequence late in the picture, when we realize that the entire structure that Scully and Mulder are trying to flee has been so poorly laid out to our eyes that we have no idea where they are, nor of the comparative distance between them, their exit points, and the Sinister Threat that chases them. By that point, though, the film is about as blank and flaccid as the human bodies taken by the alien invaders as incubators for their young.

It's not pretty, particularly because The X-Files: Fight the Future, even with that dopey subtitle, could have amounted to a great deal more, at the very least a reasonably entertaining ride. Much in the film is done well, such as the perpetual nerviness fostered by Bowman's decision to have every character running as much as possible—I don't just mean during major action sequences, I mean that every FBI Agent or lab researcher or bomb technician seems more inclined to run even the smallest distance of a few feet than they are to walk or, God forbid, to stand still. The overall effect of all this rushing about is a sustained air of agitation, as if the entire world were united in a mission to beat some invisible clock, or escape some common predator.

I also found interesting the fact that Carter never stages any direct contact between his protagonists and his strongest embodiments of evil (one of whom is played by Shine's tyrannical papa, Armin Mueller Stahl). Most thrillers build to a climax where the hero takes on Evil face-to-face; the fact that such a moment never occurs here suggests that the evil against which Mulder and Scully are combatting is either a) so pervasive or totalized that it's impossible to isolate, or b) chimerical and imagined, and our heroes are two cuckoos. Either possibility is fascinating. Bowman would have done well to unpack that mystery further rather than throw in gratuitous sequences like a four-door car's midnight pursuit of a speeding train carrying...well, I'm not sure what.

Whatever the ancestors of its specific scenes, the film that The X-Files ultimately recalled the most for me was last year's The Fifth Element. That film, for all its sloppiness and nonsense, remained adequate entertainment on the sole basis of its energy and verve, its delirious compendium of insensible ingredients like a blue tentacled opera singer, an outfit made of band-aids, and a spaceship shaped like a seahorse. By contrast, and unfavorably so, The X-Files also goes for mood more than content, but the result is more solemn and self-important than sensational, and it doesn't even provide many memorable set-pieces to extract from the unquestionably ill-conceived plot. Who would have thought that The X-Files wouldn't be any more fun than Duchovny's twitty dramatic outings like 1991's The Rapture?

The whole concept of "fighting the future" will make a lot more sense once Carter and Co. commit themselves to staging original, well-connected, and forward-moving scenes. For now, the film should be called The X-Files: Plundering the Past. C–

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