The X-Files: Fight the Future
First screened and reviewed in June 1998
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).

Twitter Capsule: Over-commits to the show's most solemn tones, with no compensatory ingenuity, originality, or verve.

VOR:   Hard to make a blockbuster this dour or this openly suspicious of US flag-waving. Still, cerebral aspects seem ersatz in a way they don't on TV. Show feels lobotomized.

Photo © 1998 20th Century Fox
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 manages to be 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, stiffly amalgamating scenes from legions of other films that never satisfactorily unite into a functional new one.

I realize that my credibility in writing this may be wholly contingent for some readers on how familiar I am with the show. I confess that I have only seen two episodes of Chris Carter's paean to the paranormal, though both of those hour-long installments 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 (Sling Blade's Lucas Black) 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 sub-epidermal worms are dashing like lightning up his legs and trunk, all until an inky blackness floods his eyes. That's about it for this kid but it's just the beginning for us, drawn as we are into a regional investigator's phone call to an anonymous party stating, "You know that impossible scenario we never planned for? We better start thinking of a plan." It's a hokey and agreeable 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? For a moment it seems that The X-Files will smartly tip its hat to the Ed Wood-era epics of papier-mâché peril that inspired at least some aspects of 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 most unsettling 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 all the fun out of the 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. During this sequence 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 timed explosive device with the red digital 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 incubi straight out of the Alien series; a subterranean creature encounter that traces exactly the Return of the Jedi Rancor Pit sequence; the sinister-cropduster passage from North By Northwest; and even a reprise of the "creatures beneath the ice!" idea from The Thing and more recently 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 movie. What's with all the hodge-podging? Given the extreme pressure on the X-Files group to deliver a hit and enable a new 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 across the coals for feeling so uninspired on any more original terms. 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 particularly, even poignantly dispiriting.

I don't want to spend too much time on the plot of the film, but the real conflict begins once a FEMA 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 jell with the initial image Bowman gave us of Scully and Mulder's participation in the bomb search. The very arbitrariness of this plot gesture allows 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 narrative and environmental detail severely hurts the film during an escape sequence late in the picture, when we realize that an entire structure that Scully and Mulder are trying to flee has been so poorly laid out in cinematic terms 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, the film is about as blank and flaccid as the human bodies taken by the alien invaders as hosts 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. Well beyond the major action sequences, every FBI Agent or lab researcher or bomb technician seems more inclined to sprint 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 nited in a mission to beat some invisible clock (perhaps with a red digital read-out) or escape some common predator.

I also found interesting the fact that Carter never stages any direct contact between his protagonists and his most potent embodiments of evil (one of whom is played by Shine's tyrannical papa, Armin Mueller Stahl). Most thrillers build to a climax where Heroes confront Evil face-to-face. The fact that such a moment never occurs here suggests that the alien force 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 sedan's fast, dead-of-night 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 most for me was last year's The Fifth Element. That film, for all its sloppiness and nonsense, still entertained on the 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 similarly goes for mood more than content, but the result is solemn and self-important. Fight the Future doesn't even provide many memorable set-pieces to extract from the unquestionably ill-conceived plot. (Who would have thought that The X-Files would be no more fun than Duchovny's austere dramatic outings like 1991's The Rapture?) The whole concept of "fighting the future" will make a lot more sense once Carter and his associates commit themselves to staging original, well-connected, and forward-moving scenes, hopefully delivered in something like a boundary-pushing cinematic style. For now, this movie should be called The X-Files: Plundering the Past. Grade: C–

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