Creepy, spooky, stupid

Why The X-Files bombs on the big screen.

The X-Files movie has everything the TV series has, except for one crucial ingredient: commercial breaks. Everyone should go out to the lobby for popcorn every half an hour; that way, when they come back, they'll assume they missed something crucial and will fill in the blank themselves. This is regrettably necessary because the writers and directors of The X-Files excel at milking creepy situations for maximum spookiness, but fail at plausibly getting from one set-up to the next. On TV, you assume somewhere in your subconscious that the world of The X-Files continues behind the curtain of smiling people selling you hamburgers. When the show proper resumes, it seems explicable that Mulder and Scully have gone from the Antarctic tundra to a congressional hearing with no explanation, even though they were wet, half-dressed, and semi-conscious when we last saw them. This "lost time" adds to the mounting sensation of mysterious forces at work. But on the uninterrupted movie screen, all the verisimilitude is lost—replaced by a mounting sensation that this story doesn't make any sense at all.

The X-Files

starring David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Martin Landau

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The movie follows the series' traditional grand conspiracy plot lines, in which mysterious men in suits have formed some kind of cabal for obscure purposes. Our intrepid agents, Mulder and Scully, have sniffed out their efforts to cover up evidence of extraterrestrials on Earth. Mulder is the true believer whose sister was kidnapped by aliens when he was a child; Scully is the skeptic who insists on hard evidence. Their investigation starts at an Oklahoma City­type bombing in the movie, then continues with the requisite sticky bodies in a military morgue, cornfields and bee swarms somewhere in Texas, shifty-eyed authors in dark, wet alleys . . . and finally ends up in Antarctica, where things really go bonkers. Each of these episodes is sharp, exciting, and devoid of significance—other than to suggest that there's something bigger going on.

Naturally, when that something bigger gets explained, it's never quite as big as you want it to be—it all has something to do with this black goo found in a Texas cavern, the apparent key to alien colonization. The moment the conspiracy comes down to taking over the world, it's a bit of a yawn—humans as host bodies again? Hasn't that been the plot of every sci-fi flick from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Alien?

By way of compensation,The X-Files keeps upping the ante with more spectacular events to leave unexplained. But bigger isn't scarier; it's the very smallness of the series, the ordinariness of the situations, that's so unsettling. When Mulder clambers around a giant alien food-processing plant, it's not half as weird as when he was walking through a common cornfield.

What really makes this conspiracy stuff play on TV, though, is that TV is itself a conspiracy: Enormous corporate entities spend mind-boggling amounts of money to beam David Duchovny's face into everyone's lives, carrying secret messages about what's cool, what's healthy, which soft drink will get us laid—in essence, how to live our lives. So every ominous implication and question left unanswered resonates as a metaphor for the medium itself, giving the series a subliminal, subversive thrill. In the movie, all this is just another stale plot.

Of course, the true X-phile doesn't care half as much about all this conspiracy nonsense as about whether Mulder and Scully resolve their eternal sexual tension with a kiss. The fans adore these two because of years spent watching them fight and flirt over mutilated corpses and viscous fluids. I doubt that the movie—try as it might—can convince the larger movie-going public to invest the same kind of emotion. When the movie is gone, the true believers will return to their dark living rooms and let the blue light of the cathode-ray tube play again over their rapt, happy faces.

Related Links and information:

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