The X Files (1998)

D: Rob Bowman
S: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Martin Landau

FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) uncover a conspiracy involving an extra-terrestrial virus which threatens to destroy humankind. They also face the far more personal threat of being separated after years of collaboration and a growing affection which may blossom into love. Meanwhile their evidence evades them and witnesses drop dead at every turn. Can they prove anything? Or will the dark forces prevent the truth from finally being heard?

In 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released, a big screen update of the defunct and not terribly popular sixties TV series created by Gene Roddenberry. The film was almost universally panned by critics. This didn't stop it making just enough money to justify the first of five direct sequels featuring the original cast and several additional television series which spawned their own feature adaptations and expanded the franchise beyond all expectation. The fact that The X Files (known through its advertising campaign as The X Files: Fight the Future, but not in the opening titles) has been met with a generally hostile or lukewarm critical response is unlikely to halt this franchise in its own plot to take over the world, and it won't matter to devotees that it's not particularly good. TV show creator Chris Carter struck gold with his end-of-millenium dystopic panic, and the film maintains the pulse of the show. If that's all you need, then you'll enjoy it.

The X Files is indeed an accurate translation of its small screen sibling. The show often consists of B movie plots reworked with some contemporary science-fiction technobabble, and the movie is basically a reworked version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, cleverly disguised beneath a plethora of extended suspense scenes set in various lengthy, steam or smog filled corridors and very little actual plot. There are plenty of shadowy villains and some rather unnecessary violent and gory scenes of confrontation with alien life forms, but underneath all the slow burn, there's little real heat other than that generated by the performances of its leads. It's the story of the pod people spiced with big budget set pieces which have no real purpose except to do things that couldn't be done on television, and at the end of the day it is not even remotely as chilling as the greatest sci-fi conspiracy yarn of them all.

There are some literalisations which fans of the show seem to have been upset about, but these were largely necessary for the sake of preserving the coherence of the cinematic narrative. We get rather a lot of proof that Mulder's speculations are correct after all, and the romantic undercurrent finally becomes a full blown plot device. Television relationships and plot threads can be teased out over several episodes or even seasons, but for the sake of holding onto what few non-initiates there are in the world, the film is careful to explain most of what happens, at least until it feels comfortable enough to abandon exposition and leave some token twists for the franchise to continue with. But it is also replete with series in jokes (and one or two others, such as the scene of Duchovny urinating on a poster for Independence Day) to please diehard anoraks, and they'll probably forgive its transgressions.

This is a very mediocre yarn, slackly narrated and prone to irritating leaps in logic which one is meant to presume are deliberate. It holds together largely on the basis of its performances, with both Duchovny and Anderson carrying their smooth, understated charisma over from television, and despite the upping of the romantic stakes, they continue the game of non-consummation which has kept the soap-opera elements of the show going to date. Some supporting work is okay, but only Martin Landau is really given a character to play. The likes of John Neville as a conscience-striken conspirator, William B. Davis as a chainsmoking bad guy and Armin Mueller-Stahl as the human commander of the operation serve more as sinister wallpaper than genuine antagonists.

If the television version of The X Files is your idea of sophisticated science fiction, then you will probably find the film to be more of the same. Those not convinced by what has been accomplished by this hugely successful franchise so far will not be converted by what is essentially more of the same, only bigger. It is interesting though that in this case, parody has preceeded the genuine article, as 1997's comedy smash Men In Black thoroughly ran this type of material through the grinder with much more entertaining results.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.