San Jose Mercury News
June 19, 1998

For serious fans, too many questions are still out there

By Mike Antonucci
Mercury News Popular Culture Writer

Forget the conspiracies within "The X-Files." Who conspired to present the show's ardent fans with such a weak excuse for a movie?

The film has a big-time obligation: It's supposed to answer some of the long-dangling questions that have kept viewers on the string for five television seasons. Five seasons!

And now?

Just another tease. A segue to season No. 6 and very little more. A few revelations of secondary importance, a new buzz phrase in "fight the future" and a lot of obscure jabbering that pretends to be pertinent.

The truth isn't in there, and that's a rip-off.

Relentlessly superficial

There are no excuses, either. The problems have nothing to do with making the movie understandable to the uninitiated. This script was never in danger of getting bogged down by minutiae it's way too relentlessly superficial for that.

Let's talk specifics:

The pre-movie indications were that we'd get the lowdown on alien invaders who are being aided and abetted by ruthless, clandestine human collaborators. Bingo, that's exactly the scam co-writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz try to put over.

We are presented with one type of alien a blurry, savage, monster type that seems at odds with any sophisticated conspiratorial history. We get a laboratory-speak synopsis of its biological corrosiveness and a fuzzy idea about why the collaborators, the Syndicate, also provide some check and balance against the utter devastation of humanity.

And, on that front, that's about it.

There's no real background on this race of extraterrestrials, which are basically described as a highly evolved virus (hence the "intelligence" of their oozy black innards).

There's also no sense of how to make this edition of alien mesh with dozens of things we've watched on the TV show. Over five seasons, we've seen an assortment of shape-changing, clone-generated, hybrid-race somethings. We still don't know what they were.

Tangential little tidbits are supposed to satisfy us, like an opening scene that shows the aliens putting down roots in Texas in 35,000 B.C. At the end of the film, we find out they've got a honking big, Steven Spielberg-ish spaceship buried in Antarctica.

Nice special effects are involved and plenty of snappy action, for that matter but any movie can have that. When "X-Files" isn't focused on its characters and mythology, when it's just about being spectacular and violent instead of relevant and haunting, it's just an episode gone bad.

There are even chunks of the flick in which stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson seem completely miscast. What it really needs in those moments is for Sigourney Weaver to kick some alien butt.

Not that the movie is totally dead on arrival, however.

Sexual subtext

Duchovny's Fox Mulder and Anderson's Dana Scully hit a new peak of unresolved sexual attraction. It's a bait-and-switch scheme, but it still has sweetness. More important for the ongoing series, they reaffirm the bond between them.

It's one of pop culture's best love stories, and it's played out nicely in a variety of scenes, both humorous and serious.

Decide for yourself if the movie gives Scully more stature and makes her Mulder's undeniable equal. With Mulder doing a huge, improbable rescue thing at the finish, it's a question that could start a good group fight.

Other "X-Files" relationships are on the back burner. Some important characters from the TV series including Alex Krycek (Nicholas Lea) aren't in the movie; some such as FBI assistant Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) aren't much more than human wallpaper.

And if you were laboring under the misconception that there was truly an important connection between the TV "cliffhanger" in May and the movie, get real. The FBI agent played by Mimi Rogers, for instance, remains a TV-only factor.

A new character, conspiracy fanatic Dr. Alvin Kurtzwil (Martin Landau), may or may not be making a one-time "X-Files" appearance in the movie. The ambiguity about his fate seems deliberate. Another well-known character from the TV series meets a bad end that appears more conclusive, but still not definitive, perhaps.

FBI reopened

Oh, sure, the movie does wind up with the X-Files branch of the FBI being reopened, ostensibly because Mulder and Scully have uncovered the kind of weirdness that somebody has to check out. So, after starting the movie in new assignments and then almost being drummed out of the agency, they end up back on a strange joint quest.

That's what you call the summer's biggest "duh!"

Real answers? Real satisfaction? Not hardly. Enough new questions are raised to render the movie just a prelude to the fall TV season.

C'mon, that's cheating. Once you cheapen "The X-Files," it's endangered.

"X-Files" fans may not realize this until they've been to the theater, but this is not a must-see movie. For a movie studio to squander such potential well, that's really scary.

Some television X-facts to help make sense of the movie

"The X-Files" film is supposed to be for all moviegoers, rather than just devotees of the TV show.

Well, that's true in some minimalist sense. The basic plot and the good guy-bad guy lineup are easily absorbed by anyone. But it's a vastly richer experience if you've been following the TV series.

No primer can encompass the show's five seasons without becoming a small book. But for the completely clueless, we're offering this list of 10 essential background components.

1. The X-Files are the FBI cases that involve accounts of paranormal or even alien activity. The agent assigned to them, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), not only finds such explanations credible, but he has found a pattern that suggests a vast conspiracy involving extraterrestrial beings and governments worldwide. He's obsessed with the disappearance (and possible alien abduction) of his sister as a child.

2. Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is Mulder's partner and an expert in forensic medicine. She has established a close bond with him, despite scoffing at many of his theories (and despite an unexplained abduction experience she underwent).

3. The Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis), also known as Cancer Man, is the embodiment of the conspiracy and, more importantly, its insidious tentacles. He seems to have infiltrated the lives of everyone around Mulder and apparently holds the answers to all the key riddles. On top of all that, he may be Mulder's biological father.

4. The nature of a black oily substance has been one of the pivotal mysteries. It seeps into humans, takes control of them and appears to have a consciousness. Its connection to alien life is central to the movie's plot.

5. "Trust no one." The show's defining motto. No wonder the program is a symbol for people's sense of alienation and paranoia. Another "X-Files" catch phrase is "The truth is out there," but "trust no one" says more about the film's tone.

6. The Lone Gunmen. Three conspiracy-theory oddballs: Langly, Frohike and Byers. They're quite affable with Mulder and provide him with research assistance.

7. The Syndicate. A group of shadowy, powerful, multinational figures who appear to be collaborating with extraterrestrials for sinister purposes. They're closely linked to the Cigarette-Smoking Man and include a slightly hopeful character known as the Well-Manicured Man (John Neville).

8. FBI assistant director Walter Skinner. A strapping, bald-headed figure who is Mulder and Scully's boss. There's some ambiguity about whose side he's really on, but most viewers would be surprised if he didn't turn out to be one of the good guys.

9. Bees. Akin to the black oil in terms of significance. Swarms of bees have a history of making intermittent, portentous appearances in the show. Also connected to the issue of alien life, they have a prominent place in the movie.

10. The season finale of the TV show in May was a cliffhanger the movie is supposed to partially resolve. In that episode, the Cigarette-Smoking Man burned Mulder's office with the X-files.

- Mike Antonucci