Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

The X-Files

Year: 1993-2002 (series), 1998 (Fight the Future), 2008 (I Want to Believe)
Running time: 45 minutes (per series episode), 121 minutes (Fight the Future), 104 minutes (I Want to Believe)
Certificate: 18 (series), 15 (Fight the Future, I Want to Believe)
Language: English
Creator (series): Chris Carter
Screenplay: Frank Spotnitz (I Want to Believe), Chris Carter (Fight the Future, I Want to Believe)
Director: Rob Bowman (Fight the Future), Chris Carter (I Want to Believe)
Starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi, William B. Davis, Tom Braidwood, Bruce Harwood, Dean Haglund, Nicholas Lea, John Neville, Martin Landau, Robert Patrick, Annabeth Gish, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, Xzibit

Mulder and Scully, clearly investigating something very serious.
Launched in the early 90s, The X-Files was a TV show that quickly captured the imaginations of millions of people. Every week was like a miniature movie in itself, lending itself to paranormal themes. Even from the very first season, the stories were fantastically structured to keep the viewer guessing and interested at the same time. What was probably most important, however, was the note-perfect chemistry between the two main players, FBI Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Even when the stories on the show get really ridiculous, even when you get the distinct impression that Duchovny is getting very bored of playing Mulder, the way these two spark off each other is often the show's saving grace.

It didn’t take long for the show to develop a beating heart, in Mulder’s search for his lost sister Samantha. He is convinced she was abducted by aliens when they were both children and has devoted his life and his career to finding her. He is based in the basement of the FBI headquarters, the J. Edgar Hoover building, where he investigates the Bureau's X-Files; unsolved cases featuring weird or unexplained phenomena. Believing he is pissing a promising career up the wall, his superiors assign him Scully as a partner. Scully is to report back on Mulder's work, the intended result being Scully's reports would prove Mulder's continued work on the X-Files is untenable, essentially debunking his life's work. What actually happens is the two develop a mutual respect for each other and evolve a strong partnership as they investigate freaky shenanigans over the course of nine seasons and two feature films.

Mulder with fellow conspiracy theorists The Lone Gunmen.
The episodes featuring Mulder's search for his sister, dubbed the ‘mythology’ episodes become the main focus on which the entire show hinges, leading to a conspiracy that gets massively complex, in turn leading to extremely personal costs being paid by our two heroes. This isn’t to say the stand-alone episodes should be discounted (indeed, they became many people's preferred episodes when the mythology began to get too elaborate for many viewers in the later seasons), as an astonishingly high percentage of episodes maintain an extremely high standard.

A central strand to their partnership, being the idea of the believer versus the sceptic was also something that was an interesting element to the show. Mulder would tend to leap to fantastic possibilities to explain the events they were investigating, while Scully would attempt to stay as rigidly scientific as the strange nature of the cases would allow. There were occasional episodes where this would be flipped on its head and Scully's religious belief, not shared by Mulder would come to the surface and make for really nicely played juxtapositions. Although Mulder usually turned out to be right, the writers were very careful not to make Scully sound ridiculous; in fact, even though she’s wrong most of the time, she still comes across as the sane one.
A nasty extra-terrestrial secret is discovered underground in Texas.
Many people claim that the first three seasons were really the best, but I find that bizarre. For me, the best seasons are four and six, with almost every episode brimming over with wit and originality. A criticism these ‘early days’ fans often level at the show is that the ideas get a bit silly from season four onwards, but let's just remind ourselves of the third episode of season one: a story about a liver-eating mutant named Eugene Tooms (played to creepy perfection by Doug Hutchinson) who sleeps for thirty years at a time, only coming out of hibernation to eat five peoples' livers. Oh, and he can squeeze through almost any gap. Squeeze is truly a classic episode, but I ask you; what, on paper, could be sillier than that?

Mulder and Scully fight the future in a cornfield.
Considering the pressure that must be on the makers to hit deadlines and turn in shots on time, there is a wealth of beautifully cinematic moments within so many of the episodes; take season four's Home as a case in point; the murder of local sheriff Andy Taylor (Tucker Smallwood) and his wife Barbara (Judith Maxie) at the hands of the inbred Peacock family is gut-wrenchingly distressing but is sumptuously filmed and set to a cover of the Johnny Mathis song Wonderful Wonderful. For something filmed on a mid-90s TV budget (they tend to be much bigger nowadays) it is miraculous and is but one example of many, many wonderful scenes and episodes. Take also season six's Triangle, which experiments with long, long takes (with a few cheeky cuts you're not supposed to notice) and split screens.

Bridging seasons five and six, the movie X-Files: Fight the Future is more of the same, but on a bigger scale. Questions are (finally) answered, but in true X-Files fashion, the answers only lead to more questions. The film is kind of unique in that it is a big budget summer movie that is nothing more than a bridge between seasons of an ongoing TV show. The goal was for it to play well with those new to The X-Files but also be something the long time viewers would enjoy. Surprisingly the film walked this delicate balancing act pretty damn successfully, bringing the hugely popular show to an even wider audience. During the mid to late 90s, Mulder and Scully owned the TV world, and with Fight the Future they also took a big chunk out of 1998's cinematic haul. There was a little nagging feeling by now however that Carter and co didn't know exactly where the mythology was heading and what had been astonishingly tight for five years began to show a few signs of frayed edges. Considering the complexity, it is pretty incredible that it took this long to start falling apart - Lost didn't make it to the third season before it was clear the writers had no clue where the show was going. The mythology did get progressively more difficult to follow as the later seasons went on and went from being the reason viewers were hooked to the least popular part of the show. Despite this the writers persevered and, credit where it is due, when the whole thing is compressed into two episodes in the season nine finale The Truth, it does hold together from beginning to end. It just didn't feel like it at times when it was parceled out over nine years.

The last-act heroic rescue of the first X-Files movie.
Throughout the later seasons, the writers pull a few big rugs out from under us, by killing off the shadowy conspiracy that had been at the heart of the show for six and a half years, and not even as a season finale; viewers were truly reminded to expect the unexpected. Another controversial decision was to continue the show even after its star decided to leave. The decision not to replace or ignore Mulder, but to keep him as an integral part of the story, even though he’s not there is an effective way to get us to accept the series continuing without him. Robert Patrick had a very tough job as John Doggett, the agent assigned to find the abducted Mulder who eventually takes over the X-Files. Over the course of the eighth season, you come to not only accept him, but to care for him. Scully has now graduated to the role of the believer (although she struggles with making the kind of intuitive leaps that came to Mulder so naturally), and Doggett assumes the role of doesn't-go-for-any-of-that-paranormal-shit-but-is-almost-always-wrong partner.
Boo! Long-standing antagonist C.G.B. Spender, or, as he's
affectionately known, 'Cancer Man'.
Obviously, after what Scully had built with Mulder over the course of the previous seven years, no one would accept a Scully / Doggett romance, and the writers were smart enough to never suggest such a thing. They did however, turn the duo into a threesome by bringing in another new character, Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), who, unlike Doggett, was instantly likable and an easy believer. It's really a credit to the writers and both Patrick and Gish that Doggett and Reyes became such an integral part of the show, even thought they only had two seasons, especially with Doggett, because they made him so damn unlikable in his first episode. There is also a loose character similarity between Doggett and Mulder in that they have both lost family members. While Mulder spent years searching for his lost sister, Doggett must live his life having lived through the death of his son when he was still a child. This similarity could have been damaging, but it was sold well, and when in the outstanding season nine episode John Doe Doggett must suffer the knowledge of his son's murder returning when recovering from amnesia it is one of the most upsetting scenes in X-Files' long history. In another one of those examples of extraordinary production values, the whole Mexico-set episode is over-exposed, making the washed-out, sun-bleached visuals incredibly striking.

Agents Doggett and Reyes try to pick up the pieces
following Mulder's departure.
Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the popularity of The X-Files began to wane, even before the departure of Mulder. However, it is my honest opinion that the quality of the writing was maintained to the very end, with seasons eight and nine more than holding their own against the supposedly better earlier seasons. In fact, for me, the weakest seasons are five and seven, with five being at the height of the show's popularity. Among the best television shows ever broadcast.

Six years after we left Mulder and Scully on the run with the certain knowledge of an apocalyptic alien invasion on the way in 2012, Chris Carter and Fox finally managed to sort through the red tape to bring us another X-Files movie. It’s common knowledge that The X-Files: I Want to Believe was critically battered (with the heartening exception of Roger Ebert) and that it under-performed, probably scuppering the chances of us ever seeing the mythology truly tied up in a 2012-set third film (although both Duchovny and Anderson continue to express eagerness to return to Mulder and Scully even now, but it is Fox they must convince). This is a shame, because it isn't the total loss it appears to have been written off as.

Assistant Director Walter Skinner: Boss, antagonist,
saviour, enigma, balding.
It has been written and filmed like an episode of the show, and that is both its strength and weakness. Our two leads clearly still have a great deal of chemistry, and as a big fan of the show it was a true joy to see them back together. Billy Connolly is rather left field casting (as is Xzibit, rather less successfully as FBI agent Mosley Drummy) but nonetheless is very impressive as Joseph Crissman, a paedophile priest turned psychic medium, managing to both disturb and elicit sympathy in equal measure. The missing persons and dastardly experiments element tied together with the supernatural visions is common X-Files story territory, but there are also problems with the decision to make it like an extended episode. Scully does much religion versus controversial medical techniques soul searching, which covers ground we have gone over again and again on the show, which makes it feel slightly stale here. Something that genuinely filled me with joy here is the late appearance of Walter Skinner, a character that became a firm favourite on the show, who's exit at the end of final episode The Truth made me truly fear for him. A scene near the end showing him cradling and reassuring an injured Mulder in the snow is lovely and surprisingly emotional.
Mulder and Scully try to figure out what happened to their
audience in I Want to Believe.
The first X-Files movie was clearly a movie – bigger in scale, pushing the show to new heights. Not so in this one, and this lack of scale is something I can find no reason for – stay true to the show, sure, but don’t be afraid to get a little more cinematic. This may seem like an odd criticism as I've previously waxed lyrical about the myriad cinematic touches on the show, but there is still a notable difference between the show and Fight the Future which is distinctly missing on I Want to Believe. Aside from some admittedly gorgeous wintry scenery, this looks like it could have been made on the show's budget. This does make it work much better on the small screen, and is far more satisfying watched at home as a feature-length episode rather than at the cinema. As great a writer and TV director as Carter is, The X-Files: I Want to Believe seems proof that he isn't really cut out to direct movies.

As a fan, then, I found it enjoyable, but it just seems too small scale to be anything other than an episode of the show that found its way onto the big screen.

Season 1: 8/10
Season 2: 8/10
Season 3: 8/10
Season 4: 9/10
Season 5: 7/10
The X-Files: Fight the Future: 8/10
Season 6: 9/10
Season 7: 7/10
Season 8: 8/10
Season 9: 8/10
The X-Files: I Want to Believe: 7/10

I fully and readily acknowledge that I probably rate The X-Files more highly that it deserves, having been an obsessive fan back in the 90s. This is borne out by Sam's review of the show. Fight the Future generally does better; see this review by Garth. Roger Ebert is sadly in the minority with I Want to Believe, however; this review from Nathan is par for the course.