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Non-Review Review: The X-Files – Fight the Future

The X-Files: Fight the Future is often described as the mythology episode that somehow got released into theatres. In her review, Joyce Millman teased that Fight the Future was little more than “a two-hour episode of the show, except with better production values and a nicer wardrobe for Scully.” It is a fair point. It is not too hard to imagine a slightly cheaper version of Fight the Future split into two parts and replacing The End and The Beginning as the two-parter bridging the fifth and sixth seasons of the show.

Certainly, Fight the Future retains the late-stage mythology’s reluctance to provide any real sense of closure to the long-running plot about alien invasion and colonisation. Writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz increase the stakes by using some of that sweet blockbuster money to pay for a gestating alien fetus, but what do Mulder and Scully actually accomplish? What would a viewer jumping from The End to The Beginning miss, except for the fact that the Well-Manicured Man has left the mortal plane to visit that great Somerset estate in the sky?

What you've all been waiting for, admit it...

What you’ve all been waiting for, admit it…

The answer is nothing, but that is not the point. As much as Fight the Future enjoys playing with the trappings of the mythology (black oil! bees! tanker trucks! space ships! Oklahoma City!), the film is only interested in the idea of alien colonisation as a vehicle to explore the show’s central relationship. Carter and Spotnitz have shrewdly realised that Fight the Future will have the largest possible audience for the show, and has decided to give the general public what they want.

As a two-hour mythology episode, Fight the Future leaves a lot to be desired. As a two-hour Mulder and Scully ship tease, it is right on the money.

Buried secrets...

Buried secrets…

Fight the Future tips its hand quite early on. The opening shot of the film is given over to two figures trekking through the snowy landscape of Texas in 35,000 B.C. This was before any plans for colonisation or collaboration, stretching back infinitely further than the origins of the conspiracy in the teaser to One Son. It quickly becomes clear that these two intrepid adventurers are tracking a monstrous alien. The opening shot is designed to mirror Mulder and Scully’s later adventures in the Arctic, but it does provide an immediate sense of focus to the film’s narrative.

Fight the Future is a story about two people tracking aliens. The extended dialogue about slavery and gestation is just window dressing. It is perhaps instructive that the “extended cut” of Fight the Future has only forty-one seconds of new footage; that footage is taken from the exposition between Mulder and the Well-Manicured Man. That is dialogue that rather clearly and concisely explains the conspiracy and Mulder’s part in it. The fact that it was deemed expendable from the theatrical cut suggests the movie’s focus was never on the mythology.

"The budget's so large that I even got a chaffeur..."

“The budget’s so large that I even got a chauffeur…”

Instead, Fight the Future is a love story about two people who don’t fully realise that they are in love; it just happens to be set against the backdrop of gigantic space ships and monstrous aliens and secret conspiracies. The real drama at the heart of Fight the Future is given over to the relationship between Mulder and Scully. Their first sequence in the film finds them more playful and flirtatious than they were over the first four seasons of the show; a flirtation that Carter and Spotnitz would write into the fifth season in the run-up to the release of Fight the Future.

Mulder and Scully are introduced joking and messing around, playing practical jokes on one another. Mulder surprises Scully by jumping out at her, Scully convinces Mulder that the two of them might end up trapped on the roof. Mulder stumbles on a bomb when he sets off to find the vending machine to pick up food on the go for the pair. “You’re buying,” Scully quips, making Mulder and Scully seem less like a professional partnership and more like a couple who can’t wipe that goofy “I’m in love” grin off their faces. The duo hold hands together in their last scene.

This has got to violate fraternisation policy...

This has got to violate fraternisation policy…

The movie teases fans relentlessly. At one point, Mulder shows up at Scully’s apartment after a night drinking. Viewers might wonder how frequently that happens. When Mulder insists that he was drunk, but has since sobred up, Scully replies, “Was that before or after you decided to come here?” Speaking for the audience, Mulder inquires, “What exactly are you implying?” The film’s most memorable moment arguably comes as Mulder and Scully almost kiss in the hallway of his apartment, before the conspiracy interrupts an otherwise sweet moment.

“You don’t need me, Mulder,” Scully insists. “You never have. I’ve just held you back.” Mulder is having none of it. “You wanna tell yourself that so you can quit with a clear conscience, you can, but you’re wrong!” he yells. “You saved me! As difficult and as frustrating as it’s been sometimes, your goddamned strict rationalism and science have saved me a thousand times over! You’ve kept me honest… you’ve made me a whole person. I owe you everything, Scully; and you owe me nothing. I don’t know if I wanna do this alone… I don’t even know if I can…”

Driving them together...

Driving them together…

This moment is the kind of scene that would not be out of place in a quirky odd-couple romantic comedy. He is a paranoid loner who believes in extraterrestrials; she is a young doctor who doesn’t accept the paranormal. You caould cast Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in it; it would become one of the biggest films of the nineties. In another universe, Mulder chases Scully outside after their emotional conversation and kisses her in the rain. Carter and Spotnitz know exactly what casual viewers (and certain hardcore fans) expect from The X-Files: conspiracies and sexual tension.

The plot of Fight the Future does not gain its tension from the threat of exposing the vast international conspiracy; instead, the plot threatens to divide Mulder and Scully in a number of ways. When a hearing into the bomb detonate separates the two of them, Mulder protests, “They’re trying to divide us on this and we can’t let them.” Scully responds, pragmatically, “Mulder, they have divided us. They’re splitting us up.” Shortly afterwards, she reveals her plans to resign from the Bureau.

"Cool. They really went all out on this, didn't they?"

“Cool. They really went all out on this, didn’t they?”

This threat of division permeates the film. Following Mulder on his pursuit of unmarked tanker trucks, Scully appears to have a crisis of conscience. “I have to be in Washington, D.C. in eleven hours for a hearing, the outcome of which might possibly effect one of the biggest decisions of my life, and here I am in the middle of Nowhere, Texas chasing phantom tanker trucks!” she laments. It is an understandable concern, albeit one that feels more than a little forced. The drama of Fight the Future is deeply personal.

Even the villains seem to accept that the plot of Fight the Future is built around Mulder and Scully. When the Well-Manicured Man explains that the conspirators cannot simply kill Mulder, Strunghold reveals that he was a big fan of Brian DePalma’s adaptation of Mission: Impossible, launching into his Eugene Kittridge impression. “Then you must take away what he holds most valuable. That with which he can’t live without.” It’s not quite as catchy as “you find something that’s personally important to someone and… you squeeze”, but it’ll do.

But, sadly, there is no shirtless Skinner scene.

But, sadly, there is no shirtless Skinner scene.

There is a rather unfortunate subtext to all this, though. The story is essentially all about Mulder, with Scully reduced to his companion. Scully is a character to be abused and victimised as leverage against Mulder; she needs to be rescued by Mulder at the climax. This unfortunately harks back to the characterisation of their relationship in the early episodes of the second season, where Scully seemed to exist primarily as a way of attacking and undermining Mulder and his quest for the truth. She was a passenger on his quest, a handy victim.

There are elements of that to Fight the Future. When Scully announces that the Bureau is splitting them up, Mulder protests, “This is not about you, Scully. They’re doing this to me.” Mulder’s self-centredness should be a character flaw; he should come to accept that Scully is just as invested in this quest as he is. Unfortunately, the movie quickly turns Mulder into a stereotypical hero who traverses half of the planet in search of his beloved. It feels like Scully does not come out of Fight the Future particularly well.

Corny as hell, eh?

Corny as hell, eh?

Still, that first scene between Mulder and Scully helps to set a tone for Fight the Future. It is quite clear that everybody involved with the film is just really thrilled at the idea of making a blockbuster feature film. After all, Fight the Future was a big budget cinematic adaptation of a television series that was still on the air at the time of production and release. This was not a revival like the films based on Star Trek or Mission: Impossible. This was a feature film that was designed to integrate with an on-going television show.

Fight the Future led the way in this regard. Although the sixties Batman! show had managed something similar – essentially producing the movie as a pilot that was released after the first season – Fight the Future felt relatively unique at the time of release. However, it would become something of a trend-setter for shows that would see big-screen releases that overlapped with their success on the small screen. The following year would see the release of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. A few years later, Jack Ass and The Simpsons would follow.

The internet buzz is deafening...

The internet buzz is deafening…

Carter had originally planned to wrap up The X-Files after five years, and then transition to a series of feature films. However, Fox recognised that The X-Files was too big a cashcow to cancel prematurely, so they convinced him to launch the films while keeping the show on the air. On the commentary, Carter is still enthusiastic about the possibility of a series of feature films based around The X-Files:

We have this idea, or we’ve always said, it’s a pretense actually, that what we do each week with the X-Files is we tell a little movie, we make a little movie. While I do believe we do this, I learned in making a movie that nothing is like making a movie. That a year of your life goes by very quickly, that the big screen has demands that the small screen doesn’t. It is both a bigger screen and a kind of minimalist process, everything needs to be reduced. There cannot be any digression, no dead ends, no pontification. That the audience gets very tired very quickly if they are not moving in a forward direction in a movie. So I learned why movies cost so much . I couldn’t believe some of the price tags that were put on things. But when you’re talking effects and you’re putting them on film it’s a much more costly process and prospect. So I learned the hard way and I was sort of slapped in the face a little bit by the demands of that big picture up on the screen, both of the film maker and the story teller. While I think that we told a big screen story and I think we told it well. I think that when we go to do the next X-Files movie that we will all be much wiser, more experienced and savvy men and women. Who, I know, that are looking very forward to carrying this on from a TV series into a series of movies.

Ultimately, it would not quite develop in that way. Although Fight the Future performed reasonably well at the box office, opening at the top of the box office and earning nearly $190,000 at the global box office, Fox did not push a sequel into production during the show’s remaining life-time. Carter had to wait ten years before getting another shot at transitioning The X-Files to the big screen with The X-Files: I Want to Believe.

Lightening up...

Lightening up…

At the time, the hype and publicity around Fight the Future was astounding. The production worked incredibly hard to keep its cards close to its chest. In contemporary interviews, actor Martin Landau explained that this made it very difficult to actually read the script:

When I first got the script it was printed on dark red paper with my name emblazoned in dark letters and a number underneath my name on every page so that it would be virtually impossible to Xerox. Also making it very difficult to read! Needed a lot of candle power and sometimes my name, because of the lettering, obliterated some of the lines of dialogue. But I read enough to know that I knew it was a good script. And I appreciated Chris Carter and his team’s desire for secrecy.

This urge for secrecy marked the production out from many contemporary blockbusters. The film was assigned the codename “Blackwood” to keep the fans off guard, while producer Lata Ryan was invited to read the script in the company of Ten Thirteen’s production staff when Fox tried to bring her on board; she did not get her own copy.

Mulder carries the movie...

Mulder carries the movie…

Nevertheless, it is clear that everybody involved with Fight the Future is having a great deal of fun playing around with the toys reserved for big studio blockbusters. There is an opening sequence set in prehistoric Texas, a giant alien monster, the destruction of a building, a visit to London, and a climax in the Arctic. Carter even breaks his long-standing resistance to special celebrity guest stars. He draws in high-profile performers like Martin Landau, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Glenne Headly and Blythe Danner for supporting roles.

More than that, the script seems cheeky and self-aware, making room to affectionately mock Duchovny’s understated acting style. When Scully insists that he was panicking, he clarifies, “When I panic, I make this face.” He demonstrates with a variant of Blue Steel. When Mulder gets drunk, the film depicts him urinating over a poster for rival blockbuster Independence Day. Both the script and the actors seem to delight in the freedom that comes with a motion picture, allowing Mulder the opportunity to say the word “sh!t” repeated. (“f!ck” remains off-limits.)

"I'm gettin' too old for this sh!t..."

“I’m gettin’ too old for this sh!t…”

At times, the pleasure the production team takes in making a major motion picture almost distracts from the film itself. At one point, Mulder is shot in the head and Scully is abducted. This is the most tense moment in the script; after all, Fight the Future is trying to be both a Mulder and Scully love story and a conspiracy thriller at the same time. That tension is immediately undercut when Carter and Spotnitz decide that this is the appropriate point for a cameo from the Lone Gunmen, who show up for a scene before disappearing from the narrative.

The script strains and creeks as it attempts to provide all the necessary exposition for movie-goers who are unfamiliar with the source material. Lines feel forced and stilted, characters saying things that no human being would work into conversation simply to get the information across. “They’ve closed the X-Files,” Scully tells Mulder in their first scene, stopping just short of prefixing it with an awkward “as you know…” That said, the attempt to distil the plot of the show down to a drunken ramble from Mulder plays as wry self-awareness.

"Hey, how'd you like to hear some exposition?"

“Hey, how’d you like to hear some exposition?”

There are other nods towards the change in format. For example, Carter is able to hire actors who would never appear on the show. As a result, Fight the Future is populated by significant characters who are vital to the mythology but only appear within the confines of Fight the Future. Of course Martin Landau plays a character who just happened to know Mulder’s father (despite never being mentioned before) and who just happens to get conveniently killed off before the end of the movie.

The character of Strughold is more of a problem for The X-Files. He is introduced in Fight the Future as something of a celebrity “big bad.” He is an authority figure in the conspiracy who was never mentioned before and will never be mentioned again, but who might have ties to the “Strughold Mining Company” that Mulder and Scully investigated way back in Paper Clip. Nevertheless, Strughold is introduced as a figure who can cause the conspirators to assemble at his very whim, and who seems to speak for the group. The regular members of the group seem to defer to him.

"Well, it was either this or a Bill Scully cameo..."

“Well, it was either this or a Bill Scully cameo…”

Indeed, the closing scene of Fight the Future seems to suggest that the decision to reopen the X-files is a personal affront to Strughold; that he is a character who is keeping a close eye on the workings of Mulder and Scully. This makes the character’s absence from later episodes – particularly Two Fathers and One Son – seem strinking. Mueller-Stahl would go on to make a four-episode appearance in The West Wing, so it is a little disappointing that Carter could not secure him for a brief cameo or insert during the sixth season.

Then again, this is not the only inconsistency that exists between Fight the Future and the rest of the television series. The film was written half-way through the fourth season and produced during the gap between the fourth and fifth seasons. As such, it would always be difficult for Carter to slot it comfortably into the gap between the fifth and sixth seasons of the show. Carter and his staff were never particularly good at planning ahead; so the fifth and sixth seasons do not reconcile smoothly with Fight the Future.

Because it just isn't The X-Files if Scully doesn't examine a dead body...

Because it just isn’t The X-Files if Scully doesn’t examine a dead body…

Most obviously, it seems like Carter and Spotnitz wrote Patient X and The Red and the Black with little regard for how it might affect the movie. Characters like Jeffrey Spender and Diana Fowley are completely absent from Fight the Future, despite being of vital importance to the show’s narrative at that point in time. There is no mention of the rebels in the film. More than that, the mechanics of the Well-Manicured Man’s character arc and the development of the vaccine seem a little bumpy in light of Patient X and The Red and the Black.

Fight the Future introduces the vaccine as if it is purely experimental and theoretical. However, the conspirators have actually seen it work in Patient X and The Red and the Black. More than that, Fight the Future suggests that the Well-Manicured Man has only recently had a change of heart about his involvement in the grand conspiracy. Watching the film, it seems like his experience with his grandchildren and his discovery of the nature of colonisation inspires him to help Mulder. In contrast, Patient X and The Red and the Black suggest he was always resistant.

"Take that, Independence Day!"

“Take that, Independence Day!”

To be fair, these are not really problems. Fight the Future is not interested in really advancing or evolving the mythology plot. Carter and Spotnitz just seem happy to incorporate the iconography into the big screen adaptation. Even the revelations about the nature of colonisation in Fight the Future feel incidental. for all that Fight the Future has the budget to create a gigantic monstrous alien that gestates inside a living host, that is an image that remains largely specific to Fight the Future.

This process of alien procreation is incorporated into The Beginning at the start of the sixth season, but it remains largely removed from the show’s overarching plot. It seems like a cool idea for a big-screen budget, but feels somewhat tacked on to an already convoluted mythology. In later episodes, the black oil is still an entity that controls a human body, and the colonists still seem interested in infiltrating and controlling human institutions – whether with shape-shifting bounty hunters or synthetic super soldiers.

Looks like somebody watched Alien to prepare for writing the film...

Looks like somebody watched Alien to prepare for writing the film…

In fact, one could wonder whether the revelation that the aliens plan to gestate inside of people makes their plans for genocide any more horrific. “This isn’t colonization!” the Well-Manicured Man protests in horror. “This is spontaneous repopulation!” It can be two things. Later, the Well-Manicured Man tells Mulder, “Until Dallas we believed the virus would simply control us, that mass infection would make us a slave race. Imagine our surprise when they began to gestate.” Is mass enslavement-through-infestation really that much better?

The fact that these additions to the mythology don’t really go anywhere or push the story forward feels incidental. After all, Spotnitz and Carter have constructed a story that is structured to showcase the imagery associated with the show’s mythology, but it is all window dressing. It is possible to run through a checklist of things that the viewer expects to see in a big mythology episode, right down to Mulder catching a glimpse of the space ship flying off as Scully conveniently misses it.

So that's what happened to Peter Watts...

So that’s what happened to Peter Watts…

Indeed, Mulder and Scully’s introductory sequence provides something of an exorcism for the demons that had been haunting the show. The Oklahoma City Bombing was a horrific atrocity that centred public attention on the dangers posed by possible paranoid conspiracy theorists. Carter had grappled time and time again with the challenges of portraying a paranoid conspiracy theorist without indulging or endorsing the radical politics held by individuals like Timothy McVeigh. It was a tough challenge for Carter at a moment where The X-Files was in the mainstream.

The fourth season touches on this idea repeatedly, dealing with paranoid paramilitaries in scripts like The Field Where I Died, Tunguska, Terma and Unrequited. The fifth season had returned to the idea in The Pine Bluff Variant. The destruction of a government building at the start of Fight the Future cannot help but evoke the destruction and devastation that Timothy McVeigh wrought on Oklahoma, all in the name of his own paranoid conspiracy theories. It is telling that one of the first things Carter does with a blockbuster budget is to address that tragedy.

Infectious evil...

Infectious evil…

On the commentary, director Rob Bowman acknowledges the similarities, and concedes that the sequence made him feel a little uneasy:

I was actually resistant to the idea early on in the script process because I have relatives in Oklahoma but, the fact that Mulder shows up and does clear the building. I think is the difference of course, between the unfortunate event in Oklahoma and what we’re saying here. But, it is a horrible, horrible crime.

Bowman is a director who is quite sensative to issues of exploitation; he had been uncomfortable with the death of a child in The Walk, for example.

"Are you absolutely sure I can't smoke in this thing?"

“Are you absolutely sure I can’t smoke in this thing?”

Inevitably, the plot of Fight the Future suggests that such an atrocity is the action of a fundamentalist who is unquestioningly devoted to their ideals. “Darius Michaud was a twenty-two-year veteran of the Bureau,” Mulder protests when Kurtzweil suggests he allowed the bomb to go off. Kurtzweil simply responds, “Michaud was a patriot.” Michaud was a man so unthinking in and uncritical of his ideals that he could justify anything. Incidentally, the “patriot” movement is the label with which McVeigh identified himself and which surged after the attacks.

Still, Fight the Future does distil or boil down a lot of the core themes of the show’s convoluted mythology arc. The plot elements might not always fit comfortably with the finer details of the long-form story, but they resonate quite well with the core elements of the mythology. Although trying to fit Fight the Future into the mechanic plot of the show is a fool’s errand, it does manage to evoke the big ideas. Scully is abducted and exploited by powerful men, with no regard for her reproductive rights. Mulder uncovers a system of exploitation that is literally industrial in scale.

A chilly reception...

A chilly reception…

There are mysterious black helicopters. There is the Cigarette-Smoking Man. There is a powerful juxtaposition between happy communities and vast government corruption. There is a beautiful sweeping shot from a small suburban playground to a secret government lab. Mulder and Scully discover that dark secrets are buried under the freshly-laid grass of a children’s playground. This is perhaps the enduring image of Chris Carter’s X-Files; the idea that prosperity is built atop unspeakable horrors.

Carter has been fascinated with the relationship between the European Settlers and the Native Americans, explicitly incorporating it into the mythology in Anasazi and The Blessing Way. Fight the Future makes this suggestion explicit. At the end of the second episode of the show, Deep Throat had teased Mulder with the revelation that these aliens had been on Earth for a very long time. It seems like Fight the Future finally reveals precisely how long they have been around. It turns out that Deep Throat might have been understating things.

Head case...

Head case…

The Well-Manicured Man reveals that the aliens have more right to the planet than humanity. “We know very little about it except that it was the original inhabitant of this planet,” he warns Mulder. The virus is something primal and infectious, something deep-rooted and primal. “What is a virus, but a colonizing force that cannot be defeated? Living in a cave, underground, until it mutates … and attacks.” The aliens are older than humanity itself; in a way, we are the tresspassers.

Rob Bowman proves a smart choice to direct Fight the Future. The director was always among the most cinematic directors to work on the show, and his style proves to be a good fit for the feature film. Bowman manages to craft a look and feel that maintains consistency with the television series, but also demonstrates just how well the expanded budget has been put to use. The action sequences are suitably exciting, and the scale is quite impressive in places. That said, pulling off an Arctic expedition on a film budget is not quite as impressive as doing it on a television budget.

The mythology does trip itself up a bit...

The mythology does trip itself up a bit…

Fight the Future is not an exceptional story on its own merits. It is a rather clunky mythology story that convolutes and contorts a lot of the show’s central story arc. It doesn’t really have a conclusion of itself. It feels curiously out of step with the storytelling happening on the show around it, even as it runs through a checklist of things that fans will be expecting to see. It undoubtedly contributed to the popular criticism of the show – the idea that carter never actually bothers to wrap anything up.

At the same time, it works well enough. It is The X-Files on a blockbuster scale, with Carter and Spotnitz tailoring the show’s mythology to suit that format. Mulder’s one-liners become a lot more pronounced, the explosions get a lot bigger. Fight the Future is packed to the brim with the things that people expect from The X-Files, for better or worse. This is a film that knows the casual movie-goer probably doesn’t care about the finer details of a fictional invasion still fifteen years away, instead wanting to see if Mulder and Scully ever actually hook up.

"You've seen Blue Velvet, right Scully?"

“You’ve seen Blue Velvet, right Scully?”

Fight the Future perfectly captures an extended moment in the life of The X-Files. Ignoring minor plot inconsistencies or gaps, it is remarkable that this moment seemed to stretch from the middle of the fourth season through to the start of the sixth. The X-Files had conquered the world. It seemed like there was only one direction the show could go from here, but it is worth remembering that The X-Files spent almost two years as king of the pop culture mountain.

One Response

  1. The worst part of the movie is the plot itself. They cure a virus using a vaccine? The idea of a vaccine is that you insert an innocuous antigen into the person *prior* to infection so that the person develops immune response *before* being infected. In the movie, Mulder cures Scully using a vaccine?!

    The entire thing about the virus being the first living thing on earth… Viruses are not even considered to be *living beings* because they are molecules that only contain RNA and some enzymes. Not to mention it makes no sense for there being a human virus without prior to there being any humans. How did they know human genetics? Did aliens create human beings as well?

    The idiotic science is not the only thing wrong with the movie. The entire thing is implausible. There is this group of guys who wants Mulder quiet, so what do they do… They do not kill him… They kidnap Scully… Yes, that will keep him quiet lol… Obviously, he then spends half the movie investigating the aliens in order to get her back lol…

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