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Non-Review Review: Searching…

Searching… is an interesting fusion. It blends the innovative narrative style of Unfriended with the more convention cinematic language of thrillers like Kiss the Girls.

This cocktail is at once welcome and overdue. Unfriended was one of those rare genuinely innovative pieces of mainstream cinema; in form, if not necessarily in function. Unfriended built from a premise that was both incredibly simple and also formally daring, telling a fairly standard supernatural teenage revenge story entirely through a computer desktop. As with Searching…, all of Unfriended unfolded within a computer screen.

Windows ’95 into the soul…

In hindsight, it is surprising that it has taken other genres so long to embrace that formal experiment. Cinema has a long history of eagerly coopting the language and experiments of horror for more prestigious and high-brow fare. Consider, for example, how quickly other genres coopted the “found footage” revolution of the early twenty-first century for action movies, thrillers, comedies, and even monster movies and superhero films. (Then again, that embrace of the “found footage” aesthetic may have caught on for reasons beyond the success of The Blair Witch Project.)

Searching… takes the basic formal conceit of Unfriended and applies it to a more conventional genre film. The result is an abduction thriller told exclusively through screens, through video streams, search histories, web cameras and screenshots. It’s a provocative premise, effectively turning the bigger screen into a smaller one and changing the rules of how the audience processes the imagery in front of them. However, Searching… clearly aspires to bridge the gap between screens big and small.

She needs to screen her fans better.

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The X-Files Deviations (IDW) #1 – Being and Time (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

Being and Time is not a good comic book.

There are a number of reasons why the comic doesn’t work, but the simple fact of the matter is that it has an interesting premise but does little of interest with that premise. Nevertheless, there is something quite intriguing the set-up, an “out-of-continuity” tale that offers a glimpse of a parallel universe where Fox Mulder was abducted in the place of his sister Samantha. More to the point, it seems entirely telling that the only supplemental X-Files comic to be published by IDW during the entirety of The X-Files: Season 11 was one entirely outside continuity.

What might have been.

What might have been.

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The X-Files – Closure (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Sein und Zeit and Closure don’t fit together at all.

There is a nice symmetry to the stories, with Sein und Zeit closing with Mulder standing amid a mass grave and Closure opening with the excavation of the same mass grave. The contrast between the two shots of the same space says a lot about the differences between Sein und Zeit and Closure. Sein und Zeit is an episode that isolates Mulder, demonstrating how alone he truly is in the world and how all his beliefs might be empty; Closure responds by cluttering up the narrative and revealing an absurdly convoluted explanation of what happened to Samantha.

A grave subject...

A grave subject…

Even the themes of the two episodes are almost unique. Both Sein und Zeit and Closure are driven by Mulder’s desire to make sense of what happened to his sister, but both adopt diametrically different approaches towards the question. Sein und Zeit proposes that the world is a random and cruel place where bad things happen to children for no reason beyond the sadistic whims of strangers, while Closure embraces the idea that there is a larger scheme in which these horrible events occur.

There is a yin-and-yang structure to Sein und Zeit and Closure, a sense that the two episodes are almost at odds with one another when it comes to the fate of Samantha Mulder. Closure offers something approaching hope. It is too much to describe Closure as a happy-ending to the character arc that ran through the first seven seasons of the series, but it does offer Samantha an ending that is not soul-destroyingly bleak. It offers Mulder resolution and understanding. In his own words, it offers him freedom.

"Conscience... it's just the voices of the dead... trying to save us from our own damnation."

“Conscience… it’s just the voices of the dead… trying to save us from our own damnation.”

It is a very hopeful suggestion. It is a particularly hopeful suggestion coming at the middle of the show’s seventh season, as the resolution to Mulder’s character arc. The audience has spent seven years watching Mulder deal with the trauma of the loss of his sister, wrestling with the fear that he might never find an answer; or that he might find an answer that fails to make sense of it all. What if he found an answer that made sense of everything? What if Samantha’s disappearance wasn’t just part of a government conspiracy? What if it was part of something bigger?

What if the disappearance of Samantha Mulder meant everything?

A man alone.

A man alone.

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The X-Files – Sein und Zeit (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Sein und Zeit and Closure don’t fit together at all.

There is a clear demarkation that exists between the two episodes, to the point where they cannot really be described as a single two-part story. Following the disappearance of Amber Lynn LaPierre from her home, Sein und Zeit closes with the arrest of a serial child-murderer and the discovery of a mass grave. There is not a whiff of the show’s central mythology to be found, despite Mulder’s insistence and anxiety. Although Closure picks up where Sein und Zeit left off, it embarks on its own separate story that does draw heavily from the show’s established mythology.

A grave subject...

A grave subject…

Even the guest casts of the two episodes are almost unique. Outside of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, only two guest stars appear in both episodes. Rebecca Toolan and Megan Corletto both play characters who die in Sein und Zeit, but appear as ghosts in Closure. The featured guest stars in Sein und Zeit do not reappear in Closure, and vice versa. Even the series’ recurring cast is firmly divided between the two halves; Walter Skinner appears in Sein und Zeit, while the Cigarette-Smoking Man plays an important role in Closure.

There is a yin-and-yang structure to Sein und Zeit and Closure, a sense that the two episodes are almost at odds with one another when it comes to the fate of Samantha Mulder. Sein und Zeit dares to ask what might happen if there was no rhyme or reason to her abduction; what if it was just a tragedy, like the tragedies that happen to happy families all the time? Mulder has invested so much of himself in the quest to explain what happened on that night in late November 1973; what would happen if there were no meaningful explanation?

"Conscience... it's just the voices of the dead... trying to save us from our own damnation."

“Conscience… it’s just the voices of the dead… trying to save us from our own damnation.”

It is a very bleak suggestion. It is a particularly bleak suggestion coming at the middle of the show’s seventh season, as the resolution to Mulder’s character arc. The audience has spent seven years watching Mulder dig deeper and deeper into a sinister conspiracy against mankind, largely motivated by the fact that his sister’s disappearance is a part of some larger puzzle. What if it wasn’t? What if Mulder’s whole quest were simply a lie that he had told himself? What if Mulder wanted to believe so badly that he convinced himself that this made sense?

What if the disappearance of Samantha Mulder meant nothing?

A man alone.

A man alone.

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The X-Files – Max (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Reportedly, Tempus Fugit and Max took twenty-eight days to shoot. Assistant director Tom Braidwood described the two-parter as a “pretty challenging” effort for the show. The series built an air plane cabin specifically so that it could film those fantastic abduction sequences. There are fields and hangars strewn with dead bodies and the wreckage of a passenger air plane. By just about any definition, Tempus Fugit and Max comprise the most ambitious and large-scale two-part episode that the show has produced to date.

Paradoxically, this is also the smallest two-part episode that the show has produced to date. It brings back a minor guest star from a first season episode, only to kill him off casually in the teaser for the first episode. None of the big players show up for the drama. The most significant consequence of Tempus Fugit and Max is the death of Agent Pendrell. In many ways, Tempus Fugit and Max is the post-mortem story of a little guy who was crushed by the weight of something much larger than himself – caught between forces of immeasurable power.

In-flight serve will now resume...

In-flight service will now resume…

Tempus Fugit and Max do very little to advance the central mythology arc, which has stalled somewhat in the fourth season. However, they manage to encapsulate so many of the core themes of that central storyline. This is a story about the victimisation of the weak by the powerful; this is a tale about the sacrifices that are made in pursuit of the truth; this is a reflection on the appeal of conspiracy theory; this is a morality play about balancing lives against “the greater good.”

In many ways, Tempus Fugit and Max are the quintessential mythology episodes, despite not being that closely related at all.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

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The X-Files – Tempus Fugit (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Conspiracy lives in the gaps.

Conspiracy theories grow in the gaps of history. They multiple and divide in the absences on the historical record. They entangle and dissemble in the lacunas of memory. In many ways, conspiracy theories represent an attempt to impose order upon a chaotic universe, to know the unknowable. They grow from doubts and questions, holes and voids. Every ellipsis, every redacted line points towards infinite possibilities. Every “no comment” is but conformation of the worst possible outcome.

The truth is up there...

The truth is up there…

Tempus Fugit opens with a nine-minute gap before a plane crash that claims over one hundred lives. Max closes with another nine-minute gap that sees the ever-elusive proof slip through Mulder’s fingers once again. However, Tempus Fugit and Max are not truly “conspiracy” episodes. Characters like the Cigarette-Smoking Man, the Well-Manicured Man, Alex Krycek and Marita Covarrubias are all absent. Even the sinister functions of shadowy government officials are outsourced to “Cummins Aerospace”, a government contractor never mentioned on the show before or since.

Instead, Tempus Fugit and Max are focused on the little people trying to assemble what they can from these gaps. Mike Millar is an honest and hard-working member of the National Transportation and Safety Board trying to piece together a crashed aeroplane. Max Fenig is trying to piece together some meaning for all his suffering. Mulder and Scully are trying to piece together the truth. Even the aliens themselves seem to be searching. Tempus Fugit and Max are populated with characters trying desperately to make sense of the gaps.

Fly by night...

Fly by night…

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The X-Files – Paper Clip (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

And now we return to your scheduled viewing.

In many respects, Paper Clip feels like the real third season premiere. It establishes a lot of the recurring themes and ideas for the mythology of the season, from Krycek-on-the-run through to collaboration in the wake of the Second World War. It builds on the successful multi-part formula established by episodes like Ascension or End Game during the show’s second season. It moves things along in a way that The Blessing Way simply refused to. (It even resolves the cliffhanger from the last episode on screen.)

The light at the end of the tunnel...

The light at the end of the tunnel…

Paper Clip demonstrates the strengths of the third season of The X-Files. The third season was the point at which the show really pushed the mythology out, building on earlier implications that there was form to be found in the shadows. The third season also looked to the second season to determine what had worked and what had not worked. Paper Clip is very clearly modelled on the successful aspects of second parts like Ascension or End Game.

It moves. The power of Paper Clip comes from an incredible forward momentum that allows the show to maintain tension and excitement while refusing to allow the audience to catch their breath. Instead of resolving the bigger plot threads from the first episode, questions and hints are thrown out with reckless abandon as the script just drives through set pieces and emotional beats and suspenseful sequences. It is a very meticulously, very cleverly constructed piece of television.

Watching the skies...

Watching the skies…

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The X-Files – Season 2 (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

The first few seasons of a television show are very much about defining the show – figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and what form the show will take. After all, a lot of discussion and planning takes place during development, but all of that is on paper. It’s only once you’ve worked with the cast and had a chance to gauge audience response that it is possible to truly understand a television show.

The first two seasons of The X-Files seem like an attempt to map out the show, to mark the boundaries and do some fine calibration. The show had been a sleeper hit in its first season, popular enough to secure a second season on Fox. However, the second season had seen the series become a breakout hit. It climbed rather dramatically in the ratings, and the show would continue that ascent through to the fifth season in the lead-in to the feature film. However, the second season still feels like it’s a learning curve.

xfiles-onebreath6

There are exceptional episodes in the second season. The season provides a wealth of classic stories. Fresh Bones and Our Town stand out as two of the best monster-of-the-week stories that the show had done by this point in its life-cycle. Even outside of that, there are classics like One Breath or Humbug or The Host or F. Emasculata. However, there are also quite a few misfires like Fearful Symmetry or Excelsis Dei or 3.

There are a lot of points in the second season where it feels like The X-Files is experimenting, trying new things that would ultimately become part of the show’s unique identity. Not all of these elements worked, but that is the luxury of a second season. It allows the production team to do that sort of experimentation so they might find their groove.

xfiles-duanebarry16 Continue reading

The X-Files (Topps) #3 – A Little Dream of Me/The Return (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

There are inevitable challenges in working on a licensed property. You are effectively playing with somebody else’s toys. Since these tie-ins cannot drive a narrative currently unfolding in another medium, it’s often a challenge to maintain the illusion of forward momentum while existing at the behest of a story that can change from week-to-week. While The X-Files was a massive coup for Topps comics, and while Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard did a wonderful job, the comic had to face these constraints.

A Dismembrance of Things Past had brushed up against those limitations in trying to tell a U.F.O. story without meddling in the television show’s continuity. Petrucha used some fiendishly clever sleight of hand there, suggesting that the story would be about an alien visitation and possible cover-up, only to reveal that the story was actually an intimate meditation on the ideas of truth and memory. It was a rather ingenious bait-and-switch, resulting in a wonderful little story.

Pictures in his head...

Pictures in his head…

A Little Dream of Me is not quite as efficient in dealing with the external limitations imposed on a tie-in comic book. The unfortunate realities of comic book scheduling meant that A Little Dream of Me had the misfortune to hit the stands very shortly after the broadcast of Colony and End Game. Of course, the script for A Little Dream of Me would have been written long before the episodes aired (about six months), but the scheduling causes the comic to suffer.

After all, Colony and End Game had made it abundantly clear that Samantha Mulder was unlikely to be returning to her family any time soon. And that was in the television show. The third issue of the comic book teasing the return of Samantha Mulder seems like a rather cynical cheat.

The "X" file...

The “X” file…

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The X-Files – Colony (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

Colony is another second season game changer. As with other episodes in the second season, there’s a sense that the production team are really getting to grips with what works with the show – laying groundwork and defining a template that they can work with into the show’s third season. While the Duane Barry and Ascension two-parter had been an act of desperation to work around Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy, Colony and End Game is a two-parter that the show embraced entirely of its own volition.

These two two-part episodes really set the template for the show going forward. There’s a sense that Chris Carter and his team were really defining what a season of The X-Files should look like, giving them a blueprint that they might build on in the years ahead. From the second season through to the sixth, the show would stick quite rigidly to the idea of two big two-parters in the middle of the season, quite apart from any multi-part stories bridging the seasons.

Lights in the sky...

Lights in the sky…

These two parters were typically broadcast as part of the “sweeps”, and inevitably focused on the show’s alien conspiracy mythology. Even the more stand-alone two-parters like A Christmas Carol and Emily or Dreamland Part I and Dreamland Part II still build off the series’ central mythology. Given those were the points at which the show got the highest exposure, and the point where the show worked hardest to draw in an audience, it’s no surprise that the mythology arc rose to such prominence.

Duane Barry and Ascension undoubtedly set a precedent, but those episodes were prompted by factors outside the control of the creative team. However, Colony and End Game really solidified that precedent into a guiding principle for the show. This two-parter comes to codify and cement a lot of the things that the show’s mythology comes to take for granted. For better and worse.

Quite pointed...

Quite pointed…

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