Friday, December 14, 2012

Film Friday: The X-Files (1998)

I’ve been a fan of The X-Files from the beginning. What a great show! And believe it or not, when I heard they were making a movie, I was kind of excited. Yeah, I know that movies made from television shows usually stink, but I had hope. And ultimately, this film did a great job of bringing the series to the big screen.

** spoiler alert **

Starting in 1993 and running through 2002, The X-Files was an amazingly original series. It starred David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Mulder worked in the basement of the FBI building on something called the X-Files. These were unsolved crimes involving claims of strange or paranormal activity. Because of their nature, they were considered a joke and the fact Mulder refused to abandon the X-Files was an embarrassment to the FBI, which wanted them forgotten.

The series began with Agent Scully being assigned to assist Mulder. Scully is a straight-laced scientist and skeptic, and her real assignment was to debunk Mulder’s findings and to discredit him so the FBI could justify shutting him down. Over time, however, Scully came to realize that Mulder really was onto something and a relationship developed between them. . . though the writers teased the heck out of the audience with that!
In addition to this dynamic, the series developed a deep mythology. Mulder uncovered a number of conspiracies, but never could quite get to the bottom of them. These revolved around secret groups who had a hand in alien abductions, cloning experiments, and anything else the writers could come up with. They were both outside of and controlled the government. Making these conspiracies work were a series of recurring characters like Cancer Man, a cigarette smoking man who occasionally aided Mulder with information but just as often sabotaged him. They gave the audience just enough to tease them, but never even to solve the riddles. Moreover, it soon became clear that the FBI was under the control of these groups, except for Mulder’s boss Assistant Director Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), who did his best to secretly help Mulder and Scully.

So along comes the film.

When you’re turning a television series into a film, the biggest problem you face is decided how deep to get into the mythology. Most of the audience you’re hoping to attract haven’t watched the series and know almost nothing about it. If you don’t feed them a lot of basic information to get them to understand the players and the motivations, they will be lost and won’t enjoy the film. But at the same time, your guaranteed core audience are people who love the series, and they won’t be happy if the film spends its time acting like a primer for the series. They want a continuation of the series exactly where it left off, only bigger in scope. . . something to move the series to the next level. There may be no harder balancing act in filmmaking than solving this contradiction.

Yet, The X-Files did it. And to do that, the The X-Files chose an interesting route. Let’s start with how they satisfied the fans.
To satisfy the fans, the film digs deeply into the mythology and it actually does an amazingly strong job of bringing together many of the conspiracies Mulder uncovered throughout the series. Essentially, the film involves a virus fans have seen before, which is uncovered in Texas when a boy falls through the ground into a cave. A shadowy organization moves in and covers up this virus by burying the bodies of the infected in the rubble of a building they explode. This is the same shadowy organization which Mulder has been chasing throughout the series and they are represented here by many of the same actors we’ve seen in the series. Moreover, the film doesn’t annoy the fans with exposition scenes or flashbacks that explain who these people are or what their relationship is to Mulder. In effect, it treats the audience as if they are all fans. . . though there is a catch I will explain in a moment. The film then provides a truly credible answer to what this conspiracy has been up to and why they’ve been so obsessed with Mulder. This does exactly what the fans want: it takes things to the next level and expands the mythology.
Aside from that, the film also mentions much of the mythology, like references to Mulder’s father, who is a key figure in the series, the presence of Cancer Man, the well-manicured man, the Lone Gunmen, the sexual tension between Scully and Mulder, and seeing Skinner doing his best to protect Scully from the FBI. This is more than enough to convince the fans that the film was made for them without a thought given to the newbies.

Yet, the film was also made for the newbies. Consider this.

While normally the use of something like the conspiracy would require too much background information for casual fans to absorb, no outside knowledge is actually needed here. After the opening, the character Kurtzweil (Martin Landau) provides a quick background on the scope, reach and methods of the conspiracy while showing them in action. This is an excellent way to introduce the concept – he also acts as a way to connect Mulder to the conspiracy without Mulder needing to stumble upon them and learn who they are, which would upset the fans.
Further, as the story progresses, the film actually explains both who they are and why they are doing what they are doing. Indeed, we learn that the conspiracy is in contact with aliens who plan to colonize the planet by infecting humans with the virus found in Dallas. They had been led to believe that the virus would make humans into a slave race. Since they can’t fight the aliens, they are collaborating to buy time so they can develop a vaccine to the virus. But when they see that the virus has mutated, they realize that they have been deceived by the aliens. They also realize they can’t let the aliens know this or the aliens will strike now and ruin all their plans. Thus, they need to stop Mulder from exposing this virus to keep the aliens from knowing what they have discovered.

Moreover, while the film does make repeated references to the series mythology, the way it makes those references is likely to go right over the newbies’ heads. Things like the sexual tension between Mulder and Scully and Skinner’s role in helping them with the FBI are only hinted at – enough for the fans to see it and add that element to the meaning of the events in the film, but not enough for the newbies to notice that they are missing anything. Even the mention of Mulder’s father is done with enough information that the newbies will feel like they understand the complete reason for him being mentioned, even as they miss the entire connection between his father and the conspiracy. Basically, each of these things is mentioned in such a way that the newbies will feel like they know what they need to know, but the fans will be able to add their own outside knowledge to make the film more meaningful.
That is where the film’s success lies. This film allows both audiences to walk away satisfied that their own interpretation of the film, based on their level of knowledge, was the one to which the film catered and they will never realize that the film works for both audiences. The newbies get an entirely self-contained plot, needing no prior knowledge, and have no sense of what they are missing. The fans gets a film that delves deep into the mythology, moves things to the next level and doesn’t seem to stop to get the newbies up to speed. This is like a template for how to adapt something like a comic book, a television series, or even a series of books.

Finally, let me point out that this goes back to an idea that is a constant favorite at this site, the idea of letting the audience do your work for you. As we’ve noted many times, films that leave things to the imagination are better films because they let the audience build their own worlds and their own stories. That personalizes the film and allows millions of people to each see what they want in the film, which makes them happier with the meaning of the film and gives them a stronger attachment to it since they helped to create it. It’s the same thing here. At its core, the film is quite basic, but it hints at some many things (without ever saying them) which allowed each fan to add layers and layers of meaning to the film according to their own level of knowledge and interpretation. That’s actually pretty brilliant.

In the end, I’m not labeling this a great or inspired film because ultimately the plot does feel somewhat derivative – in fact, I can point to parts that feel downright stolen, like the alien having a distinct The Thing feel to it. But if you look at the mechanics of how they assembled this film, it is quite brilliant.

So the next time you watch this film, ask yourself how much your understanding of the film is from what you see and how much is from what you assume.

30 comments:

shawn said...

Another X-Phile here. I too enjoyed this movie. It had a big budget look and feel to it, but also kept to the series' smaller, intimate paranoid roots nicely. This film struck a nice balance. Too bad the same couldn't be said of X-Files: I Want to Believe.

ScottDS said...

I never actually watched the show (it's available online - I just need to set aside the time)...

...but I really liked this movie! And I thought they did a great job of bringing in outside viewers like me. (As any Star Trek filmmaker will tell you, it's a thin line to walk.)

I'm sure these things had been done before but it's funny seeing other movies that contain elements from this one, from Prometheus' black oil to Crystal Skull's alien ship rising from the ground. I know these aren't original ideas but on the other hand, I once told a friend, "Crystal Skull's ending? Just watch the X-Files movie instead!"

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I agree. This one felt big and small at the same time. This was exactly what a film made from the series should have been like.

I totally agree about the sequel too... blech. They did everything wrong with that one!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, The series is great (at least the first 3-4 years, then it kind of loses itself). I highly recommend it.

As I say above, I think the reason this film really worked was that it allowed everyone to read in as much or as little as they wanted. That let each group of viewers feel like the film catered to them.

What's funny to me about things being stolen is how much this film stole from others. I can go through and almost point out scene by scene where its parts came from. I think it's well hidden enough behind the "feel" of this film and a couple of really well done visuals so that most people won't notice, but it's totally there.

Anthony said...

I loved many of the standalone (aka Monster of the Week) episodes of the X-Files but I quickly started hating the mythology episodes because it quickly became clear that there was no plan, the writers were just stringing audiences along up until the series became unprofitable (look at all the nonsense revolving around Mulder's sister).

I thought the movie was okay (mostly due to the black goo and the big Terminator type guy) but nothing really happened.

The X-Files and Millenium (another series which got tangled in its own mythology midway through but which had a lot of wonderful stand alone episodes) are why I avoid open end series with overarching plotlines.

Anthony said...

Looking up the movie's wikipedia entry, it looks like the big guy might be something that popped up later (on the tv series).

Its been a long time since I saw the movie and its possible I'm conflating stuff that happened in the tv episodes with stuff that happened in the movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I agree in large part.

The stand-alone episodes were great, which is why the early episodes were so much better than the later episodes where they tried to tie everything together and where every monster became part of the conspiracy.

In terms of the conspiracy itself, I enjoyed that for a while. At first, there were some tantalizing hints at what could be going on. But after a while, it became exactly what you say -- just questions and suggestions with no plan to ever tie it together. And at some point, the conspiracy became so confused and so contradictory that it no longer made any sense. That was too bad.

I do think the film did an excellent job of explaining the conspiracy and tying most of it together. I also enjoyed the film just as a film. I thought it had an excellent amount of tension and plot. It wasn't heart-pounding, but it was never going to be that because this was never that kind of show. Was this a top 10 film? Hardly. But it was quite enjoyable and it has legs.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. I was never able to get into Millennium. I tried, but it just didn't work for me.

I'm not sure who you mean "the big guy."

Backthrow said...

Good review, Andrew.

I watched an episode or two of the series when it first aired, and maybe a couple more in reruns, but never really got into it... but I've been interested in properly revisiting the series (and the first movie) on Netflix one of these days. I still need to see FIREFLY, too; I'm behind the curve...

I missed out on the 'Great Film Debate: Favorite Sci-Fi Film' topic on Sunday, and I couldn't narrow it down to even a short list, but one that I like a lot that is super-obscure, and dovetails nicely with this X-FILES discussion, is a little British sci-fi gem called UNEARTHLY STRANGER (1963), starring John Neville (later 'Well-Manicured Man' in THE X-FILES). The plot of film could easily be an episode of the show, and was made by the producers and much of the crew of the 'Emma Peel' era AVENGERS episodes a couple of years later (which I'm sure was an influence on THE X-FILES, along with KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER).

UNEARTHLY STRANGER is very well shot and paced, getting the job done in just 75 minutes, and amazingly, considering the subject matter, contains essentially *no* special effects!

It's probably a long shot, but I wonder if Neville's role in UNEARTHLY STRANGER had anything to do with his being cast in THE X-FILES decades later. Anyway, it's another flick that isn't on legit DVD anywhere (and likely won't be anytime soon), but someone uploaded it recently on YouTube, if anybody here wants to give it a look--

Link: http://youtu.be/L_Gg9NIAAyk

Mycroft said...

Off topic, but I took the family to see the midnight premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last night.
I posted a (long for me) review of it on my site, if anyone's interested. Tried to keep it spoiler-free.
Summary, I was a bit disappointed, but would gave it 4 out of 5. Might wait a while and see it again. My expectations may have just been a bit high.

Anthony said...

Andrew,

At one point in the X-files, there was a really huge Austrian looking weightlifter who ran around sticking a stiletto into the backs of people's necks.

As for Millenium, I thought it came up with some really interesting killers early on (there was a serial bomber who kind of explained to me why the Feds suspected Richard Jewell). I also remember this one episode which had a profoundly damaged kid who would go to funerals and fake like he knew the deceased, hugging the family and sharing their grief and suchlike, not because he was trying to harm them, but because he was very lonely and didn't know how to make friends (in case you're wondering, there was a killer in the mix). Its not based on anything I heard of in real life, but it certainly sounded plausible.

In the often mythology choked season 2, there was one really incredible episode where a bunch of demons sat around a table and talked about their different strategies for corrupting people. One explained that he didn't do anything, he just let people damn themselves, watching as they sinned (watching adult films and suchlike) without joy, then took their own joyless lives, realizing the wonder of life only at the moment before it left them.

Millinium wasn't for everyone and there was a lot of dross mixed into the grain but I mostly enjoyed it during its short life.

rlaWTX said...

I watched the series for a while because my ex-husband liked it. I wasn't ever a fan, but I knew enough to get along (the mythology was more interesting that the weirdness; the Mulder & Scully characters are neither people who I would like to know in real life - they both annoyed me). Eventually, he lost interest (thankfully).
I think I saw the movie, but I am honestly not sure. Glad you enjoyed it, Andrew!

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, I haven't seen that one, but it sounds interesting. You should definitely watch the first couple seasons at least. They are really excellent. Firefly is well worth watching too.

AndrewPrice said...

Mycroft, I haven't seen it, but I honestly have low expectations. I expect the movie will be pretty, but vacant.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, Ok, I know who you are talking about. I don't remember when he first appeared, but you are right, he was around for a bit in the series.

I never watched Millenium after the first season, but I heard the second season really turned people off. I'd even heard, though I don't know if this is true or not, that the basically ignored the second season when they started the third?

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, You're welcome! :) I think both Mulder and Scully would be pretty neat to meet in real life, but you never know. I guess it depends on whether or not they were in funny mood or angry-conspiracy mood?

Anthony said...

Andrew,

Yes, most of the second season was mythology nonsense. At the end of the second season there was a world changing event, but at the beginning of season three they explained, there actually wasn't a world changing event, people were just confused.

AndrewPrice said...

Ah. I remember people describe at as "they basically pretended the second season was a dream."

I never watched that far so I have no personal knowledge of this, but that's what I heard from several people.

Anthony said...

Andrew,

SPOILER ALERT

There was supposed to a global plague which would wipe out all but the lucky few who had taken the antidote. Frank has been given the antidote, but not his family, though he manages to obtain one extra dose of the medicine (which went to his only daughter).

As the world dies of the plague, Frank and his family flee to a cabin in the woods to wait out the plague. During that time Frank's wife realizes she is sick. She walks into the woods to spare her family the pain of watching her die painfully. According to a final vision of Frank's the world is effectively destroyed.

In season 3 they announced that the reports of the disease's lethality were greatly exaggerated, the disease was just a local thing and Frank's wife was one of the tiny handful of people to die from it. Which of course completely went against the end of season 2 (which played out like a very grim series finale rather than the prelude to a season 3).

PikeBishop said...

Anthony (Re: the winging it with the conspiracy episodes) Go read a great article on Cracked.com on how the entire Myhology plot was invented almost on the fly when Gillian Anderson got pregnant and had to miss a certain number of episodes.

For better or worse, how might history have been different without that. X-files may have just remained a Kolchack/Monster of the Week type show.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, Thanks for the info. Like I said, I had heard it was kind of disowned -- like a dream. At least that makes more sense.

I'm not sure why the show never caught on with me, it just didn't. It should have. I like the writers, I liked the quality and the style, and I like Henriksen. It just didn't work for me.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, I think the problem was that they just kept tossing things into the conspiracy with no plan at all. It almost seemed random. And after a while, it became obvious that there was no way to tie most of it together.

shawn said...

Regarding the series- Initially I preferred the myth-arc episodes to the monster of the week, but as you point out Andrew, as time went by, the writers didn't know where they were going with the myth-arc and it became very convoluted.

Millennium: the first season was very dark and grim serial killer stuff. I preferred the second season that was mostly written and overseen by former X-Files alums Glen Morgan and James Wong. It was a season long arc that built up to the end of the world. Of course that presented a problem when the series was picked up for another season, but I still feel that season two was very well plotted.

Tennessee Jed said...

A fascinating review. There are, of course, too many t.v. shows and films that deserve to be seen that any one person (even a professional critic) can't see them all. So sadly, the X-Files, both film and series, have never been seen by myself despite many people sing it's praises over the years.

That said, I really like what you have laid out in your review as to the methods utilized to make this film work both for those that were completely unfamiliar with the series. I couldn't, for example, help but think of Star Trek the movie, and those overly long majestic pans of the Enterprise in space dock. But letting the audience do the work--well maybe there is hope for me yet. Maybe we do it in reverse; e.g. wtch the film and become inspired to go back and see the series.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, That was the problem. I really enjoyed the myth for a while, but after a while it became obvious that they we're just throwing things out there without a real solution.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed! I'm glad you liked the review. I prefer to pick films that provide some insight beyond simply liking or not liking the films. And I think this one provides a very good example of how to create a much better, more widely-accessible film by letting the audience do your work for you. There are some really good lessons here.

As for the series, The X-Files series is one of those things that has to be up your alley to enjoy. It's moody. It's sarcastic. It's dark and mysterious. It's not really like anything else on television. It's worth it, but only if it's the kind of thing you think you will enjoy.

Doc Whoa said...

I didn't like this when I first saw it because it felt too much like another episode to me, but in hindsight, it's really grown on me.

tryanmax said...

I'm an early episode fan of X-files. It premiered when I was 13; monster of the week is a shoo in for teenage boys. But in an era before Hulu, I just couldn't maintain an appointment with it all through high-school.

Ironically, this film is what killed the series for me. It came out the summer after I graduated high school and, even though I had missed quite a bit by then, it brought back enough for me to have sort of a hybrid fan/non-fan experience. It also put a nice cap on things up to that point. So as I was entering college, it was sort of an invitation to leave the show behind.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, I liked it a good deal at the time and it's really stood up to the test of time.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I think the film does kind of mark the end of the series in a way. Around this time, they moved production back to LA and Duchovny started being a jerk about his schedule. And soon you ended up with lots of episodes where one or the other of them wasn't around and everything became about the conspiracies.

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