He’s the obsessed FBI agent who desperately wants to believe. She’s the cynical FBI agent who wears a cross around her neck and can never escape the lure of the paranormal. 1990s TV icons Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) are back this Sunday for a six-part ‘event series’ in the U.S, so it’s about time we revisited their cinematic outings…
The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998)
The episodes of The X-Files concerned with the arc of the show’s mythology always followed a set formula: firstly, Mulder would receive top secret intel on an alien conspiracy, often in a dark alley or other such clichéd locations, then he would do a bit of digging before spilling the beans to Scully, who’d sigh and roll her eyes before getting dragged along for the ride. When the evidence started stacking up, she’d concede that maybe Mulder was onto something. But only maybe. The repetition of these patterns is one of the reasons why so many people remember the monster-of-the-week episodes more fondly than the mytharc material. Occasionally, the repetition of them could become tiresome (especially when binge-watching them in a modern context), but it’s also true they’re often as riveting and engaging as they are monotonous.
The pattern I described above is pretty much the same pattern The X-Files: Fight the Future follow, but it works better than you’d imagine. The extra time and cinematic scope this first feature allows affords the characters to take on a bigger conspiracy and more deeply explore the issues that always orbited them. The alien conspiracy and the shadowy government hiding everything from the public come closer to bursting out into the open. An alien virus that takes hold of the human form, using it as an incubator, is about to clash with the real world, Mulder is about to have his beliefs confirmed, and everyone will learn the truth this time—surely? Well, not quite.
If there’s a criticism of Fight the Future, it’s that it’s not the kind of story that works best without being familiar with the TV series. But if you already love The X-Files, who cares about that? The beats of the plot are interesting, if familiar, but the characterisation and its occasional thrills are where the success of this movie can be found.
No scene in The X-Files better sums up the reason why Mulder and Scully need one another than a scene not far into Fight the Future. Chasing after government vehicles that’ve fled a scene where strange bone fragments were found, Mulder and Scully reach a crossroads. Mulder instinctively wants to turn left, but Scully has a feeling that right’s the direction they should go. The deadlock is broken by going off-road and driving straight down the middle. It’s a perfect example of Mulder’s thesis and Scully’s antithesis being reconciled by synthesis. But to leave the Hegelian dialectics aside for a second, the scene continues and, would you believe, leads them to exactly what they were looking for.
Any X-Files fan knows that the show is less about little green men and more about the relationship between the two central FBI agents, and thankfully the film remembers this truth. Their love for one another is the very thing that seems to make them able to carry on pursuing the paranormal when nobody else can see the wood for the trees. Without Mulder, Scully wouldn’t even give a second thought to such nonsense. And without Scully, Mulder would be delusional and probably dead by now. They tell each other as much just before Scully is stung by a bee that leads to her capture, setting in motion Mulder’s mission to save her from the alien gestating inside her.
The word ‘epic’ can be overused, but Fight the Future really does reach epic proportions. The paranormal conspiracy kicks off in the film’s opening scenes, set 35,000-years ago, and continues when a group of Texas kids stumble across the buried alien virus. The terrorist plots that might not be terrorist plots, and the digging for clues that follow, offers all the fun and thrills any fan of the series could desire. Even the special effects are very impressive, especially when combined with the pitch perfect synthetic score by show composer Mark Snow. All the time, the film never succumbs to the temptation to become something that would more closely resemble a conventional Hollywood blockbuster. No blockbuster in history has such fidelity to its characters. It’s not that Fight the Future knows Mulder and Scully inside out, it’s that it seems to know them intimately yet wants to discover so much more. As do we all.
The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)
Many people have attributed the failure of the second feature film, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, to the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Both films were released just seven days apart in the summer of 2008, and I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you which one of the two everyone’s focus was on. I Want to Believe was a commercial flop and not even fans of the series seemed to enjoy it. As a result, it looked for a long time like the movie that killed The X-Files stone dead. With the new series about to arrive, such predictions have thankfully proven false.
Although most people hated and still don’t like I Want to Believe, this widespread opinion is categorically wrong. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no masterpiece. In fact, it’s not even as good as Fight the Future. We’ll get to the problems later, but what’s good about this sequel is simply what’s good about its predecessor and the entire concept. It’s a movie entirely about the relationship between two different people (now weighed down by a fifteen-year history of failures), with a dose of paranormal activity thrown in to complement it.
At the end of the last X-Files season on television, Mulder and Scully were screwed by the FBI and on the run with only one another to rely on, the way it always was really. In the intervening six years, where I Want to Believe picks up, things have moved on considerably…
Mulder is a bearded recluse festering in a room with newspaper clippings and UFO-related ephemera plastering every wall. Scully, on the other hand, is doing what she always wanted to: combining her religious beliefs with her medical training to become a doctor at a Catholic hospital. Where Fight the Future is concerned with the mytharc of The X-Files’ universe, I Want to Believe is a monster-of-the-week episode stretched to the length of a movie. When the two ex-agents up again for the first time in half a decade, Scully’s instant reaction is to tell Mulder she’s “worried about the effects of long-term isolation” on him. She’s there to inform Mulder that the FBI is still after him, and this time they’re not trying to put him on trial…
In fact, the Bureau want Mulder’s expert help with an abnormal case. A paedophile priest called Joseph Fitzpatrick Crissman (Billy Connolly), who cries blood, has been helping the FBI find a missing agent thanks to his apparent psychic abilities. Essentially, this side of things plays out like an average monster-of-the-week episode with madcap scientists conducting inhuman experiments that link back to the priest and his victims. The twists and turns of the plot are not really what’s interesting. However, what Connolly and director Chris Carter manage to do is make an interesting and sympathetic character out of a child molester—and that takes something special. The character is at his best when he’s allowed to play back-and-forth with Mulder, who’s forced to take advantage of him to reach the truth he so fervently chases despite his distaste of having to work with such a lowlife.
The heart and soul of the film is, of course, provided by Mulder and Scully. Whether it’s the pillow talk during which they discuss their son William, or their simple exchange of glances, the film comes alive when Mulder and Scully are sharing the screen. That’s the way it always was, and the history of the characters feeds into this. There is surely no two characters who have better onscreen chemistry than Duchovny and Anderson. The problems with the film (its clunky adjustment to the demands of a big film, and a few of the characters being very thinly drawn), can all be forgiven for the sheer joy of seeing a slightly older Mulder and Scully again.
The sequel offers no answers, the truth is still not revealed, and it never will be. The truth might be out there, but Mulder won’t ever truly uncover it because that’s never been the point of The X-Files. And if he ever did expose the truth to the world, the fun would be over.
Cast & Crewdirectors: Rob Bowman ('The X-Files') • Chris Carter ('The X-Files: I Want to Believe').
writers: Chris Carter ('The X-Files', story by Chris Carter & Frank Spotnitz) • Chris Carter & Frank Spotnitz ('The X-Files: I Want to Believe')
starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Martin Landau, Blythe Danner & Armin Mueller-Stahl ('The X-Files') • Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly & Alvin 'Xzibit' Joiner ('The X-Files: I Want to Believe').