Very few hit television shows make the transition to the big screen. Even fewer make it while the show it still on the air. The X-Files had that distinction in the summer of 1998 when it’s first movie, dubbed Fight the Future for marketing, was released on June 19. At a hearty length of 122 minutes, the film boasted the talents of a Hollywood DP, top dollar visual effects houses, and even a soundtrack comprised of the year’s pop and rock hit makers. All the blockbuster boxes were checked, even down to the epic marketing, which featured a trio of sexy trailers intoning taglines such as:
“Take your greatest fear, your most paranoid suspicion, and your darkest nightmare…and multiply it by X.”
Cue “O Fortuna,” and a barrage of action-packed, mysterious, and evocative images, and you had the arrival of a brand juggernaut, a television hit so tailored made for the cinema that it’s alphabetic signifier became a giant, ready-made logo for the poster and print campaign.
The X-Files Movie is largely remembered as an extended episode. Indeed, the film was sandwiched between the show’s fifth and sixth seasons and even fit into its sprawling mythology. But it’s very seldom recognized as a glossy piece of pulp genre filmmaking. Opening with some sleek title design (differing from the grainy main titles of the television show), the film announces its grandiosity with a title card: 10,000 B.C. This is a film so big it has to go back all the way to the dawn of man. But despite a brief violent encounter and some impressive creature effects, the opening is wordless and moody, an extended prologue that focuses on atmosphere to tantalizing effect.
Pacing is one of Fight the Future‘s greatest virtues. A lengthier runtime allows creator Chris Carter and director Rob Bowman to indulge in some juicy table setting and often in clever ways. A match cut from the ceiling of a prehistoric cave to a burst of light from a hole in the dirt kicks us into the present day, where our story begins. Whereas television shows are required to info dump and most blockbusters are itching to get straight to the action, Future prizes puzzle pieces over set pieces…initially.
Twelve minutes in and we finally meet our heroes, Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), not in glorious close-up, but from a distance, as FBI agent Terry Michaud (Terry O’Quinn) furtively looks off the horizon at the federal building a few blocks away. In what spells MONEY on the screen, Bowman indulges in the most technically difficult shot in the movie: a rack focus wrap around. Following from the back of O’Quinn and focusing on the skyline, the camera then pans with the helicopter that enters frame right and comes over the actor’s shoulder to focus on his profile. It’s a shot that stands out on two fronts: to set up Michaud’s pensive stare and interest in the agent across the street, and to signify something offbeat through its visual language. In the midst of a bomb threat, Michaud should hardly have time to stare off of rooftops, but this beat (accompanied by Mark Snow’s rising score) sets up the audience for plot developments to come while building up the importance of our main characters for those who may not be initiated into The X-Files lore.
Cinematic is as vague a term as there is in film criticism, yet this shot screams cinema! It’s a technical feat that couldn’t be organized on a television budget nor is it a moment that hour long programs would allow to fill running time (yes, even on HBO). It’s a tease created through composition and punctuated by the dialogue heavy intro of our two main characters. It is here where we get our info dump, though handled more deftly than most by showing the dynamics of the characters through how they use exposition. Scully is no-nonsense, Mulder cracks wise, the fans get a few winks, and the newbies aren’t thrown into the fire…at least until the federal building turns into a fireball.
While an episode of The X-Files would have to lead to the (often miniscule) action, Fight the Future revels in restructuring for the big screen, namely by leading with the de facto action set piece. Ward Russell, director of photography on such action hits as Days of Thunder and The Last Boy Scout, gives the film that warm, dusty look of the ’90s. It’s a nice contrast to the later scenes set in snowy Antarctica. Yes, this is a film that starts in prehistoric times and ends on the biggest continent on the planet.
In that vein, Fight the Future is almost structured as kind of a template for what a modern movie should look and move like. Whenever the mystery gets a little too thick, some action cuts the tension. Dialogue isn’t delivered as much as whispered ominously. Sound bridges and match cuts carry the viewer from one scene to the next–one brilliant touch, the scream of a dying man turning into the playful cries of children. Scenes hold to give a breath and move to spell danger. It’s a clean, classy way to make a picture, a style Bowman would use in his equally underrated Reign of Fire (2002).
Compared to the show, everything seems amplified in the movie. Dialogue carries more weight. “I need you on this,” pleas Mulder when Scully threatens to quit the FBI. Or “There’s no time!,” Scully yells uncharacteristically when the clock is running out at the federal building. Unsurprisingly, these lines feature heavily in the trailer, almost as if they were written into the film after the marketing was mapped out. In a way, the modern cinematic template (or at least up until 1998) was so enmeshed with promotional campaigns that trailers fed into the films and films fed into the trailers. See Mission Impossible (1996) for the best approximation of this.
But ’90s cinema was defined as much by bigness as it was by intimacy. Mulder and Scully’s tender embrace after a passionate argument over the efficacy of their partnership was a moment five years in the making. The sheer fact that the film–amid conspiracies and explosions and running–takes a minute to reestablish the emotional bond between these characters allows for a more substantive third act. Sexual tension (in an increasingly desexualized American cinema) has always been as much a driving engine of cinema as the tension of a ticking time bomb. The close call of a kiss is given equal heft with the close call of being chased by black helicopters in the Texas desert. That is to say, the intensifying strings and richer cinematographic contrast, not to mention a wide 2:35:1 aspect ratio, create the size of these moments, despite the plot developments being not much different than what could be found on the show.
Carter and Bowman’s intentions were hardly to make a thesis on the nature of cinema. Yet by consciously expanding the scope of their X-Files world, the film gets away with things it couldn’t on the show. The final act takes place in the desolate landscape of Antarctica, for very little thematic reason. It’s cold and isolated and vast, so it feels epic. Mulder dons a parka like an action figure version of himself (which was indeed made into an action figure), falls through a crevasse, and conveniently finds himself in the giant spacecraft where his beloved partner has been taken. It’s an effects heavy finale that the movie confidently pulls off, giving us glowing alien vistas, desperate clinging from ledges, and even a late monster movie beat via a rampaging extraterrestrial.
In essence, the film is all build up with little payoff. Our heroes globe trot only to end up right back where they started. That’s the nature of global conspiracies and crusading agents, but we almost get a Fitzcarraldo like moment of “because I have seen them,” where Mulder gets an eye-full of the departing alien spacecraft. It’s a dreamy scene, given proper respect on screen through its wide shots and triumphant music cues, a far cry from the series’ woefully small scale follow-up, 2008’s I Want to Believe. That movie bathed in tedium, false dread, and forced dramatic stakes like a bad episode of the show. It not only treated its material small, it thought small too, as if it knew it had no business being on the big screen. Fight the Future walks and talks stridently, proclaiming itself as a motion picture.
After being teased with shadows, close calls, and false alarms, the film rewards us with something better than a bow around a cinematic puzzle box. It gives us that big damn spacecraft–the biggest of big things it could think of. It’s the ultimate metaphor for what cinema is. It’s not witty writing or pretty pictures or brilliant acting. It’s scale. It’s dreams made big and real. It’s the size of the themes and the stakes of the conflict and the scope of the images. It’s a popular show reminding us that if television is a window, the movies is the giant blue sky outside.