Who hasn't walked into a movie late and tried desperately to catch up with the plot, to make sense of what's on the screen? For those not washed in the blood, that's what it's like to watch "The X-Files" movie. Except instead of being only momentarily tardy, we're five years behind the curve.
That's how long the popular cult TV show has been on the Fox network. And despite impressive billboards for the movie insisting "Only in Theaters," only those familiar with the small-screen series will get many of the film's characters and references. Despite attempts to make "The X-Files" palatable to nonbelievers, its creators couldn't resist a series of complicit winks to the cognoscenti that can only irritate those not in the know.
"The X-Files" movie is put together by many of the same people responsible for the series, starting with writer-producer Chris Carter, the show's creator. Director Rob Bowman has directed 25 episodes over five years, and editor Stephen Mark and composer Mark Snow are both veterans as well. So it's not surprising that what we've got here is essentially a big-budget version of the small screen, kind of a "Triple-X-Files" to reward the faithful.
With its shrewd mixture of paranoia and the paranormal, the way its elaborate mythology combines enigmatic phenomena with potent cabals intent on running the world, "The X-Files" experience resembles "Twin Peaks" crossed with "The Twilight Zone." It's even replete with recurring characters without real names: Who is the Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis) after all but the Log Lady with a bad nicotine habit?
At the heart of things are Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), a pair of FBI agents usually assigned to investigate the inexplicable. The film awkwardly attempts to fill in five years' worth of back story on this pair, letting us know that Mulder is the true believer who thinks his sister was abducted by aliens, while Scully is the cool, unflappable rationalist, someone not quick to believe sinister forces are out to control the universe.
When the movie opens, Mulder and Scully have been reassigned to an anti-terrorism unit in the Dallas FBI bureau, the X-Files having been officially closed. While they're trying to prevent a major bomb from going off, something seriously weird is going on in a small town in rural Texas.
In an echo of something we saw happen 35,000 years ago, a boy stumbles onto an underground cave and gets more than he bargained for from a skull he encounters. Local paramedics are called and suddenly the area is teaming with helicopters, unmarked tanker trucks and impatient men in white quarantine suits. "That impossible scenario we never planned for," a man says into a phone. "We better come up with a plan."
If this sounds vague, it's because "The X-Files" likes it that way. Writer Carter, director Bowman and cinematographer Ward Russell are expert at doling out information one intriguing dollop at a time. Things get more or less explained by the close, but the fun of "The X-Files" is clearly more in the creation of unease than in the cleaning up of mysteries.
Though the inside baseball stuff, like the appearance of three oddballs known as the Lone Gunmen that no one but constant viewers will understand, let alone appreciate, is a continual frustration, the rest of the movie is a properly spooky, always professional diversion that is happiest when it's throwing continual plot complexities into the mix.
At the center of things is Dr. Alvin Kurtzweil (veteran Martin Landau), a renegade scientist who says he was a friend of Mulder's father. His knowledge of all things sinister leads Mulder and Scully to not only the Cigarette-Smoking Man but also the Well-Manicured Man (John Neville) and an operative who has the audacity to have a real name, albeit the strange one of Conrad Strughold (Armin Mueller-Stahl).
As much as these creepy doings, it's the too-hip relationship between Mulder and Scully (co-workers who never resort to first names and have a lot of conversations on mobile phones) that is a major "X-Files" attraction. Their supercool attitudes, however, are too distant to work as well on the big screen, and the intense interest devotees have in whether they'll ever kiss is not one that beginning viewers should expect to share in.
While it's not the ideal introduction to the phenomenon, this feature is assured of at least an "X-Files"-sized audience. People are always happy to believe, as Hamlet (who would've been a viewer had the show been available) said to a friend: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for some intense violence and gore. Times guidelines: some violence, gruesome doings and unpleasant-looking creatures.
David Duchovny: Fox Mulder
Gillian Anderson: Dana Scully
Martin Landau: Dr. Alvin Kurtzweil
Blythe Danner: FBI Assistant Director Dana Cassidy
Armin Mueller-Stahl: Conrad Strughold
A Ten Thirteen production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Rob Bowman. Producers Chris Carter, Daniel Sackheim. Executive producer Lata Ryan. Screenplay by Chris Carter. Story by Chris Carter and Frank Sponitz. Cinematographer Ward Russell. Editor Stephen Mark. Costumes Marlene Stewart. Music Mark Snow. Production design Christopher Nowak. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
* In general release throughout Southern California.
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AN 'X-FILES' CHEAT SHEET
Key Characters: Supporting players from the TV series featured in the movie:
FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner: Mulder and Scully's boss, he has worked at times to help them. Generally a skeptic, he has not embraced Mulder's crusade as his own.
Cigarette-Smoking Man, a.k.a. Cancer Man: As part of dark forces operating within and around the government, his activities have included hiding the truth about UFOs and an apparent role in the disappearance of Mulder's sister and the deaths of Scully's sister and Mulder's father. He and Mulder's father worked together during the Cold War, and it's been implied that Cancer Man may be Mulder's real father.
Well-Manicured Man: A leader in the Syndicate, he has clashed with Cigarette-Smoking Man over his tactics, which risk exposing "the project."
The Lone Gunmen: A trio of slightly daft conspiracy theorists who occasionally assist Mulder.
Dana Scully is paired with Fox Mulder in the X-Files, investigating unexplained phenomena for the FBI. Mulder is obsessed with UFOs and the paranormal because he witnessed his sister's abduction as a child.
Mulder learns from a "Deep Throat" source of conspiracies reaching into the highest levels of government regarding the existence of extraterrestrials.
Scully is abducted. She is found later in a coma and awakens with only vague memories of what happened to her.
Evidence indicates the government has been engaged in experiments using alien DNA, trying to create alien-human hybrids.
The Syndicate, a shadowy group whose members include the Cigarette-Smoking Man, is working on what's referred to as "the project," which entails possible plans for alien colonization of Earth.
An alien "black oil" is encountered that invades people and controls their consciousness.
Bees are discovered carrying a deadly toxin. The Syndicate is behind the experiment, possibly in advance of some larger plot.
A war is being fought between two alien groups--one planning to colonize Earth, the other opposing it.
In the most recent episode, the X-Files are shut down by the government and Cigarette-Smoking Man torches Mulder's records.
Two recur frequently on the show and are seen in the movie: 10-13 and 11:21. Those are the birthdays, respectively, of Chris Carter and his wife, Dori.