Film discussion

Throwback 20: The X-Files: Fight the Future

By 1998, The X-Files was a genuine pop cultural phenomenon, becoming one of the Fox Network’s most-watched series, placing David Duchovny and Gillian Anderon on the front covers of nearly every genre-related or entertainment magazine. It had become a franchise that had amassed a fan base as fevered as those of Star Trek or Star Wars.

Intelligent, scary, funny and thrilling, the series was one of the best produced television shows of the 90’s, and was acclaimed not just for some brilliant scripting, but also for its production values, some of which were comparable to big-budget feature films, thanks to a superb production staff and directors such as Rob Bowman, Kim Manners and David Nutter.

The idea of taking the series to the big screen began in earnest during its third season, with a script being worked on during its fourth year on the air, and production set to begin in between seasons four and five. A release date was set for after the season five finale, with the events of the movie picking up not long after the series end, with its now famous habit of ending each season on an unresolved note. This is something that, somewhat sourly, would continue into the current revival, with its latest finale proving incredibly divisive with an ending that left so many plot points hanging in mid-air.

The production plan was, in creator Chris Carter’s own words, herculean, with the cast of the show effectively jumping from a twenty-four episode schedule, to a feature film, and then immediately back into producing another twenty episodes thereafter: something which explains why the show’s fifth season features episodes with either one or both its leads missing, leading to explorations of the show’s past in tales such as “Unusual Suspects” or “Travellers”, and character explorations such as “Christmas Carol” and “Mind’s Eye”, which rely more on one half of the show’s famed dynamic as opposed to both.

The series’ fifth year would end up one being of its best, with its mythology’s ability to not answer questions, with any answers leading to more questions, at its absolute peak. When The X-Files arrived in movie theatres in the summer of 1998, it did so boldly and brilliantly.

One of the most common complaints about television to movie transfers is that the finished product can end up looking like nothing more than an extended episode of the television series, a lazy critique if there is one, and one that would be thrown extensively at the second X-Files movie when it would arrive, amazingly not until a decade later.

That critique cannot be made of Mulder and Scully’s first trip to multiplexes, which arrives boldly and with confidence. Admittedly you may need a little bit of a crash course in the series’ mythology to completely understand what is going on, despite much of the publicity for the movie centering around director Bowman, writers Carter and Spotnitz, and stars Duchovny and Anderson saying otherwise. But the sheer attitude and confidence of the movie is so hard to resist, everything about it screams bigger: the widescreen photography, Mark Snow’s beautifully bombastic orchestral score, the production design by Christopher Nowak, and Mat Beck’s visual effects.

In order to accommodate the production, the series made a temporary (at the time) move to filming in Los Angeles, which sadly meant that much of the behind the scenes crew of the television series would not get a chance to work on the film. The series was about to launch its final year of production in the gorgeous British Columbia city and make the move to the West Coast of the United States permanently.

The change does not hurt the television to film transfer, if anything it just adds to the epic canvas, with gorgeous use of desert locations, and an expansion of the series’ scope to include some incredibly intense action sequences and set pieces: from the Dallas bombing in the opening moments, to a trip back to 35,000 BC, and eventually to the biggest truth of all revealed in the snowy plains of Antarctica, to a secret under the ice that is as visually spectacular as anything done by the franchise before or since.

The X-Files: Fight the Future arrived on cinema screens with grace, class, and bombast and it took a stronger person than I not to jump out their seats when Mark Snow did that massive blast with the orchestra in the opening credits, a moment that pretty much sums up the ride the audience is about to go on.

Gaining good reviews and a successful opening weekend, the film eventually grossed a decent if not spectacular $189 million worldwide. Fox was interested in a sequel but Carter, somewhat daunted by the production schedule of doing the movie in between two seasons of the television series, decided to hold off until the series was completed, which at the time everyone expected to be the seventh season, a mere two years away.

In some respects the hype and publicity drive for the movie would be the commercial peak for the franchise. When The X-Files returned for its sixth season a few months later, it would be the first season of the show to take a slight downturn in ratings, doing so by over 20%. The numbers would remain decent and the series would eventually continue to a ninth season: the last two with Duchovny scaling back his involvement and eventually exiting the show. The X-Files remained an important commercial commodity for the Fox Network, but it would not be until its revival in 2016 that it would reach ratings or commercial success in a similar fashion to that of its fifth season and first feature film.

Personally speaking, I adore this film. As a lifelong X-Files fan, the joy in seeing those characters in a widescreen 2:39-1 frame, and hearing that theme music on a big screen in 5.1 Dolby Sound was amazing. The film is epic, it plays out in a beautifully epic canvas, it’s paced wonderfully and gives you what you want from an X-Files feature film. To call it merely an extended television episode is a low form of criticism considering that The X-Files was always more cinematic than most television shows of the time. There’s no critique here other than lazy negativity.

The X-Files: Fight the Future never outstays its welcome. Its glossy and classy, the creature effects from Tom Woodruff Jr and Alec Gillis are superb, Mat Beck’s visual effects look the part, and the film just feels grand and epic. It even takes the time to go to London instead of trying a lazy recreation on the backlot at 20th Century Fox.

It’s The X-Files writ large and sees everyone, from Bowman and Carter/Spotnitz to its stars and composer at the peak of their powers. It even has the time to devote itself to bringing in the likes of Blythe Danner and the late, greats Martin Landau and Glenne Headley, not to mention a subtle, scene-stealing turn from another late legend, John Neville, who brings class and dignity to his final performance as The Well Manicured Man.

It feels like a legitimate movie, it sounds like a legitimate movie and looks like a legitimate movie. It’s The X-Files on the big screen and it will have you big time.

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