In 1993, before binge-watching was feasible and when most TV shows were made to be as accessible as possible, a drama series broke new ground, splitting its episodes between heavily serialized “mythology” installments and stand-alone “monster of the week” entries. That show was Chris Carter’s The X-Files, and it was a genre amalgam as well, blending mystery, procedural, sci-fi, and horror. Thanks to one of its major influences, Twin Peaks, the show had a cinematic style, with moody cinematography and practical and digital effects almost too outsized for the small screen. Carter had lofty aspirations for his creation, not the least of which was to bring his world of government conspiracies and alien invasions to movie theaters. Twenty years ago, on June 19, 1998, The X-Files — subtitled Fight the Future, though not on screen — was released, and Carter got his wish.
The road to the big screen wasn’t an easy one, however, and it’s the compromises Carter and company had to make that render Fight the Future more of a curio than intended. Carter’s original plan, during the third and fourth seasons of the show, was to end the series with season 5 and use the movie to segue into a film franchise. Star Trek had done it, and for a show like X-Files that pushed the boundaries of network television standards (in terms of both budget and violence), the big screen was an attractive goal. But when the movie was put into production, between the fourth and fifth seasons, the show was immensely popular, and the Fox network ordered two more seasons. Now the movie would no longer be a culmination of the show’s storylines, but instead a big-budget transition, a bridge episode between seasons 5 and 6.
This rendered the movie a confusing prospect, then and now. It’s a double-sized episode that messily answers some questions while leaving others frustratingly unresolved. It’s a story both too confusing for newcomers and too vague for diehard fans, leaving many to wonder why the film wasn’t a stand-alone “monster” story instead. Without any knowledge of the behind-the-scenes wrestling between Carter and Fox, The X-Files seems like an odd experiment, a “bridge” film that’s basically an excuse to make use of a higher budget and have Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) drop a few S-bombs (1998 was a relatively chaste time for popular TV, kids).
In hindsight, however, the film works far better than it has any reason to. Despite occurring smack dab in the middle of the show, it feels like the final chapter, a culmination of the show’s extraterrestrial/conspiracy/“mythology” storyline, and Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz mark the occasion by pulling out all the stops. After a tragic bombing of a federal building in Dallas (meant to evoke the 1995 Oklahoma City attack) is discovered to be an alien-related cover-up, Mulder and Scully (Gillian Anderson) go in search of the truth. With the X-Files department closed down (the only plot device tying the film to the season 5 finale), the two agents are free to roam from Washington D.C., to rural Texas, all the way to Antarctica, fulfilling the epic summer blockbuster requirements while expanding the scope of the show.
As for the story, Fight the Future is nowhere near the weightless stopgap that its reputation among fans may indicate. The film tries to have things both ways by simplifying the mythology and backstory, and there’s no denying that that approach makes for some awkward moments — for instance, Mulder and Scully react to a hidden cornfield with alien virus-carrying bees as if they hadn’t seen one in the season 4 premiere. Meanwhile, newcomers to the series are likely baffled by the non-introduction of important characters like the Lone Gunmen.
However, leaving all that aside, the movie is easy to follow, while still resonating with longtime fans. It doesn’t quite spell things out (even in the scene where John Neville’s Well-Manicured Man spells things out) — but that was never the show’s style anyway. So the film’s tale of an ancient alien substance (aka the Black Oil) possessing human bodies and transforming them into incubators for a violent breed of alien as part of a larger colonization plan is a perfect distillation of the truth the two FBI agents had been chasing for five seasons. It’s so simple, Carter himself neatly summed everything up in a hidden track on the film’s soundtrack album.
Every major character from the show is present, with the film adding stars like Martin Landau, Blythe Danner, Glenne Headly, and Armin Müller-Stahl. (While important to the film, none of their characters would ever be seen again). Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., who had just finished the practical creature effects for Alien Resurrection (1997), handle the creature design, resulting in a fantastically gross and evil-looking alien monster, beyond what had been seen on the series prior. The production value is massive, justifying the film’s existence while elevating every element of the show.
None of it would have worked had the wrong director been chosen; fortunately, Rob Bowman was given the task. Bowman had directed numerous episodes of the series that tended to show a flair for dynamic camera movement and clean choreography of action, traits he would go on to display in 2002’s underrated Reign of Fire. He not only brought those skills to the film, but did for The X-Files what the Russo Brothers would later do for Captain America: The Winter Soldier: take a genre property and make it an homage to classic cinematic conspiracy thrillers. Conspiracy lore was always a big part of the show (there was a major character straight-up named “Deep Throat,” for instance), but Bowman pushes the aesthetic and tone even further. He evokes Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) in the shadowy back alley Washington scenes, as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959) in a nail-biting scene where Mulder and Scully are chased through a cornfield by black helicopters. The finale, in which Mulder rescues Scully from an alien incubator ship, subtly evokes John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Bowman and cinematographer Ward Russell exploit the film’s scope to its fullest, shooting for widescreen (the show had been in the standard 4:3 ratio to that point) and keeping things as mysterious, suspicious, and scary as possible. They also make movie stars out of their leads, as Duchovny and Anderson look made for the marquee the entire film.
Those leads are, of course, the largest reason for the series’ popularity, and Fight the Future is the purest expression of what made them great. Removed from the confines of the show, Mulder and Scully are a blatantly romantic, whip smart, and incredibly capable investigative duo. Each of them is allowed to function separately as they did in the series: Mulder rushes headlong into danger, gets himself way in over his head, has yelling matches with shady old men, and heroically rescues Scully; while Scully runs interference with government review boards, performs an autopsy, rolls her eyes at Mulder, and, uh, gets kidnapped (entertainment was not as progressive in the ‘90s as it is now).
But it’s when the two are onscreen together (as they are for most of the film) that the magic of the series is best exemplified. Much was made at the time of the duo’s almost-kiss in Mulder’s hallway — this was when “will they/won’t they” narratives were seen by many TV writers as an essential element to keep viewers interested, and Carter was notorious for never consistently coming down on either side of the question. However, just like the best episodes of the show, the answer is incidental, as the film and the actors’ performances show the two to have a deep mutual affection and respect. Removed from the “mythology,” the movie is about a crusading pair looking to find the truth, expose conspirators, and save the human race, and in two short hours Duchovny and Anderson show how compelling a story that is.
Had the story of The X-Files ended there, the show might be looked back on as similar to Battlestar Galactica or Lost, shows that told a relatively clear and succinct long-form story. Instead, as its popularity demanded, The X-Files continued, with Carter and his writers finding new ways to twist and propel the “mythology” storyline to increasingly insane and incomprehensible degrees.
The X-Files has a secure place in the annals of television, yet Fight the Future will forever be a curious footnote. It wasn’t the vanguard of a series of films a la Star Trek, nor was it a special two-hour episode that plugs neatly into the show. It’s almost a cult film hiding within one of the most popular television series ever created, one that didn’t find an audience among newcomers or fans of the show, but some weird Venn diagram meeting of the two. It’s also a reminder of a time just before television was changed forever, a time when making the leap to the silver screen was seen as a logical way to increase the audience and allow for more freedom in tone and content. There’s less reason to make a Game Of Thrones or The Americans movie these days, as cable networks allow for just as much narrative freedom as the cinema does. Thanks to all this, The X-Files stands alone, a movie whose existence is as strange as any of the cases Mulder and Scully investigated. Yet just like the Truth, it’s out there, waiting to be discovered (and rediscovered) by those with an open mind. And, if they also happen to be fans of creature features and conspiracy thrillers, that wouldn’t hurt.