Retro Review: The X-Files (1998)

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I mean, since the ’90s, and the days when aliens were the central pop-culture obsession (soon to be replaced by zombies), and The X-Files was a Sunday-night mainstay. At least, it was on the handful of occasions when I watched it, I think. I don’t know, that was, like, twenty-something years ago (numbers is bad for my head) and the details are hazy, what with all the Hooties and Blowfishes and Alanis Morisettes and Pogs and stuff.

(Do you want to know a sad truth? When working on this post I actually spent time, like, real, precious seconds, debating whether I should include a hyphen in X Files or not. I do it because I love you, whoever you are. Call me.)

But I did see the film! Which I kind of remember enjoying, but also I remember not understanding it. Because The X-Files film is definitely a major part of the overarching plot (it falls in between seasons five and six) and, while you can sort of enjoy it without knowing the mythos, it’s difficult to appreciate it to the fullest. At the time the film came out I was just shy of sixteen, and what with all the Pogs and other crazy cool stuff I was up to (I was super cool and immensely popular, maybe) I didn’t have time or brain-space for a complicated show with a multi-season conspiracy theory that required consistent viewing and note-taking and was probably followed by an oral exam where nuns would hit you with rulers every time you got an answer wrong. I watched a few of the standalone episodes, which I kind of remember thinking were okay, but I just never got into it. Anyway, the film, which this post is actually about, definitely benefits from some familiarity with the series.

Now, twenty-something years after the series’ debut, I have Netflix and a penchant for time-wasting, the perfect storm for marathon viewing of ’90s TV scifi. The lady friend and I have been working our way through the series for some time, and we finally watched the film tonight. And you know something? It was great! But only after twenty years, Netflix, and several weeks of consistent, studious viewing of the show.

As you undoubtedly know, the whole premise of the X-Files is that these two FBI agents, Mulder and Scully, are working on these cold-cases dubbed X-Files by the unimaginative feds (they actually explain this in one episode: they were originally filed under “U” for “unsolved,” until the clerk ran out of space, and just moved them down to the empty “X” drawer). The cases in the X Files range from alien-related shenanigans to ghostly apparitions to mutant monsters, though the main narrative arc deals with a slow, decades-spanning alien invasion. Mulder, who believes everything, and Scully, who believes nothing (which is the LEAST BELIEVABLE PART OF THE SHOW), parade around the US trying to solve these paranormal cases and gradually piecing together the super-complicated conspiracy that’s been hiding the alien colonization and even subjecting unsuspecting humans to infection and mutation by the alien invaders.

Season 5 of the show ends with the X Files themselves–i.e., the actual paper files–being torched by the Smoking Man, arguably the series’ main antagonist, the thought being that this will put an end to those meddling kids and their, ah, meddling. The film picks up soon after this, with Mulder and Scully assigned to a bomb threat in Dallas, only GUESS WHAT, it’s actually part of an elaborate government coverup! Mulder learns that the bomb was intended to destroy evidence of the experiments being conducted on humans with alien DNA. With that discovery he’s off on a merry chase, with people dying and explosions and alien-human hybrids and bees!

It’s actually quite difficult to summarize the film in a meaningful way, because so much depends on prior knowledge of the show. For instance, there’s an old British guy who gives Mulder an important bit of information and a vaccine which he needs to save Scully, who’s been infected with an alien virus. After he hands the stuff off to Mulder, he gets in his car, which promptly explodes. This wouldn’t be so significant to someone not invested in the show, but longtime viewers would know that this British guy was a major antagonist for several seasons, and that the vaccine he gives Mulder is a cure for the black oil, the gross sometimes-liquid sometimes-wormy sludge that is actually, like, the sentient DNA of the bad aliens? Something like that. Also, there are several groups of aliens. Anyway, the black oil was a major thing for like the past four years of the show, so this tradeoff is hugely significant.

Sorry, I had to stop for a second there because I suddenly sprouted a pair of thick-rimmed black plastic-framed glasses with a big piece of tape on the nose, and also a pocket protector and an AD&D rulebook. Like, they just appeared, as if summoned from a terrifying otherworld. Hmm.

But this enforced nerdiness is kind of the point. The worst thing, and the best thing, about the X-Files (both the show and the film) is that it requires, and rewards, serious investment. If you care at all about the larger narrative, then the film is extremely satisfying. There’s an almost-kiss, a villain dies (after an act of redemption), Mulder’s previously flagging belief in the reality of the alien invasion is restored, and Scully–thank all that is holy–finally sees irrefutable proof of extraterrestrials in the form of a preposterously gigantic spaceship. Without some idea of how major these moments are in the series’ canon, The X-Files is sort of just another alien movie, albeit a smart one (and in one scene there’s a lingering shot of an Independence Day movie poster that seems to acknowledge this). If you’re into the series, though, it’s a major payoff.

It’s just a drag that to get the full effect, you have to pay out so much up front, in the form of hundreds of hours of the show.


3 thoughts on “Retro Review: The X-Files (1998)

  1. I tried to revisit this series a few years back. Powered through the first three seasons like a champ, then drifted off toward other stuff like Dexter and American Horror Story (which I never finished either). Yeah. Good movie, though. I’ve got this on VHS somewhere. My favorite episodes are the “monster of the week” episodes, because like you said, you’ve really got to invest yourself for the others and sometimes it’s hard to remember everything without getting a migraine.

    • Yeah, you’re the second person to say that they liked the monster of the week ones best. I can see why, and I think I would have agreed back then, too. Probably the only reason I can stomach the mythos episodes now is because the whole series (sans the films) is on Netflix.

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