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In The X-Files, the aliens are us

By Gary Susman

JUNE 29, 1998:  The truth is not out there.

Actually, there is little we enjoy more than being lied to. We would rather be flattered by falsehoods than swallow bitter honesty. Not that we can't take the occasional dose of truth; we just prefer to have it sweetened, to have the rough edges smoothed. This is why we make and enjoy art (the lie that tells the truth, Picasso called it), in which we re-create the world as we wish it were. It's certainly why we crave the escapism of movies.

Like the Fox TV series, the movie The X-Files cannily caters to our longing for deception. Not only are the filmmakers lying to us, with their fanciful tale of extraterrestrials and cabals, but they tell us that everyone in authority is lying to us as well. And we're buying this farfetched fable, to the tune of $31 million in ticket sales during the film's opening weekend last week, as well as an average of 17 million viewers every Sunday night (The X-Files was the 11th highest-rated series this season). To paraphrase the slogan on the UFO poster in Agent Mulder's office, we want to believe. Even if we know we're being lied to.

For those of you who've been away from this planet for the past five years, The X-Files began as an uncommonly intelligent Fox TV drama that cleverly tapped into zeitgeist fears and longings surrounding UFOs, conspiracy theories, and medical science. The files of the title are unsolved FBI cases involving paranormal activity, which are investigated by the highly credulous Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and the skeptical, medically trained Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson).

Mulder's grand unifying theory (what series creator Chris Carter calls the "mythology," which dominates about a third of the episodes) is that a global group of rich and powerful men (and they are mostly white men) who call themselves the Syndicate have conspired for the last 50 years to hide the presence of alien visitors on Earth and have, in fact, connived with the aliens to seize power and subjugate the human race. Mulder's suspicions are a family legacy: his younger sister was abducted, apparently by aliens, while the boy Fox looked on helplessly. For her part, Scully has also suffered a strange abduction, plus an occurrence of cancer that vanished as suddenly as it appeared. Mulder and Scully have learned to trust no one but each other, and perhaps their boss, Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), who supports them against bureaucrats who consider them an embarrassment and a waste of taxpayers' money. Others consider the duo a threat to the Syndicate's plot -- notably the sinister, nameless Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), who won't martyr Mulder and Scully by killing them but otherwise thwarts them at every turn. At the end of this season, he literally destroyed the X-Files by torching Mulder's office.

Moviegoers unfamiliar with the show and its mythology shouldn't have any trouble following the movie The X-Files, which picks up where the season finale left off, with Mulder and Scully reassigned to an anti-terrorism unit but ultimately hunting aliens and conspirators yet again. There's enough expository dialogue (mostly in a scene where a dejected Mulder spills his guts to a nonplussed bartender) to bring newbies up to speed without putting veteran X-philes to sleep. Still, it's not likely that anyone who isn't already a fan will want to see the movie, which is merely a solid genre exercise. It has some exciting and scary moments and generally smarter writing and more serious acting than the typical sci-fi thriller, but it's hardly exceptional, given its often sluggish pacing and its less-than-fresh vision of alien invaders.

In fact, the movie's greatest novelty is that this is the first time a feature film has been adapted from a still-running TV series and used as the plot bridge between one season and the next. The greatest deception, in a film full of them, may be the movie's own publicity campaign, which suggested that this is something grander than just a two-hour episode of the series. Throughout the past year, Carter has hinted that the film would definitively answer many of the questions Mulder (and viewers) had been asking for five years. He also deliberately misled viewers by allowing fake scenarios and details (Mulder and Scully will finally get busy together! David Duchovny will flash his ass!) to leak out onto the Internet, in order to keep the film's real plot secret. These strategies ensured that fans who want to be able to follow the plots next season would line up at the box office last weekend. It almost looks like a conspiracy, led by that shadowy, white, international-power guy Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, to manipulate the behavior of millions for his own gain. Trust no one.

The movie does offer a few things that the show can't: more spectacular special effects, worldwide location shots, a handful of curse words, even jokes about the notorious impassivity of the two leads. Strangely, however, it suffers in being liberated from the time constraints of an hour-long drama interrupted by commercials. Director Rob Bowman has helmed some 25 episodes of the series, but he and screenwriter Carter can't sustain a suspenseful tone for two full hours. And the $60 million budget hasn't meant an upgrade in the lighting department (the film is as underlit as the series) or the costume quality. Bowman has admitted that he shows the film's aliens only in furtive glimpses and never in their entirety in order to hide how unimaginatively conceived they are (they're clearly modeled on the creatures from the Alien and Species movies).

Where the movie and the series excel, of course, is in their exploitation of post-Cold War paranoia. The implication that a force alien to our interests has infiltrated the highest levels of government resonates with conspiracy theorists on the left and the right. The film plays on both sides' most self-righteously horrified fantasies with an Oklahoma City-style explosion at a federal building in the Kennedy-conspiracy ground zero of Dallas, a bombing that Mulder determines was actually a plot by secret government forces to cover up evidence and discredit their enemies -- namely, Mulder and Scully. The explosion incinerated the corpses of some new victims of the black oil, which X-philes will recognize as an ooze that worms its way up through the body and turns one's eyeballs black. Mulder learns from Dr. Kurtzweil (Martin Landau), the latest of his many ill-fated deep-throat informants, that the black oil is an alien virus, worse than AIDS or Ebola, now unexpectedly mutating. Later, Mulder will learn from the Well-Manicured Man (John Neville), a Syndicate member familiar to series viewers, that the Syndicate has been working on a vaccine for 50 years as a secret defense against its alien partners, who, WMM now believes, plan to eliminate the human race. Mulder manages to thwart the grand conspiracy (at least temporarily), save the infected Scully, and get the X-Files reopened, only to see most of the evidence conveniently destroyed, as it is at the end of each episode.

In the series, the aliens' paranormality and ambiguity dovetails with the new-age yearning for a spirituality absent from our too earthbound, secular lives. A presence from above, these creatures filled the same need as the belief in angels and ghosts. With the movie revealing them as unambiguously evil, the aliens now fulfill our fantasies of Independence Day-style millennial Armageddon (jokingly alluded to here in a scene where Mulder pees on an alley wall covered with an ID4 poster, and in the film's eye-popping finale).

The appeal of conspiracy theories and UFO claims, which The X-Files weaves together so skillfully, is that they provide an apparently rational and oddly comforting explanation for the otherwise inexplicable. Mulder and Scully both want to believe -- she via science and Catholicism, he via the Syndicate -- that there is a rational order in the universe, a guiding intelligence, rather than random, arbitrary chaos. Even if that intelligence is evil, it still creates a world (as on the soundstage of The Truman Show or in the vast scam of The Spanish Prisoner) where the duped victim is its solipsistic center, since all the machinations are orchestrated to maintain the illusion on his or her behalf. Even if we find out that we've been lied to, as we do in all these movies, we still relish the entertainment value of the artful deception staged to fool us.

Still, beneath the safely artificial world of The X-Files there's a chillingly subversive suggestion. The film opens and climaxes with sequences of a man hunting for an alien creature in an ice cave; in the 2001-like prologue the hunter is a caveman, whereas at the end it's Mulder. Not only have humans learned nothing in the intervening thousands of years, but according to the Well-Manicured Man, we came late to the party -- the aliens were here first. It's humanity that's the alien on our own planet, the invading viral organism, and we're about to be flushed out of the body like an unsuccessful mutation, a brief Darwinian detour. If nothing else in this harmless tall tale stays with you after you leave the theater, that notion may linger and haunt you still.


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