X Marks The Plot
In Spite Of All Evidence To The Contrary, Fans Will Believe There's More Truth Out There.
By Zak Woodruff
JUNE 29, 1998: A WEIRD THING happened while I was waiting in line to see The X-Files. A man approached me and requested the time. When I pointed to the watchless spot on my wrist, he asked, "Do you want to be in a race?" Asked what kind of race, he said, "You'll wear a backpack filled with bricks, and see if you can outrun somebody slower than you." Was this for charity? "No," he answered, "It's just because." Then he quickly walked away, leaving me feeling as though I'd failed to deliver on some secret code.
So what's my point? My point is that the real world is vastly odder and more bewildering than anything we've dreamt in our entertainments. Aliens, government conspiracies, black helicopters: They're no match for the disturbances of our own lives.
Still, I ambled into the sold-out showing of The X-Files with high hopes. A program notorious for tapping into our collective pre-millennial tension, filled with spies and consortiums and things that go bump in the night, popular in so many countries that even South American llamas have been known to tune in religiously, the film had to be diverting.
Truth be told, it wasn't. Then the movie ended, and I looked around at the fans, who were trying to find additional clues within the credits. Now that was spooky. Elaborate "shadow government" conspiracies aside, the real mystery of The X-Files is its devoted fanbase.
Take the main characters, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Why do people love these ciphers? The answers are more disturbing than you might think.
Sure, Mulder comes up with a funny crack every now and then. (Upon finding some Dolly Partonesque domes in the middle of a cornfield, he concludes that they're probably not "giant Jiffy Pop poppers.") But mostly he stands around brooding. It's not a seductive Andy Garcia or Gabriel Byrne kind of brooding; it's more your-antisocial-brother-who-used-to-spend-hours-trying-to-solve-Rubik's-Cube type brooding. We're talking geeksville brooding. Basically, women are swooning over a man who resembles a really hot version of their brother.
What's funnier, still, is that in spite of Mulder's one-note personality, The X-Files movie tries to explain the character to the audience at every opportunity.
Mulder (in a rambling monotone): "I know we've worked together for five years, Scully, but let me remind you that I am a passionate believer in paranormal conspiracies and I always follow hunches. Not only that, but I always choose to get cold soda from the one vending machine that contains a bomb."
Scully (in a slightly whiny drone): "Yes Mulder I know! But I am a strict rationalist who puts all her faith in science. So no matter how many cadavers full of rubber cement I come across, I will always be skeptical of your theories. That way later on I can fulfill every man's fantasy by admitting I was wrong."
Mulder (with stilted elocution): "Thank you Scully. Now excuse me while I go explain my character again, this time to a bartender. Maybe if I sit around the bar long enough, some man will walk out of nowhere and explain the plot to me."
Scully (sporting wooden diction): "Okay. But be sure to come back in time to pull me away from important meetings with my superiors and whisk me off on wild goose chases so I can complain about them until I am put into life-threatening jeopardy."
And what's the big deal about Anderson, anyway? I think middle-Americans love her for one simple, subconscious reason: She looks fertile. Why else does the entire climax of The X-Files revolve around Duchovny's efforts to keep her from being impregnated by an Alien-style being? She's got them alien-bearing hips.
Unfortunately, The X-Files movie, like the show, remains a big tease as far as Mulder and Scully's potential relationship is concerned. On television, this makes sense: You can't show Mulder and Scully getting lovey-dovey week after week while they're searching for slimy things. And it works thematically, since the characters' sexual repression parallels their painful inability to find the truth.
(This ongoing frustration runs so deep that among fans there exists a sub-subculture of self-dubbed "Relationshippers"--or just "Shippers," for short. They strongly believe that Mulder and Scully are in love, and may in fact be having off-screen quickies during commercial breaks.)
But film audiences expect characters to develop and do things they've never done before. The Star Trek: The Next Generation movie boldly went somewhere new by giving Data emotions. The Twin Peaks movie was horrible, but at least it had new characters (one of whom was played by David Bowie). What has The X-Files movie got that the TV show hasn't? The start of a kiss that, thanks to a bee, is halted by stingus-interruptus. Not good enough.
This isn't surprising. Like Twin Peaks, The X-Files has plotted itself into a corner because it's built upon the promise of answers. If it keeps stringing viewers along, they'll get bored; if it solves all the mysteries, they'll lose interest. But creator Chris Carter and company don't have the guts to cash out: They've turned the movie into another episode of the TV show--complete with glaring close-ups and a "to be continued" ending. When next fall's season starts, it'll just pick up where the movie left off.
So the film remains just a big-budget elaboration on The Plot Up To Now, complete with unresolved sexual tension.
As if to keep fans from noticing, The X-Files movie contains all the important recurring characters. The Lone Gunmen make an appearance that's so brief, you can barely get them in your sights. The Well-Manicured Man mills around just long enough to scuff his perfect cuticles. And Cancer Man (no relation to Cancer Boy from Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy) provides about half a pack worth of wordless cameos.
All this is great for fans, but not for people who go to The X-Files expecting a solid story. Besides wondering about Mulder and Scully's romance, I left the theater with burning questions like, "Is the black oil that attacks schoolchildren in any way related to that zany viral bee pollen?" And: "Why did the helicopters stop chasing Mulder and Scully around the cornfield--were they embarrassed by their lack of creepiness compared to North by Northwest?" And: "Why does the Consortium think they can trust the aliens? What if the aliens crossed their tentacles behind their backs?" And: "How did Mulder and Scully get out of the middle of Antarctica without any means of transportation? Penguins?"
More importantly: "If Agent Mulder is such a problem for the all-powerful Consortium, why don't they just kill him?" This question has led the TV program to provide endless excuses, like "I guess they didn't kill me because I'm too high-profile" (an actual Mulder quote). Some day I'm hoping Mulder will just look into the camera and say, "Look, if they killed me there'd be no show, okay?"
There's also the question of why people keep sneaking out of the shadows to give Mulder information. Wouldn't it be great if life were like this? Say you're unable to decide whether to order Chinese take-out or go buy groceries. Next thing you know, Martin Landau peeks out from an alley, looks both ways, mutters, "Buy groceries," and disappears into the rain-slicked night.
Perhaps such fantasies are why fans love the show. These conspiracies are so far-fetched and elaborate that, in a way, they're comforting. It's all out of our hands anyway--unlike real life, where at any moment a strange person might walk up and ask you to be in a brick-filled backpack race.
That's why the disappointment of The X-Files movie won't stop it from becoming a success. When I asked one fan what she thought, she let out a long sigh and finally said, "It was pretty good." No matter how mediocre The X-Files might become, fans will never completely turn off to it.
Not even if David Duchovny shows up on Saturday Night Live 20 years from now and tells them, "Get a life!"
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