When the first X-Files film came out in 1998, the television show was at the height of its popularity. It made sense that its creator Chris Carter would capitalize on his show’s status within the popular culture zeitgeist by making the jump to the big screen and thereby placing the world he created on a larger canvas. In keeping with the template set forth by the show, there were two routes he could have gone with Fight the Future – a stand-alone adventure or tap into the show’s ongoing storyline: a complex government conspiracy to cover-up the existence of extra-terrestrials. He choose the latter and in doing so had to tread a fine line between making the film accessible to the average filmgoer while still appealing to the show’s dedicated fanbase.
In North Texas, a group of young boys uncover human remains in a pit. One of them (Lucas Black) falls in and is infected with some kind of black liquid. Naturally, the United States government quickly moves in and takes the boy. We meet FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) in Dallas investigating a terrorist bomb threat on a government building. The X-Files division has been officially closed by their superiors and so they have been relegated to routine work (well, routine for them anyway). Mulder and Scully discover the bomb and narrowly avoid being blown up in a thrilling sequence that eerie evoked the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, still fresh in a lot of people’s minds. As the dust settles, questions remain – who did it and why? And why did the lone FBI agent (Terry O’Quinn) left to disarm the bomb do nothing?
Fight the Future starts with our heroes really up against it what with the X-Files closed and Mulder and Scully split up after the fallout in Texas. When Mulder is at his lowest, he meets a friend of his father’s – Dr. Alvin Kurtzweil (played rather nicely by Martin Landau) who tells him that the explosion was part of a larger cover-up involving the boy and the mysterious black liquid. Whatever is going on you can bet it involves the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), a shadowy government operative in charge of keeping the government’s involvement with extraterrestrials a secret. Mulder and Scully spend the rest of the film trying to find the answers to these questions.
It’s good to see the chemistry between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson worked just as well on the big screen as it did on the small one. Having done five seasons of the show prior to the film, the two actors were, by then, quite familiar with their characters and made the transition with ease. Carter placed more emphasis on the "relationship" between Mulder and Scully in Fight the Future. Over the course of the show they grew to care deeply for one another, but without actually expressing it sexually. This touching concern for one another is usually downplayed in the series, but in the film it provides a strong, humanistic core instead of relying solely on government conspiracies and things that go bump in the night to keep our attention. That being said, Carter isn’t above playfully messing with a faction of fan that wanted to see Mulder and Scully become romantically involved (they almost kiss!).
Duchovny is good as the dry-witted believer who buys into the alien conspiracy because of a personal involvement, while Anderson works well playing off of him as the jaded cynic who relies on science and logic to make sense of the things they encounter. What makes Mulder and Scully work so well is their chemistry and how their respective strengths and weaknesses compliment each other. By this point, they’ve been through so much together and seen so much that they genuinely care about one another. As a result, fans became emotionally invested in their episodic adventures, which is in turn kicked up a notch with the film.
The X-Files was a T.V. show that always had a distinctly cinematic look to it. This approach set it apart from most shows at the time that opted for a bland, homogenous look. It was nice to see Carter enjoying a substantial increase in budget ($66 million!) while not losing the intimate appeal of the show – Mulder and Scully. With a significantly larger budget, Carter expanded the scope of the series by sending Mulder and Scully to the farthest reaches of the globe, from Washington, D.C. to England to Tunisia. This results in some truly breathtaking landscape shots that could not be recreated on T.V. – their impact would not be as great. It’s not an insult to call Fight the Future an expensive episode of the show.
While the film does attempt to bring newbies up to speed – albeit via a clumsy exposition scene where a drunk Mulder tells a bartender (Glenne Headly wasted in a cameo) what he does for a living – it largely appeals to fans of the show and assumes that anyone watching is familiar with its mythology. Carter also trots out several of the show’s recurring characters, like the gruff Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), Mulder and Scully’s hard-nosed boss, and the trio of conspiracy theorists known as the Lone Gunmen whose charming wackiness is relegated to a disappointing cameo that feels tacked on.
The show’s creator Chris Carter and co-producer Frank Spotnitz came up with the plot for Fight the Future over eight days and described it as “an adventure story with political under currents, more like The Parallax View than a monster episode of X-Files.” Carter wrote the screenplay for the film during the break between seasons four and five. In addition, he had to anticipate what would happen in the latter season – before it was even made! “It was all fresh ground for us. We had to plan long in advance.”
Carter hand-picked regular series director Rob Bowman to helm the film, which was a wise choice considering he had worked on over 20 episodes. He also helped regular cast members make the adjustment from T.V. to film seamlessly because of the rapport he already had with them. Principal photography took place during the spring and summer of 1997. The cast were certainly aware of the difference between making the show and working on the film and in the case of Gillian Anderson thrived on it: “What was exciting about it was the intensity of it. Knowing that there are three, four, five, six cameras rolling at one time getting different angles, different aspects of what’s happening.”
Carter was certainly aware of the risks of making a film while the show was still airing original episodes: “The movie was a calculated risk. You always take the chance of damaging the series because if the movie fails, people might not come back to the show.” In addition, the studio was worried that the film’s plot would be too dense or unclear for the uninitiated moviegoer not familiar with the show, but Carter claimed that it “will bring new people into our ongoing story, but won’t offend the hardcore viewer.”
Fight the Future received mostly positive to mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “I liked the way the movie looked, and the unforced urgency of Mulder and Scully, and the way the plot was told through verbal puzzles and visual revelations, rather than through boring action scenes.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Duchovny sustains enough cool, deadpan intellect and suppressed passion to give the story a center. Ms. Anderson has the harsher, more restrictive role, but she plays it with familiar hardboiled glamour.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Distrust, anxiety, the dread-heavy need to constantly peel away layers of lies and cover-ups in search of The Truth imbue this honest first feature with just the right overtones of late-20th-century anxiety.” However, the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “The X-Files movie is really just a two-hour teaser for the series’s sixth season. And little else.” Finally, the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “Things get more or less explained by the close, but the fun of The X-Files is clearly more in the creation of unease than in the cleaning up of mysteries.”
Fight the Future works well as a bridge between seasons five and six, expanding the show’s mythology in a way that justified making the jump to the big screen instead of feeling like they were going for quick cash grab on the part of the studio. Carter successfully raises the stakes in the film by splitting up Mulder and Scully and shedding more light on another part of the alien conspiracy. Much like the show, the film works best when it follows Mulder down shadowy alleyways and dimly-lit rooms talking to men who feed him tantalizing bits of information about the larger conspiracy at work. These scenes illustrate one of the primary influences on the show – paranoid conspiracy thrillers from the 1970s – and how Carter and his writers cleverly fused them with stories about aliens and the supernatural.
Carter, Bill. “X-Files Tries to Keep Its Murky Promise.” The New York Times. November 7, 1998.
McIntyre, Gina. “Action Anderson.” The X-Files Movie Official Magazine. June 1998.
Tucker, Ken. “Playing with Fire.” Entertainment Weekly. June 12, 1998.