The X-Files Movie Was 25 Years Ahead of Its Time

It used to be much harder to do your entertainment homework.

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X-Files: The Movie (1998)
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Imagine a movie version of Yellowjackets or For All Mankind dropping in theaters right now. Now, imagine that movie is not only accessible to people who haven’t watched those shows, but also deepens the lore of the series that spawned them. In today’s world, where fans of fantasy and sci-fi have their attention divided by seemingly unending choices, it’s natural that everyone is behind on some show they’ve heard they should watch. Now imagine you don’t have the convenience of simply streaming something to catch up, and now imagine there’s a movie based on that show you missed.

25 years ago, this was the world X-Files: Fight the Future dropped into. The X-Files was a huge cult hit on the small screen, but wasn’t a mainstream film franchise in any sense. Making TV shows into movies is fairly common now, but in the late ’80s and ’90s, a jump to the big screen wasn’t the norm for sci-fi franchises outside of Star Trek. Xena and Quantum Leap were popular, but you were never going to see a mainstream, big-budget theatrical release based on them.

So, how did The X-Files do when it dropped a big movie? Much better than you might expect. And it remains surprisingly accessible, even if you haven’t watched The X-Files in a while.

The movie takes place between Seasons 5 and 6, and ramps up the stakes for the entire series. It reveals that the enigmatic Cigarette Smoking Man is behind an alien virus that’s been weaponized on Earth. Scully (Gillian Anderson) is stung by a virus-laden bee the shadow government Syndicate has been cultivating, which leads Mulder (David Duchovny) to try to save her. Much of the third act is focused on this bee sting, but the movie also features a giant alien spaceship that’s been hidden beneath the Antarctic ice for a long, long time.

If all of that sounds like gibberish, the plot isn’t the point. Any true X-Files fan will tell you what drove the show’s fandom and success was the tension between Agents Mulder and Scully, and it’s here where X-Files: Fight the Future works as a mainstream, non-franchise sci-fi thriller. Yes, paranoid government conspiracy theory action is fun, but the movie needs its romantic tension to work too. Some of the best ’90s sci-fi had a soap-opera appeal at its core, and The X-Files did that better than most.

The movie wasn’t a hit, but crucially, it wasn’t a flop either. It went head-to-head with Mulan the month it opened, and easily earned out against its budget. Reviews were decent, with many critics hyper-focused on the idea that complex TV mythology was connected to the movie. (Roger Ebert said some viewers might need Cliff’s Notes.) But this made The X-Files ahead of its time. The kinds of sci-fi franchises that were accused of being too reliant on internal continuity are today’s mainstream.

Our heroes must escape from Antarctica.


In fact, the latest Marvel show, Secret Invasion, is much harder to follow than Fight the Future for the exact same reason people claimed it was hard to follow in 1998. If you haven’t done your homework, the modern MCU is gibberish. But the advantage Fight the Future had over Marvel and other franchises was that not knowing the whole story was what the show was all about.

In a series where conspiracies, cover-ups, and wild events going unexplained are the norm, it’s natural to wonder if you missed something. When The X-Files was airing on TV, and there were no entertainment sites to offer recaps, it often felt like pieces of the story were missing, especially if you couldn’t catch every episode. In 1998, The X-Files embraced the gaps in its own mythology, filled in what it could in a two-hour movie, and left the rest up to charm and moxie. No franchise ever did it quite like The X-Files, and rewatching Fight the Future today will convince you that few sci-fi franchises have been this nimble since.

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