You need to watch the greatest sci-fi mystery thriller on HBO Max ASAP
Long before the MCU, this iconic sci-fi series tried telling a single story through both film and television.
Streaming platforms have been blurring the line between movies and TV shows for some time now. Back in 2016, the Los Angeles Times noted that “as digital delivery platforms morph and multiply, the nature of visual storytelling has changed and the lines that once clearly divided film from television or, for that matter, broadcast television from cable, cable from streaming, streaming from the Internet are fading.” Things have only gotten less clear since.
The idea that multiple platforms could be used to tell the same story really started to gain steam in the 1990s, perhaps most famously today in the world of The Matrix. Riding waves of tech optimism, the Wachowskis broke their story into movies, anime, and video games. The result was fascinating, if sometimes confusing.
But another massive ‘90s franchise also chose to tell its story over multiple platforms. It’s been dormant for a few years now, but The X-Files was among the most popular science fiction shows of its time. Rob Bowman’s 1998 movie The X-Files, sometimes known by its tagline The X-Files: Fight the Future, did its best to both advance the TV show’s narrative and present a decent movie on its own.
For those unaware, the setup of The X-Files features a flirtatious odd couple known as Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). They’re both FBI agents, but their similarities end there. Mulder believes in the paranormal, dating back to when he believes his sister was abducted by aliens when he was 12. Scully is a skeptic, challenging Mulder’s beliefs at every turn.
It was an instant hit, hailed by media critic James Wolcott in The New Yorker after its first season as “scary as The Twilight Zone, and much sexier.” Wolcott also noted that the show was perfectly situated for the ‘90s, as the old conspiracies of the Soviet age were “replaced by a more cosmic paranoia. The show reflects the end of the millennium, the flip side of the New Age.”
Mulder and Scully mixed monster-of-the-week episodes with a greater story arc connected to aliens, federal conspiracies, and The Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis) who always seemed just out of the agents’ grasp.
The intention of the show’s creator, Chris Carter, was that The X-Files TV show would end after five seasons, transitioning into a movie franchise that told bigger stories after that. The show’s mythology was hitting its peak, as the Smoking Man had appeared to play Mulder into a checkmate, ending with the destruction of the actual, physical, X-files.
After a brief introduction set in the Ice Age, the movie picks up Mulder and Scully in poor shape, unable to stop the explosion of a building in Dallas. At first thought to be in line with ‘90s right-wing attacks like the Oklahoma City bombing, Mulder is given a clue by mysterious doctor Alvin Kurtzweil (Martin Landau), who claims to know his father. Even Mulder can scarcely believe it: some of the people blown up in the bombing were already dead.
For the series’ creators, the choice between continuing the story of the TV show or starting fresh for new viewers was an easy one. Frank Spotnitz, who co-wrote the story with Carter, told an official Making of book that "we wanted it to be true to the TV show, for one thing. We didn't want The X-Files to become something else in the movie, just because we had a bigger budget to work with.”
On that level, they absolutely succeeded. The X-Files movie is funny, flirty, and always conspiratorial. Series regulars like Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) and The Lone Gunman (who would later get a short spin-off show) show up and get matched with X-Files newcomers like Landau. The relationship between Mulder and Scully remains heavy with sexual tension, and the will they or won’t they setup is played out several times, with almost kisses and hand holding given as much weight as any development in their case. It could be silly, but it works because of the incredible chemistry between the two actors.
Does The X-Files movie work if you’ve never seen an episode? Like picking a random movie from the MCU, the answer is “sort of.” There are explanations of who the characters are and what they want, but those relationships have been delved into with greater depth in the previous years. Newcomers can certainly follow along, but details will fly over their heads.
If you’re looking for a starting point, the fifth season of The X-Files, where the finale leads into the movie, is as good as any. The truth is out there.
The X-Files: Fight the Future is streaming on HBO Max.