As a horror-movie maven, I tuned into The X-Files early in its first season and marveled at how its creator, Chris Carter, kept the show from slipping into the sort of monster-of-the-week monotony that had bedeviled such earlier supernatural TV series as The Night Stalker. Carter left teasing doubts at the end of every episode; even his loose ends had loose ends. He got away with it not only because his work was superior to most of what’s on television–more tightly written, resourcefully shot, and exuberantly acted–but also because he took the long view, constructing a government conspiracy so dense and labyrinthine that even Oliver Stone would throw up his hands. Why are so many powerful people working so assiduously to conceal the presence of extraterrestrial life on this planet? Every answer generated a dozen more tantalizing questions.
The movie of The X-Files promised closure. Now, indefatigable FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) would come to the core of the conspiracy, and maybe–more important–end up in a clinch. Bring on the sex! The four-letter words! The spaceships and FX and wide-screen pandemonium that a small-screen budget won’t permit! Give us the answers!
Ha ha. Tune in next week.
The X-Files isn’t so much a bad movie as it is a crackerjack piece of television. It’s crisply made–not sodden like many of the Star Trek pictures. But it’s as annoyingly open-ended as the rest of the series’ episodes. And apart from an Oklahoma City-style explosion, an avalanche, a Close Encounters of the Third Kind spaceship, some fancy mattes and flashily edited scenes of alien carnage (plus Mulder’s exclamation of “Shit!” when he nearly tumbles into an Antarctic alien abyss), it’s pretty much TV business as usual. True, it opens in 35000 B.C., which is something you don’t see every day. But the Neanderthals who explore a cave with their torches are photographed as if they were Ice Age precursors to the flashlight-toting Mulder and Scully: The strange becomes familiar very quickly.
Cut to modern North Texas, where a kid falls into the same cave, gets slimed by an alien parasite, and eventually ends up on a slab so Scully can do her trademark autopsy number. For some reason, the FBI, led by Blythe Danner (!), is intent on blaming Mulder and Scully for everything from Oklahoma City to El Niño, which makes Scully want to throw in the towel–until a shadowy cadre of Old White Guys (led by Armin-Mueller Stahl and abetted by the Cigarette Smoking Man) sees to it (I think) that she gets stung by a bee and infected with the same alien parasite and then shipped off to the frozen subcontinent.
I won’t bother you with any more plot synopsis, in part because I–along with many of my colleagues–left shaking my head and muttering, “Huh?” But it all has something to do with an alien presence on Earth that predates man, a premise that owes much to a 1967 Hammer picture called Quatermass and the Pit (a k a Five Million Years to Earth) and with gestating beasties that are clearly inspired by Alien and its ilk. Click here if you’ve already seen the picture–or have no intention of seeing it–for more specific questions about what the hell actually happens. Such is Carter’s clout that the studio executives famous for sending filmmakers scores of dumb plot-clarification memos clearly kept their distance.
The director, Rob Bowman, is not some TV hack; his work is thrillingly kinetic. He caught my eye with an early Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in which Worf has to blow away a bellicose fellow Klingon, and his “Q Who?” introduced the cyberpunk Borg, who were never eerier. After sterling episodes of the underrated Dark Shadows rehash and the short-lived The Hat Squad, he made a skateboard feature film I was warned off seeing, then took up residence with Carter and Co. If his TV directing is strikingly cinematic, his cinema directing is subtly TV-ish. It all looks beautiful, but the bustle is too well choreographed, the framing too exact, the pacing too unvaried. As a movie, The X-Files seems unexpansive and tethered to the series. It’s a testament to how superb Bowman’s TV work is that when he’s handed a budget 20 times bigger, it doesn’t make much difference.
Fortunately, the stars can hold their own on the big screen. Duchovny has always been an inspired choice for Mulder because he’s the opposite of the stereotypical Man Obsessed. There is no seething demeanor, no pop eyes, no breathlessness. Instead, he plods along with a kind of druggy, stupefied nasality, internalizing Mulder’s quest and making it far more compelling. He and Anderson, whose peppery staccato is a delightful foil, make a classic team. The X-Files features brief cameos from the regulars (there’s disappointingly little of Mitch Pileggi’s charismatic Skinner) and a smooth turn by Martin Landau as an excitable conspiracy theorist, but it’s Duchovny and Anderson’s show.
In a hilarious jab at the competition, a drunken Mulder pisses on an alley wall bearing a poster for Independence Day (1996). But when you think about it, the real anti-X-Files isn’t that turgid behemoth but Men in Black (1997), which puts you cheerfully on the side of a secret, vaguely fascist government agency that blanks people’s memories, carries out assassinations, and conspires to keep the truth from getting out there. Maybe that’s one reason Men in Black was such a hit–it was such a relief to be out from under The X-Files’ hopeless, paranoid convolutions. Frankly, I’ve given up on penetrating the logic and motivations of Old White Guy villains. Perhaps it will turn out that they, like Christof in The Truman Show, have fabricated the whole conspiracy, and Mulder will discover that there are no aliens, that his loved ones are still alive, and that he’s been the unwitting star of a sci-fi series loved by millions and set to earn hundreds of millions in syndication and ancillary rights. Now that’s a credible motivation.
Bombarded by mainstream formula pictures (The Truman Show, Bulworth) disguised as radical statements, I hail Don Roos’ The Opposite of Sex as a truly unformulaic comedy of lust and greed, a farce that seems to write itself, slap-happily, as it goes along. Narrated by a bossy, manipulative, near-psychotic slut (a platinum-blond Christina Ricci) who’s basically the villain of the piece (“I don’t have a heart of gold and I don’t grow one later, OK?”), the picture seems glib when it meditates on the higher issues, but it’s sublime at its most scattershot. The characters, among them a gay, nice-guy teacher (Martin Donovan) and the prim sister (Lisa Kudrow) of his dead lover, act out their obsessions in ways at once riotously unexpected and, in hindsight, utterly logical. Where The Object of My Affection tackled the same gay man-hetero woman themes in ploddingly algebraic fashion, The Opposite of Sex is dazzlingly trigonometric.
Roos’ one-liners give you a hint of his gifts, as when Ricci, scowled at by all for ordering a Long Island iced tea when she’s five months pregnant, stops the conversation with “Oh, please. This baby owes its life to Long Island iced tea”; or when Kudrow forlornly recalls her mother’s reaction to her brother’s coming-out: “She said, ‘It’s such a lonely life.’ She said that to a single, straight girl–isn’t that funny?” Kudrow, who’s been playing airheads (peerlessly) too long, finally has the chance to show her range. Here, she’s a prig who doesn’t want to be a prig but doesn’t know how to be different. She’s ill at ease, spastically at war with her own instincts: She turns every line into a subterranean psychological skirmish.
High Art is a little too high-arty for its own good, but the great acting compensates for much. The film is a gelatinous tug of war for the soul of Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy), a genius lesbian photographer who has dropped out of her career and taken up with a druggy German ex-Fassbinder actress (the show-stoppingly slurry Patricia Clarkson). Her fresh-faced downstairs neighbor (Radha Mitchell), an editor at a trendy art magazine, attempts to pull her away from smack and Fassbinder and into the light–in the process leaving her boyfriend and becoming Lucy’s lover. The movie would work better if the director, Lisa Cholodenko, didn’t strive for the same shadowed, doom-laden palette as Lucy’s photos. The pictures should give a glimpse of another reality, not the same one we’ve been seeing all along.
Cholodenko stages the sex scenes with an exploratory tenderness, and the actresses make a striking study in contrasts. The baby-doll Mitchell, an Australian (although you’d never know it here), has a round, wide-open face and clear eyes, whereas Sheedy is pinched, closed-down, played-out. Back in the era of WarGames (1983), Sheedy sent my nymphet-meter into the red zone, but she soon grew into a severe, sharp-featured young woman who wagged her chin to appear friendly and never seemed at home in her skin. Now, after a long professional dry spell, she’s back and all edges. Her vulnerability comes through in her hardness, her constriction, and when the chin-wagging breaks through, it’s like a glint of sun in a raw, gray day. Looking as if she has nothing left to lose, Sheedy has never been more winning.
Missed our link to X-Files plot spoilers? Click here.