Film: File under 'fantastic'
Sunday 23 August 1998
The Day the Earth Stood Still
In the paranoid world of The X-Files, dark extraterrestrial forces are responsible for any mildly peculiar incident. They were standing on the "grassy knoll", they bought the Sasquatch his monkey suit, and they're probably the reason why all my ball-point pens keep disappearing. As anyone who has been near a television in the past five years will know, it's the job of Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dr Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) to sniff out their presence. And it's a tough assignment, as their enemies are not an obvious invasion force. They operate through human quislings, a praesidium of shady suited men who ensure that secrecy is maintained - a process that seems mainly to involve having sotto voce conversations in smoke-filled rooms with the curtains drawn.
Rob Bowman's The X-Files adds one big twist to the curlicued complexities of the TV series: before they requisition our real- estate, these aliens want to have us for breakfast. "We are nothing but digestifs for a new alien life-form," announces their chief human collaborator (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl). I think it was digestifs. "Digestives" would be too perverse, even for The X-Files.
Rob Bowman is one of the regular directors of the TV series, and despite the pumped-up production values, he has kept the movie close to its small screen inspiration. The effortless transfer that Duchovny and Anderson make to the big screen must have made the cast of Friends sick with envy. They succeed not because they're overburdened with star quality, but because their roles rely on the wooden pronouncement of reams of elaborate pseudo- science. There is very little emoting required: Duchovny and Anderson just have to deadpan lines about "causative microbes" and maintain an expression of intrigued intensity while looking at phials of gunk and suppurating bodies. And they both do it beautifully. My only qualm was that Gillian Anderson has now lost so much weight since the first series of the TV show, you'd think she was the victim of some sinister Hollywood conspiracy to turn women into anorexics. But who'd believe a crazy theory like that?
As the power of the X-Files concept derives from its atmosphere of dark confusion, you'll be disappointed if you go to the movie expecting straight answers. The value of "X" will never be disclosed. The movie's narrative is a constant exchange between explication and obfuscation. Any titbit of information we are thrown is then rendered meaningless by a new mystery.
The film has Martin Landau - completely goggle-eyed and with a face like a sack of coathangers - who pops up in alleyways to offer Mulder fragments of conspiracy theory. But, of course, he's not what he seems. The X-Files has built up a baroque network of half-comprehensible mythology, but it's a very fragile construction: Mulder's sister was abducted by aliens, probably. Mulder's father was mixed up in the Roswell incident, possibly. But anything we've been told could be reversed or contradicted in the space of a scene: the conspiracies can just keep unpeeling to reveal new ones. And what we're left with is a sense that every event we witness contains some sinister significance that can never be cracked. Like they say, trust no one.
It's a galaxy away from the shiny Cold War certainties of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robert Wise's classic sci-fi melodrama from 1951. Wise's movie deals with hi-tech threats - atom bombs, vaporising rays fired from the skulls of steel robots, machines built from glass that can neutralise every electrical power-source in the world. But the threats of are biological: aliens incubating inside human bodies; a clawed hand twitching under a thin layer of their victims' eyeballs. The Day the Earth Stood Still has Klaatu (a silver-suited Michael Rennie) landing in a huge flying saucer. The X-Files has abandoned any attachment to technological progress and replaced it with primitivistic body horror. Sleek flying saucers have been replaced by something nastier. Just to underline the point, Rob Bowman has Duchovny urinate on a poster for Independence Day.
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