Twenty years ago, Fox’s hit series The X-Files made the leap to the big screen. The film, promoted with the tagline and defacto title Fight the Future, slyly announced its place among summer blockbusters with a poster of Independence Day clearly visible in the background of an early scene.
It deserved its place among tentpoles. The film’s mixed reviews seem like a product of their time, in retrospect. Those who liked it were generally surprised it worked as a cinematic outing, and those who didn’t tended to question it’s raison d’être, like the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley, who complained that Fight the Future felt like little more than “a two-hour teaser for the series's sixth season.”
In the age of franchise filmmaking, doesn’t 90 percent of Hollywood’s output function as a teaser for the next movie?
At the time, Fight the Future was an odd Hollywood product, and maybe an even odder success, taking in nearly $200 million at the box office. To this day, TV shows don’t usually make the jump to the big screen. The notable exceptions tend to be already concluded (or cancelled) shows brought back to life, like Star Trek, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Serenity, or Veronica Mars—or the second X-Files film, I Want to Believe, released in 2008, between the show’s end in 2002 and its revival in 2016.
Variations on the mid-run model have cropped up here and there. They include things like Dragnet and Adam West’s Batman. None of those are even remotely recent.
So why don’t we see this more often? The “golden age of television” has seen series with cinematic production value, including A-list actors, gorgeous cinematography, big budgets, and even widescreen aspect ratios. More than that, series like Game of Thrones, Atlanta, Westworld, and The Americans all came into existence at a time when media platforms are incredibly fluid and the very definition of television is challenged by the breakdown of traditional broadcast models.
What can we learn from Fight the Future, then?
“I think the overarching feeling was how great it was that we had built a show that the studio felt was worthy of becoming a feature film,” director Rob Bowman told VICE.
The film works nicely on its own, opening with glimpses of what we can only assume is the first contact of humanity’s ancestors with alien life—cavemen encounter an extraterrestrial who infects one of them with a mysterious substance. This is immediately marked as a story that will explore the much larger elements of the X-Files mythology rather than the nitty gritty details familiar to viewers.
In the present day, some 37,000 years later, children discover the same cave in what is now Texas. One boy is quickly infected by the same substance.
FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigate after a suspicious explosion supposedly kills the infected boy, destroying evidence of what they soon discover is a massive conspiracy to cover up the existence of alien life on Earth.
The story is fairly easy to follow from there. We don’t get long explainers of who everyone is, but we get enough context to follow along, whether we’re fans of the show or not, and we’re filled in on anything that might be otherwise confusing.
“You don't have to introduce Mulder and introduce Scully and introduce the world every week,” said Bowman. “Whereas the feature, you have to tell everybody who these people are, because it's not just for the X-Files fans.”
That balance is one of Fight the Future’s great strengths, and one of the elements that could have easily derailed the film if it hadn’t been handled properly. “When you're making the series, you know that it's fan-exclusive, although you're hoping to gain new eyes every week,” said Bowman, who was far more aware of the need for new eyes in cinemas.
Bowman remembers floating the idea of a film by series creator Chris Carter during a particularly ambitious shoot involving a submarine conning tower poking out of an ice cap. The effect involved bringing in about 150 tons of snow, and it felt bigger than a usual TV shoot. “I was on stage, looking at the conning tower between set-ups, and I called Chris,” he said. “The series and the universe that Chris and all the writing team was exploring, I thought was more than big enough to stick on a theatrical movie screen.”
Bowman knew the stakes would be higher, of course. You can have a few duds in a season of 20 or so episodes. Each episode takes about eight or nine days to shoot. That’s in contrast to the roughly 15 months it takes to make a movie, Bowman said.
“You sit down at the cinematic dinner table with one story, and I hope you like it, because it's the only story you're going to tell for a long time, and you have to fall in love with it.”
In some important ways, Fight the Future is an extended series episode. It even opens with the iconic six-notes of the show’s opening credits.
Yes, it stands alone, and would presumably make sense to an uninitiated viewer. But it also rewards hardcore fans. If you watch the episodes that bookend the film (the season finale and premiere of seasons five and six, respectively), you can appreciate how integral the film is to the series’ progress. Hence the “teaser” jab in the Post.
For one, the X-Files themselves, the paranormal cases that the two investigators work on, are shut down by the FBI at the end of season five. Mulder has followed one too many hunches and pissed off too many people. If you skip Fight the Future, you find yourself in season six with the X-Files miraculously up and running again. (The “previously on” recap at the start of season six even includes content from the film, shuffled in among clips of past episodes.)
The first mention of the X-Files in the film comes from Scully, who reminds Mulder that they are, in fact, closed, and the two need to move on. By film’s end, the two have proven the value of the X-Files to the bureau and secured the freedom to get back to work.
The film breaks plenty of new ground too. It pushes the relationship between Mulder and Scully into territory that packs an emotional punch. At one point, as he tries to convince Scully not to abandon the FBI, Mulder has a breakthrough. He suddenly seems to realize that he genuinely needs his partner. Not just because he cares about her, but because she actually supports him and makes his work better. Mulder constantly gets in his own way, alienating superiors with his combined arrogance and flights of fancy. He takes leaps that no one could reasonably be expected to back up. But Scully does. She’s always there for him.
That fact seems to dawn on him mid-sentence, acknowledging that Scully is completely justified in walking away. “I owe you everything,” he tells her, “Scully, you owe me nothing.” She looks at him with genuine shock on her face. Her work on the X-Files has never been acknowledged or openly appreciated in this way, at least not by Mulder. “I remember when I read that scene in the script,” said Bowman. “I was jumping up and down, because he finally said, I really appreciate you for being here and staying with me and supporting me, and putting up with me."
Obviously not every show lends itself to cinematic exhibition. In 1998, The X-Files was pretty unique in both its scale and popularity. “We built that over five years to earn the right to make that movie, and the fact that we pulled it off was and will always be one of the greatest experiences of my life,” says Bowman.
It’s hard to imagine Friends or Law & Order, both popular at the time, working as movies.
The dearth of adaptable shows isn’t the reality anymore though. The TV landscape is all over the place, but certain series seem primed for their own cinematic outings. Last season saw Game of Thrones averaging 31 million viewers per episode. The CW’s Supernatural seems like it will never end, and has used the good will of its intense fandom to experiment with truly weird episodes, but still no movie. Netflix has dabbled in theatrical exhibition and could easily use cinematic outings to attract viewers to its original series—a Robin Wright-centric relaunch of House of Cards would be great, and it could benefit from a feature-length movie, for example. Or what about those Marvel TV shows on Netflix? The Defenders, while not great, could have easily worked as an “event” movie.
As for The X-Files itself, the revived show has wrapped up its latest series at Fox and won’t be returning—at least in its current form. Chris Carter says he’d like to keep The X-Files alive in some capacity, even floating the idea of an animated series.
Another movie might make sense though, if TV production schedules and consistent ratings are too tricky in 2018.
I ran the idea by Bowman at the end of our conversation, thinking he might want to direct again. “If there's an appetite for people to watch it, and anybody would be interested in me doing it, then yeah, of course it would be incredible,” he said.
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.