Monday, July 28, 2008

Chicagoland movie minute: The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Posted By on 07.28.08 at 12:50 PM

Disappointingly for a fanboy like me, the new X-Files movie has been getting mediocre to brutal reviews. Having seen it, there are clearly practical and wholly legitimate reasons for this--if you don't like B-movies, however adept, and emotionally stunted minimalist acting, you won't like it, or much of the X-Files generally. Overall I'd say it's a good-but-not-great episode of the show with some emotional grist for longtime fans*, and while I think it's a fine waste of 90 minutes I'm willing to agree that it's not the substance of great filmmaking.

But more broadly, I'd say the show's time has passed. A friend, who also saw the movie, said it felt dated, and I agree. And I blame George W. Bush.

Most of the dramatic weight of the X-Files comes from the not-entirely-plausible idea that governments are engaged in and capable of grand conspiracies controlled throughout generations by smart and competent people. Students of history--of the Kennedy-era CIA's involvement with Cuba, of Iran-Contra, of MK-ULTRA, etc--will naturally be skeptical of this idea. But at least the 20th century provides some grist for the mill.

But in recent years we've been treated to government conspiracies spectacular in their incompetence. I finished Jane Mayer's The Dark Side just before seeing the movie, and it really underscored the point. The U.S. government's authorization of torture, special rendition, and warrantless wiretapping was made possible by a remarkably half-assed conspiracy between the Office of the Vice President (primarily Dick Cheney and David Addington) and the DOJ's Office of Legal Council (primarily John Yoo). Basically they realized that if they only shared the legal groundwork for these decisions among a small group of compliant lawyers, they could all agree that those decisions were law--and that's all the law really is, just coming to a consensus between people as to what is and what is not permissible--for as long as they could keep the decisions from less agreeable officials, who could be kept at bay by threats to their jobs and reputations. And it worked, but only for a year or two, which isn't much of a conspiracy.

And that's really all there was to it. It's nothing fancy. They could do whatever they wanted as long as they could keep control of the flow of information (hence the emphasis on executive privilege and the theory of the unitary executive), which is a very hard thing to do for very long, especially when that control involves alienating more competent officials. The destruction of FEMA and the politicization of the lower ranks of the DOJ operated along the same tracks.

Between the Bush administration's destructive but penny-ante conspiracies and the fall of communism, not to mention 9-11 and the guerrilla war in Iraq, the Fear has become bottom-up instead of top-down, as J.R. Jones suggests in his review of The Dark Knight: chaos, not control. Which is one of the reasons, I think, for its great success--the comic book ethos succeeds when it taps into the paranoia of the day. And for the X-Files, that day has passed.

* By which I mean that the romantic aspect of the movie is quite strong and, if you've seen enough of the show to be emotionally engaged by the characters, you'll still enjoy this aspect of it. The X-Files, as a project, has two storylines--the mytharc, which went off the rails when the show kept getting extended well past its sell-by date**, and the romance between the show's main characters, which I always found impossibly moving thanks to my enlightened conservatism in these matters. If you want your kids to have a good model of how men and women should relate to each other--modesty, trust, mutual respect, good humor, compatible but not claustrophobically self-affirming worldviews and interests--make them watch the X-Files.

** This is the most important reason why The Wire is a great show--creative control. David Simon and Ed Burns mapped out five seasons' worth of material, filmed them, and quit. Simon has admitted that they would have liked to do a season about Baltimore's Hispanic community, which is totally missing from the show, but he didn't feel they knew enough about it and would have needed a year of on-the-street research to give it an engaging treatment. So they didn't even try. The X-Files, alternately, just kept kicking the can down the road at the behest of Fox until the whole institution petered out, in a teaching moment of artistic failure.

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