Shrewd cross-promo breeds ‘X’-ecrable paranoia

THE MOST INTERESTING ASPECT of “The X-Files” movie is that it isn’t a movie. Chris Carter, renowned as the most arrogant writer-producer in television, has lived up to his reputation by blowing up a TV episode and calling it a movie — one that only his cult-like TV following could either understand or appreciate. If his curious exercise succeeds, the mind boggles where it will lead. Next summer our multiplexes will be showing expanded episodes of “Touched by an Angel,” “Xena” and “Dawson’s Creek.” Maybe Jerry Springer will become a movie star after all.

In view of the fact that “X-Files” apparently was designed specifically for its TV audience — a strange stratagem considering its $65 million budget and $25 million marketing tab — I have asked Jenny Hontz, Variety’s assiduous TV writer, to share this column with me so that, together, we might present a balanced view.

HONTZ: While viewers who have never seen “The X-Files” TV show will probably be a bit confused by the movie, fans of the series will love it. It’s a chance to see two of their favorite characters, Mulder and Scully, on the bigscreen, like one super-sized episode with more action and better effects.

Because the film is dropped in the middle of a continuing storyline linking last season’s finale and this fall’s opener, it doesn’t stand alone like most films. The result is similar to that of the second “Star Wars” movie, where Han Solo is frozen and you have to watch the sequel to find out what happens. Fox is hoping this cliffhanger will force “X-Files” novices to tune into the series, but it could backfire by frustrating some moviegoers.

BART: Well, it backfired as far as I’m concerned. The very elements that allegedly lend the TV show its noirish character don’t work on the bigscreen — the flat dialogue, the TV-style closeups, the incessant clangorous music. And, most of all, the cast. I realize that “X-Files” fans accept the fact that Scully and Mulder, the two leads, never change either their facial expressions or their tone of voice, but on the big-screen they tend to disappear altogether. It’s little wonder that Janet Maslin, the New York Times’ meticulous film critic, starts referring to Gillian Anderson, who plays Scully, as “Ms. Armstrong.”

HONTZ: At the center of the film is the platonic love between Mulder and Scully that stems from sharing intense experiences that no one else believes or understands. The chemistry is palpable, but, as usual, you leave wanting more than you get.

That’s the case in many aspects of the film, and it’s a deliberate attempt to keep us coming back. The aliens in the film, for instance, are never completely visible, which is in keeping with creator Chris Carter’s view that showing too much isn’t as terrifying.

The film answers many of the puzzling questions posed by the series, but it raises new ones, too. And while much is revealed, “X-Philes” know that the show always has a way of taking things you thought you knew and turning them completely upside down a week later. If you want all the answers, you’ll go nuts. But if you sit back and enjoy the ride, you won’t be disappointed.

BART: Well, I was disappointed. Also perplexed. I realize that “X-Files” is designed to appease conspiracy theorists and government-haters. What other show would depict, as its ultimate heavy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency — those “dangerous” folk who turn up in times of disaster? With his customary modesty, Chris Carter declares, “The show’s original spirit has become kind of the spirit of the country, if not the world.” Sure. What this really means is that the show fosters paranoia by sowing confu-sion. It weaves a plot that is essentially unintelligible and therefore encourages unintelligible analysis. Charles McGrath, editor of the New York Times Book Review, no less, concluded his essay on “X-Files” last week with the following pithy analysis: “The ‘X-Files’ has taught us that it’s more entertaining, and probably more epistemologically sound, to believe in everything and in nothing at all.”

I knew I could count on The Times to clear things up.

HONTZ: The thing to remember is the movie carries little risk for Fox because the “X-Files” has 20 mil-lion fans who tune in to the show each week. Even if half of those viewers see the film, Fox will likely re-coup its investment.

Some people are, no doubt, questioning whether viewers will pay to see something they can get for free each week. But “The X-Files” has a cult following, and its fans are extremely devoted. Much like “Star Trek,” fans often pay $25 to attend “X-Files” conventions, so $8 bucks and some popcorn won’t be much of a deterrent.

For TV executives at Fox, the film provides the kind of free publicity they could never afford. While Fox lost some ad dollars by trimming the number of episodes produced last season to accommodate the film’s production schedule, exposure from the movie could give it a real shot in the arm going into its sixth season.

The film remained completely true to the series, which is necessary because the show is still on the air and will pick up where the movie left off. The film had the trademark sardonic humor of the series, combined with a dark look and eerie tension that taps into apocalyptic paranoia surrounding the end of the millennium.

BART: I’ll take your word for it, Jenny, but frankly I’m more inclined to subscribe to Joe Morgenstern’s observation in the Wall Street Journal. He writes: “The most intriguing conspiracy here is the one cooked up by 20th Century Fox and Fox TV.”

It’s all about hyping a TV series. Nothing wrong with that, but why pretend you’re making a movie as part of the exercise?

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