Mulder And McLuhan

Why X Files Doesn't Work on the Big Screen

by Jonathan Wallace

Marshall McLuhan said that television is a cool medium and film is a hot one. For a start, he was counting pixels. Not only does the television screen show a much smaller picture, but what it delivers you it does with many fewer bits of information. McLuhan's leap of brilliance was to infer from this that the human brain has to fill in the blanks. Television communicates less, makes you do more of the work. Films present you with much more information and leave little of the work to you.

The movie might have made a decent two- or three-part episode of the show; on the huge screen at the Ziegfield, it was like a carnival funhouse with the workings exposed. Seeing David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on that screen was like running into a celebrity in a restaurant and discovering that he or she is older, smaller, less charismatic than one expected.

I came away understanding that the appeal of the X Files on television has little to do with content, and everything to do with presentation. "The medium is the message," said McLuhan. Most of the time, the details, when the show deigns to give you any, are ludicrous or trite; the show makes no bones about recycling every successful science fiction or horror idea, every urban legend, every bit of modern folklore, from alien abductions to Bigfoot to the Loch Ness monster and beyond. But the information is delivered in suggestive, ambiguous dialog, in the shadows of the small screen. Much of the time you cannot see clearly what is going on; the image of the agents waving their flashlights has become the prevailing signifier, like the light slanting through the venetian blinds in a '40's noir. In apologizing for the show's worst episode ever, the famed "Flukeman", Chris Carter offered a very revealing explanation: what went wrong was that the monster was too well lit. You could see too much of him. He was just one of the show's writers, in a rubber suit.

In the movie, all the ambiguity and suggestiveness washed away in the glare of the huge screen. The director, Rob Bowman, who directed many episodes of the show, never succeeds in filling it; he must have been overwhelmed by the task. He presents us with deserts, Antarctic ice, city streets, cornfields, and a trite underground facility, of the type we have seen in scores of thrillers from James Bond through the Alien series. When X Files reaches for detail, it can only borrow: every scene was a pointer to a better movie, Ice Man, The Thing, The Quest for Fire, Aliens, even North by Northwest.

Like the vampires portrayed on several of its less notable episodes, X Files cannot survive in the light.