With 20 million regular viewers, another 10 million watching the syndicated reruns and countless hordes logging on to those spiraling Web sites, television's "The X-Files" has neatly divided the country into Us and Them--kind of the way Wisconsin's own resident alien, Joseph McCarthy, once did. "Us" believes (if only for the purpose of being entertained) in intergalactic conspiracies involving alien abduction, oil-black blood and killer bees. "Them"--and I might as well confess right now that I'm a "them"--believes there must be something better to do on Sunday night. I've seen maybe five episodes of "The X-Files" over its five-year run, which is kind of like reading every hundredth page of a Thomas Pynchon novel: You feel like you're seeing only a few brushstrokes of a vast, interwoven canvas. Or not. I have a conspiracy theory about conspiracy theories--that they're devised by Big Media to take our minds off...Big Media. Not that "The X-Files" isn't picking up on something that's "out there," be it "the truth" or otherwise. With the end of the millennium breathing down our necks, we seem to be drifting into an apocalyptic mindset where anything's possible, if not exactly provable. "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." That's the rallying cry of those who, like Fox Mulder, want to believe. According to surveys, nearly half of us believe that at least some UFOs are visitors from outer space. If they're right about that, it's amazing; if they're wrong, it's still amazing. For how could so many people believe such a thing? And if they believe that, what won't they believe? "I'd be flattered if I could create a lot of paranoia," Chris Carter, the producer of "The X-Files," once said. Surely he's flattered by now, because his show has done more to create paranoia in this country than Oliver Stone combined. Of course, "The X-Files" is both a cause and an effect of the sense of dread that has spread over the land, like fog. It's a repository for every cracked-nut theory since Lee Harvey Oswald either did or didn't act alone. And Carter has nurtured those theories like they were eggs left behind by aliens. Just about every unexplained phenomenon of the last half-century has been dropped into his Pandora's box and then flung across our television screens. The effect is like watching "Unsolved Mysteries" on the History Channel: We don't really believe this stuff, but we don't not believe it, either. I tried to keep an open mind while watching The X-Files: Fight the Future, Carter's attempt to expand his franchise to the big screen. I suppose he's succeeded, although I'd describe the movie as an above-average episode of an above-average TV show. Carter (who wrote the script) and director Rob Bowman must know they've sacrificed one of the TV show's prime virtues--the fact that it looks almost as good as a film. Even so, the movie seems less moody than the show, if only because it doesn't have TV's surrounding cheeriness to draw a contrast with. Combining horror and ennui, Carter has cultivated a new tone for television--Gothic noir. But the movie keeps wandering into Spielberg territory (Spielberg Lite and Spielberg Dark). I wasn't really bored, but I wasn't really interested either. The movie opens with a homage to 2001. It's 35,000 B.C. in what will someday be north Texas but now resembles Antarctica, and a couple of prehistoric gentlemen have just discovered the world's first UFO buried in the ice. They may or may not live to tell about it. (I was a little confused by the editing.) Then, we flash-forward to the present, where the exact same spot lies only a hundred yards or so from a clutch of Spielbergian ranch houses. A young boy who could easily have starred in E.T. is exploring what appears to be a cave. Suddenly, Texas tea starts forming a puddle at his feet. Then leeches start crawling up inside his skin. Then a filmy liquid turns his eyes black. Within hours, the kid's body has been removed, mysterious trucks have moved in, and the "The X-Files" jingle has begun to jangle our nerves. Meanwhile, in nearby Dallas, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson)--the Hansel and Gretel of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence--are investigating a bomb threat at a federal building. With one of those intuitive leaps he's famous for, Fox discovers that the bomb is actually planted in the building next to the federal building. Scully resists the idea at first. (She always resists the idea at first.) But, sure enough, the building blows up, leaving a portion that's uncomfortably reminiscent of a certain building fragment in Oklahoma City. And there seems to be a connection (there's always a connection) between the bombed building and that little kid. More important is the connection between Dallas and Oklahoma City--the alpha and omega of contemporary American paranoia. Not having kept up with the show, I expected my reaction to the movie to be something between a "huh" and a "duh," but it was surprisingly easy to follow what was going on. And the whole thing now seems strangely innocent. Despite its pessimistic tone, the show is fueled by the optimistic hope that Mulder and Scully will eventually get to the bottom of this. It dangles before our eyes the possibility of a Grand Unified Theory--a prolegomenon that will make sense out of both the last 50 years of U.S. history and the last five years of..."The X-Files." I mean, once and for all, did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone or not? The movie doesn't answer that question, but it sure seems to answer all the other ones that matter before eluding closure in the last scene. I'm trying to give away as little as possible, since the release of previously classified information is about all the movie has going for it--that and the most sublimated sexual relationship in the history of television. I've never been able to get behind Duchovny and Anderson. He's too much like a young Efrem Zimbalist Jr., she wears her role like it was a straitjacket. The movie avoids slipping into self-parody by allowing Duchovny/Mulder to poke fun at his unemotional personality. But then it slips into self-parody after all by fingering the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a major player in an all-encompassing, alien-assisted plan to take over the world. A hilariously ridiculous idea. Or is it?
Joe McCarthy must be spinning (conspiracy theories) in his grave.