Skip to main content

Remarkably, I did nothing. And, remarkably, it worked.

The X-Files
10.5: Babylon

I run hot and cold on Chris Carter’s quirky contributions to the series. I always get the sense he’s looking to his peers, who do this kind of think more deftly, wittily and are just plain smarter, and assumes he can have some of that pie. Far from proving his all-round auteurship, invariably he instead ends up covered in runny egg. As such, I’m not a huge fan of regularly cited faves like Triangle and Post-Modern Prometheus, although I love Improbable, a highlight of the show’s final season. Babylon is somewhere in between, mostly flying when bringing forward the humorous side but failing to stick the landing with regard to the overbearing political commentary and philosophical inquiry.


Although, one has to admire Carter’s flagrancy in deeming such delicate ground as jihadism and endemic institutional racism suitable for a frequently whacky episode in which Mulder and Scully meet their youthful next gen doppelgangers and Mulder trips his nuts off. In truth, this is closer to the mess of the duo of above cited episodes I don’t care too much for than one Carter has clearly and carefully mapped out, but it’s nevertheless only the second time this season (the first being another whacky episode) that I’ve not felt I’m watching a show going through the motions of approximating what it once was, one lacking the all-important enthusiasm for that thing.


I’m not sure how much enthusiasm Carter had for his terrorism plotline as opposed to the trite moralising that seeks to justify it (of which, as torturous as such scenes are, I can’t help but feel a tad nostalgic when Mulder assumes the surrogate posture of pretentious windbag). After all, while it might be presented under the banner of peace, love and acceptance, he has still furnished us with an episode where rednecks are shown abusing a young man we assume is an innocent Muslim (“Are we in the wrong country now?”) but who turns out to be a bomber on the verge of a change of heart, and which ends with the FBI apprehending a terrorist cell accompanied by Twin Towers news footage proclaiming it would have been the biggest incident since 9/11. There isn’t anything particularly challenging in its basic tenet that couldn’t have featured in more digestible, bite-sized chunks on an episode of that other Fox series with terrorist fascinations, 24. Accordingly, the appearance of the devoted and blameless mother is strictly adherent to all clichés in motion.


But, while Carter turns his examination of religious belief in (the law of) God into a typically verbose meal – like this sentence –  beginning and ending with Mulder discussing/hearing heavenly trumpets playing (so referencing the Book of Revelation (8:2), the sort of thing that was already overdone way back on Millennium) and taking in repeated displays of intolerance and bigotry on its way to that extended discussion between our leads, where they fail to reconcile unconditional love with hate that has no end, his placebo analogy is actually a rather, well, not clever exactly, but fitting one. If only he’d wrapped things up in 30 seconds rather than three or four minutes, then the pay off of Mulder’s triptastic experience with the “message” would have seemed much more inspired. Carter isn’t familiar with subtext though, so Mulder has to spell it out (“These guys, just swallow the pill, that’s the power of suggestion”), and once the writer-director-producer opens the floodgates of rambling, monotonous, pseudo-philosophical verbal diarrhoea, there’s no stopping him.



Carter also, while he has a clear idea of where he wants to send Mulder (it must have been all those Californication box sets that inspired him) rather forgets about Scully. As is common with Carter “funny” scripts, he doesn’t feel much compulsion to ground motivations, so Agents Einstein (Lauren Ambrose) and Miller (Robbie Ammell) arrive in the X-basement with the notion, well Miller’s notion, that there may be a way to non-corporeally contact the comatose terrorist suspect, who may then be willing and able to tell them where his co-terrorists will strike next (this is the slenderest, most tenuous of threads, even by X-Files standards). 


Mulder and Scully are then split up, working with Einstein and Muller respectively, proposing their own separate potential solutions to the problem. Lip service is at least paid to why Mulder and Scully wouldn’t work together, but Scully’s plans for communicating via electro-encephalogram (it worked for Patient 23; of course it did, he’s Patient 23) never gets off the ground thanks to a parade of aggressors intent on bringing harm to the recuperating detainee. What this effectively means is that it’s Mulder’s show.


If Carter wasn’t giving Scully that, he could at least have broadened the activities of the vengeance-filled government employees and turning their murderous intent into whacky hijinks, so providing a degree of balance. I waited for the nurse to go full-on demented De Palma but she remained straightforwardly bigoted. 


It doesn’t help the Scully side of the story that Ammell’s Miller is the embodiment of a square-jawed, forgettable lead, while Ambrose is highly personable and memorable (I note that, in flip to Duchovny and Anderson, she’s about a decade older than him). That they’re both back for My Struggle II may be unfortunate, as Mulder and Scully meeting and being impressed by their younger like-minds is a good one-off conceit but probably has limited shelf life (and let’s not even go there with potential baton-passing).


Mulder: I was under the influence of something powerful.
Einstein: Yes, the power of suggestion.

Carter delivers a series of solid funny lines, even if his more serious ones are buried under the weight of their own self-importance. “He seemed like a bright young man” quips Mulder of Miller, while Scully offers “I believe that you believe” of Miller’s credulousness. “Remarkably, I did nothing. And remarkably, it worked”, Agent Einstein offers Miller of how she extracted vital information from the patient.


Duchonvy’s interaction with Ambrose is a lot of fun (which bodes well, if Anderson has limited availability for any future excursions, as she has intimated may be the case, what with her living in Blighty and all), from his unsuccessful attempts to blind her with pseudo-science (“But first, can we talk about the nature of reality as you perceive it?”), with a winningly absurd theory that, if thoughts have a mass then ergo by taking magic mushrooms he will be able to establish a communicative link with the comatose terrorist, Einstein on hand to administer the illicit schedule 1 substance. All this, and Madame Helena Blavatsky too.


I’d wondered at the artistic licence by which Mulder came up on his ‘shrooms so quicky, so the revelation that he’d only dosed himself with niacin was surprisingly appropriate. As these things go. The experience has its highs (Tom Waits) and lows (Miley’s Achy Breaky Dad) as Fox gets to party with The Dead Gunmen (he should have taken the opportunity to ask what was going on with that premonitory Twin Towers episode) and Skinner, line dance, wear MUSH and ROOM knuckle rings, and encounter a fetish wear Einstein (“You were fifty shades of bad”).


Then it gets serious as Mulder shows his man-paunch on a Charon-esque boat ride while Carter pulls out all the stops for provocative imagery (the young terrorist, in a dying Christ pose, nursed by his mother). Really, the trip sequence alone put the episode ahead of most of this run, as luckily it’s the kind of visual excess Carter can handle quite well (I still get nauseous thinking about his one-take Branagh-on-steroids swirling camera in Triangle) so, along with the preceding playfulness, Babylon safely takes the silver for this season (so far).


Mulder asks “How did that work?” of the placebo, and the same might be said of the episode. It’s certainly a polarising one, with many voices coming forward to deny it. Sure, it’s a bit of a wash if you’re looking to take away anything profound from its topical sweep. But then, that goes back to a sentiment I voiced last week. Einstein asks Miller, “You think anyone takes The X-Files seriously?” And the answer is, “Not since about 1998, no”. Babylon seems to confirm this. So it looks like funny is the only way to go.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.