Skip to main content

If you don’t hear from me by midnight, feed my fish.

The X-Files
5.18: The Pine Bluff Variant

I had a hankering to revisit this one because I remembered it as a first-rate “What-If?” What if The X-Files eschewed the supernatural/aliens/sci-fi and was instead a straight FBI drama show? Because The Pine Bluff Variant is played pretty much on that level, courtesy of series supremo director Rob Bowman. I’d pretty much forgotten anything else about it besides Mulder going undercover and mustering palpable tension as a result. There is, inevitably, a science-fiction element, courtesy of a flesh-eating biotoxin, but its presence is almost an apologia to anyone affronted by the otherwise lack of weirdness.

Of course, we know or should by now that the entire field of contagion is rife with lies and obfuscation, not least whatever it is our governments get up to in their biowarfare labs if they’re unable to fashion deadly viruses they have no intention of unleashing on the world. In the defence of The Pine Bluff Variant, its extravagant bio-agent isn’t in the realm of high-fantasy airborne viruses mutating and infecting anyone and everyone they come across, animal, vegetable or mineral. Rather, this one is transferred through contact. You know, in much the same way that every Ebola outbreak has purportedly and mysteriously occurred with ten miles of a US military base.

Mulder, naturally, is equally suspicious of anyone whiffing the lie of the US swearing off dark and deadly activities in that field. It’s amusing to recall how the show’s writers – in this case John Shiban, frequent collaborator with Vince Gilligan, and remains so currently with Better Call Saul – would encumber themselves with “factual” chapter and verse, in compare-and-contrast to the week’s uncanny events. Thus, we’re customarily reminded of the official line/status quo prior to Mulder and Scully uncovering much murkier truths beneath.

In this case, it’s Skinner, reminding us “The United States has no bioweapons, Agent Scully. President Nixon dismantled our programme in 1969”. Naturally, the episode reveals otherwise, and that the case has been a rather convoluted, covert bioweapons test via a homegrown terrorist group (the New Spartans). Actually, this part, the infiltration and manipulation of groups, has been documented as part and parcel of routine FBI procedure. Indeed, the vast majority of their “success” stories are ones where they have manipulated or even laid the seeds for the group’s insurgent activities (ask Chris Morris).

The problem here is that there’s never quite enough sense of whys, wherefores and objectives to underpin the drama. I mean, it is enough that Mulder is up against it, because this sustains the premise effectively throughout. From Scully’s suspicion of what he is up to, to the monster-mask heist sequence – effectively homaging Point Break on a budget, and showing why Bowman deserved graduation to features, even if it was short lived. But The Pine Bluff Variant could have been even better had this been more coherently mapped out. Indeed, I’d much rather have seen this story as a feature-length version than Fight the Future (1998), even if that would have been giving fans exactly what they didn’t want (so rather like I Want to Believe (2008) in that sense). Shiban was reportedly inspired by John Le Carré and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but you can see the Heat references much more clearly. The title, meanwhile, both references an Arkansas military installation housing chemical weapons and riffs on 70s conspiracy thrillers (The Parallax View et al), although the paranoia is closer to Sidney Lumet (and then there’s Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) mysteriously showing at a cinema three years late, except that one also involves terrorists robbing banks).

As for the infective agent, lacing bank notes with a toxin certainly sounds like an effective method of killing people (the question lingers, if Scully hadn’t shut the bank down, would the spooks have let it get out there, and one has to assume so. After all, even if it is, by its nature, contained and non-contagious, those spreading it aren’t going to know what annoying places traces might end up). Cinemas – now an endangered species – are identified as prime places for experimental slaughter, following on from Outbreak (1995). In terms of real-world counterparts, firearms would be more popular, but scenarios such as this set the mood for their being potentially deadly ground.

Shiban drops in lots of buzz references – “highly toxic biological agent”; “hot zones”; “it would seem to be genetically engineered. A bioweapon”; “especially virulent bacterium”; “genetically engineered strep” with a “synthetic protective layer” – leading us further down the inventive path of invasive viruses. Given the dubiousness of such alleged endeavours, one might suggest Shiban is closer than he knows when he has Skinner quote the official verdict that the United States has no bioweapons. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have many and varied means of poisoning the populace it if so wishes. So it’s a good thing “Our government is not in the business of killing innocent civilians”.

Sure, Scully shouldn’t be doubting Mulder for a second, and Bowman’s unable to sustain Fox failing to shoot guy in the bank for as long as the scene requires (particularly with the cop out of “That weapon’s traceable”). As usual, Mulder wants to get the truth out to the people, and as usual, he is rebuked (“Well sometimes our job is to protect those people from knowing it”). Season Five, for all its failings – for a while there, until Season Six gave the show a shot in the arm, I thought it had passed its sell by date – puts the emphasis on how much Mulder doesn’t know, even within his wisdom of how much he doesn’t know.

There’s some good casting here. Daniel von Bargen (George’s boss Kruger in Seinfeld at about the same time) is strong as New Spartans leader Haley, while Sam Anderson gives great duplicity as US Attorney Leamus (he would later appear as a regular on Angel, Lost and Justified). On a shrewd character basis too, I particularly like that Mulder’s outspokenness has aligned him with the interests of a terrorist cell – as they see it (“He spoke at a UFO conference in Boston, where he apparently broadcast his feelings about the government and their conspiracies against the American people”).

Much of the time, the aliens are the insulation against The X-Files being a show in which the protagonists are essentially upholding the system’s values; The Pine Bluff Variant chips away at that (although, as Rob Shearman notes, this also makes it something of a precursor to the push-pull of 24, cautiously criticising a system through promoting its underlying values: we need a terrorist task force, because look-see. We need an FBI, because…. Etc.)






Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.