Skip to main content

The NSA? Since when did they start issuing you guys piano wire instead of guns?

The X-Files
3.10: 731

Even he wasn’t consciously aping it, Frank Spotnitz was evidently inspired by just how well the previous season’s close-quarters encounter between Mulder and Duane Barry worked, and decided he’d have some of that. Hence Mulder trapped in a train car, ticking down to its detonation, with a man who just tried to kill him. It helps that Stephen McHattie, despite being cast as a standard heavy/assassin, is a terrific actor, as it ensures the stakes here feel very genuine.

X: There are limits to my knowledge.
Scully: I don't have time for your convenient ignorance.

Scully’s very much on the reactive front, being fed what she wants to hear – that there are no aliens – by Don S Williams’ First Elder. And forwarding that on to Mulder is inevitably going to create some tension between them. In theory, her credulity of the enemy, telling her the disfigured individuals who have been shot dead, toppling into mass graves – quite strong stuff, even for the show’s permissive tastes – were subjected to various terrible diseases and radiation tests, and that the fellow aboard Mulder’s train has haemorrhagic fever (oh, that). That this is mixed and muddled with a leper colony – Hansen’s Disease – adds to the overriding confusion (Colin Cunningham’s victim Escalante, brought on as an exposition vehicle, is perhaps the episode sounding a rare clumsy note).

Mulder: You know what I think? I think you're a liar. I don't think you work for the NSA, and I don't think there's a bomb on this train.

Quite apart from these lies, we have Mulder’s conjecture regarding the purpose of the experiments. There’s no particular reason to believe the Red-Haired Man is telling the truth, particular since there’s so much scientific fraud with regard to his picks (star wars, the atomic bomb, the most advanced biological weapons). Quite what kind of immunity a hybrid is supposed to have to star-wars tech, I don’t know, and one wonders how such goals fit in with hybrid immunity to disease/radiation generally. Even if he’s telling the gospel truth, the prevailing quagmire of disinformation is precisely what will eventually lead to Season Five Mulder becoming convinced it’s all a big sham. In my view, this is also where the series is at its most germane to the real world’s “ET” game, when it’s admitting that everything you hear is a deception (which in turn leads to the conspicuous hole in the show’s exploration of its theme: John Keel’s ultraterrestrials).

Scully: What I am saying, Mulder, is that there is no such thing as alien abduction.

Nevertheless, Scully’s thick-headedness in 731 does otherwise take the biscuit, particularly since she needs coaxing by X to go investigate what anyone with the FBI’s resources/contacts should have done the first instant they retrieved the chip: get it investigated. That it offers some particularly transhumanist capacities (if it can collect information – “know a person’s every thought” – one might logically infer it may also be able to interfere with, augment or direct thought. These scenes also see the first appearance of Agent Pendrell (Brendan Beiser) and his klutziness around Scully: “Keep it up yourself”).

Mulder: I know what I saw on that train car. It wasn't a leper and it wasn't human.

The best of the episode, however, concerns Mulder first doing his own Narrow Margin on the train, pressing Muchael Puttonen’s Conductor into service, and then having some one-on-one time with the Red-Haired Man. Rob Bowman really knocks 731 one out of the park with the rising tension and paranoia, as Mulder has to sift through his captive’s lies and half-truths. In contrast to Duane Barry’s sympathetic understanding, there’s no meeting of minds here, but the material crackles for different reasons. And it’s a neat touch that the Red-Haired Man is simply biding his time, pretending to be supplicant until he can get out of his prison.

Mulder: Scully, let me tell you, you haven't seen America till you've seen it from a train.

X’s crowning moment comes here too, of course. He intervenes decisively, blowing the not-NSA man (Malcolm Gerlach according to the DVD collection) away and carrying Mulder to safety before the train car explodes; Mulder was under the assumption that, this being an alien-human hybrid, the Syndicate would want it back (whereas Scully’s assumption was that, it being a plague carrier, they would not); the Red-Haired Man says as much. So in closing at least, it would seem the argument shakes out on Scully’s side, that Mulder is indeed chasing aliens that aren’t there (like every UFOlogist). Of course, the explanation could simply be that this particular alien-human hybrid is not that special, that it is not alone, and thus that it did not need saving.

Mulder: I, I don't need an apology for the lies. I, I don't care about the fictions they create to cover their crimes. I want them accountable for what did happen. I want an apology for the truth.

It’s indicative of where the show’s strengths really lay that, despite all the action theatrics and gruesome prosthetics, the real meat of 731 consists of two people having a battle of wits. A conversation. And not one of didactic exposition (one of the show’s fatal weaknesses). As much as we know Mulder has to be right, as much as we know the makers need to keep the aliens bubbling under, the show wisely preserves the shadowy realm that results from being shut out of the inner sanctum (when it does invite us into the machinations of the Syndicate, it is invariably underwhelming). 731 is the conspiracy arc at its very best.


Popular posts from this blog

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one.

Scanners (1981) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners , and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider audience. And it remains a good movie, even as it suffers from an unprepossessing lead and rather fumbles the last furlong, cutting to the chase when a more measured, considered approach would have paid dividends.

You seem particularly triggered right now. Can you tell me what happened?

Trailers The Matrix Resurrections   The Matrix A woke n ? If nothing else, the arrival of The Matrix Resurrections trailer has yielded much retrospective back and forth on the extent to which the original trilogy shat the bed. That probably isn’t its most significant legacy, of course, in terms of a series that has informed, subconsciously or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise, much of the way in which twenty-first century conspiracy theory has been framed and discussed. It is however, uncontested that a first movie that was officially the “best thing ever”, that aesthetically and stylistically reinvigorated mainstream blockbuster cinema in a manner unseen again until Fury Road , squandered all that good will with astonishing speed by the time 2003 was over.

We’re looking into a possible pattern of nationwide anti-Catholic hate crimes.

Vampires aka John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter limps less-than-boldly onward, his desiccated cadaver no longer attentive to the filmic basics of quality, taste, discernment, rhyme or reason. Apparently, he made his pre-penultimate picture to see if his enthusiasm for the process truly had drained away, and he only went and discovered he really enjoyed himself. It doesn’t show. Vampires is as flat, lifeless, shoddily shot, framed and edited as the majority of his ’90s output, only with a repellent veneer of macho bombast spread on top to boot.

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

Maybe I’m a heel who hates guys who hate heels.

Crimewave (1985) (SPOILERS) A movie’s makers’ disowning it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing of worth therein, just that they don’t find anything of worth in it. Or the whole process of making it too painful to contemplate. Sam Raimi’s had a few of those, experiencing traumas with Darkman a few years after Crimewave . But I, blissfully unaware of such issues, was bowled over by it when I caught it a few years after its release (I’d hazard it was BBC2’s American Wave 2 season in 1988). This was my first Sam Raimi movie, and I was instantly a fan of whoever it was managed to translate the energy and visual acumen of a cartoon to the realm of live action. The picture is not without its problems – and at least some of them directly correspond to why it’s so rueful for Raimi – but that initial flair I recognised still lifts it.

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

You cut my head off a couple of dozen times.

Boss Level (2021) (SPOILERS) Lest you thought it was nigh-on impossible to go wrong with a Groundhog Day premise, Joe Carnahan, in his swaggering yen for overkill, very nearly pulls it off with Boss Level . I’m unsure quite what became of Carnahan’s early potential, but he seems to have settled on a sub-Tarantino, sub-Bay, sub-Snyder, sub-Ritchie butch bros aesthetic, complete with a tin ear for dialogue and an approach to plotting that finds him continually distracting himself, under the illusion it’s never possible to have too much. Of whatever it is he’s indulging at that moment.

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.