The X-Files: Triangle
An episode written and directed by series creator Chris Carter. Rated TV-PG. Contains some brutal violence and mild profanity.
By Matt Zoller Seitz, Star-Ledger Staff
It's never advisable for a critic to skip evidence and argument, and ask his readers to just take him at his word and watch something.
Yet here I am doing exactly that.
Why am I making this exception?
Because tonight's episode of "The X-Files", tantalizingly titled "Triangle", demands it. It's easily the strangest, silliest, riskiest hour of series TV you've seen all year, placing FBI agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) on a British luxury liner that disappeared in 1939 in the Bermuda Triangle. Does the presence of 1939 crew members, passengers and hijacking Nazis mean the ship has come through a time tunnel into the present day? Or does it mean that Mulder has somehow been transported into the past, mere moments before the liner disappeared?
What makes this episode so memorable isn't the story itself, but how it's told. "Triangle" is definitely a stunt, but it's a brilliant and mesmerizing stunt. It is also emotionally engaging, bestowing on Mulder and partner Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) -- and numerous friends and foes -- a mythic resonance we always knew they possessed.
Yet to discuss even the most marginal details in "triangle" might diminish your enjoyment. So put this review aside, come back later and decide if I'm wright or wrong.
You can quit reading now.
All right. You've been warned.
First up: structure and style. "Triangle" is a self-contained, stand-alone episode that has nothing to do with the show's ongoing, increasingly convoluted "mythology". It consists of four acts separated by commercials, just like every other drama on the air. But this particular episode takes place more or less in real time -- i.e., a minute of the show equals a minute on your watch.
Pretty cocky. But writer-director Chris Carter's audacity doesn't stop there. The "X-Files" creator, who last flexed his film-making muscles on "A Post-Modern Prometheus", an Emmy-winning homage to "Frankenstein", lets each act unfold in what appears to be a single unbroken take, without cuts.
Carter does this by using a device called a Steadicam, a gyroscopically stabilized camera bolted to a body harness and literally worn by a camera person. The Steadicam is like a glorified handheld camera; the images it produces are very smooth, and it can go anywhere an actor can go. Carter puts a short lens on the camera, which exaggerates perspective lines and gives the images a palpable sense of depth. You feel as though you can see from one end of the ocean liner to the other -- no small feat considering how visually dark this episode is, even darker than the "X-Files" norm.
The idea of telling an "X-Files" story this way is kind of nuts, when you think about it. Carter made his job much, much harder than it had to be. He's driving around the block backwards at 70 miles an hour to get to the house next door. You have to rehearse the actors with fanatical dedication, then encourage them to keep a scene going as long as they possibly can, knowing that even a small mistake late in a shot can ruin the seven or eight minutes that came before.
Like Steadicam-addicted filmmakers Brian DePalma ("Snake Eyes") and Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights"), Carter cheats a little bit, and you can tell; when a camera whips around a 90-degree corner, temporarily blurring the screen, or when characters move through a patch of total darkness, you know the cast and crew probably took a moment to rest and regroup.
But that's all right; the goal here isn't to give viewers an actual real-time experience, but a reasonable facsimile. And on that score, Carter succeeds. There has never been an hour of TV that looks or moves like "Triangle". when Mulder rushes down hallways on board the ocean liner in Acts I, III and IV, or when Scully scampers around corridors back at FBI headquarters in Act II, the effect is thrilling and also a little eerie. This is how nightmares sometimes look; it's nearly always how they feel. The events are simultaneously clear and indistinct, unpredictable and inevitable. it's all happening at once -- happening to *you* -- and you can't stop it. (At times, "Triangle" also reminded me of certain 3-D video games, like "Doom" and "Quake", and especially "Castle Wolfenstein", with its gloomy corridors and nightmarish cartoon Nazis.)
The greatest minute of TV this year is the scene where Mulder runs down a hallway of the ocean liner with the 1939 Scully in tow while in 1998, the real Scully walks down the same hallway looking for Mulder. Thanks to the wonders of split-screen -- i.e., two square images placed side-by-side -- Mulder and the 1939 Scully turn a corner at the same time that our Scully turns it. The two parties seem to pass each other. Bud did they?
Turns out they passed through each other, or perhaps they merely occupied the same space in different decades. We are fooled and dazzled. In a single stunning image, Carter collapses time, space and identity -- and makes a funny joke, too. It's the shot of the year.
There's more going on here than mere technical facility. In putting Mulder inside a 1939 storyline -- then having him meet up with people who look exactly like Scully, Deputy Assistant FBI Director Skinner, the Cigarette-Smoking Man and other "X-Files" regulars -- this episode confirms what fans of the show already knew. These characters are bigger than television. They have pop-mythic heft. They're not just heroes and villains: they're Heroes and Villains. They're bigger, more complicated and more alluring than other people we know -- on TV and in life.
There's a wonderful scene where Mulder and the circa-1939 Scully are dragged before a ballroom full of Nazis and hostages and ordered to reveal the identity of a nuclear scientist, or else. Duchovny and Anderson always looked more like 1940s movie characters than 1990s TV actors; this connection is made explicit in the medium shot of the two of them together, surrounded by glowering Nazis and terrified bystanders -- Anderson in a lovely period dress and Duchovny in tattered, soiled, 1990s street clothes. Both characters are silent, scared, defiant, noble. They look like Harrison Ford and Karen Allen lashed to the stake at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark". They're soulmates, too tough to give up and too smart to die. The sight is so beautiful it stirs the heart.
There is also a scene where Mulder and the 1939 Scully kiss. The clinch takes the kiss tease in last summer's movie "Fight the Future" one step further -- and one step back. The audience gets what it craves, but not exactly.
What makes the scene work is its sly self-awareness -- and its realization that ultimately, it doesn't matter if Mulder and Scully ever truly kiss. What they have goes deeper than physical affection. Their relationship isn't brother and sister, exactly, or husband and wife. It has elements of both, and goes beyond both. They are true soulmates. Their bond, "Triangle" suggests, transcends not just physical space, but also time and destiny. Carter implies that in another era with different names, Scully and Mulder would still be Scully and Mulder -- brave, beautiful and good.