The X-Files revisited at 30: The unmade The X-Files 3 movie

The X Files logo
Share this Article:

The box office performance of the second X-Files film pretty much ended hope of The X-Files 3 – but that doesn’t mean there weren’t plans.

In the spring of 2015, fans of The X-Files were thrilled at the announcement by Fox that a new series of the classic 1990s show was being developed for the following year, reuniting David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in the roles of Mulder and Scully after an eight year absence.

Billed as an ‘event series’, one of many the networks – emboldened by streaming services reviving classic properties – developed in order to bring back beloved shows from the streaming era, including 24, Heroes, Prison Break etc…, the tenth season of The X-Files (as it became known) ended up as a six-part event, almost a proof of concept that Chris Carter’s series could still work in the modern day. Fans arrived in their droves, especially for the first couple of episodes, and though the quality ebbed and flowed, audiences tuned in enough to warrant a slightly longer, eleventh season in 2018.

Crucially, for the ‘event series’, Carter reset the board to some degree after the second movie, I Want to Believe, where Mulder and Scully were out of the FBI, the X-Files department long shut down, and only trace elements of the historic mythology obliquely referenced to satisfy a cinematic audience. In the first episode of the series, ‘My Struggle’, the middle-aged truth crusaders are dragged back into FBI service, the X-Files are reopened, the alien mythology is revived (and to some degree retconned, but that’s another story…) and even their arch nemesis the Cigarette-Smoking Man returns, despite very clearly being blown to smithereens by an actual missile in original series finale ‘The Truth’ at the end of Season 9. Business as usual.

As grateful as fans nevertheless were for a whole new series, and arguably television is where The X-Files truly belongs, it was never originally meant to happen this way. The intention was always for Mulder and Scully – by the 2000s cemented pop culture icons of the 1990s – to transition into big screen characters. Fight The Future, back in 1998, displayed how effectively Duchovny and Anderson could hold the big screen. The former had embarked on a not so successful big screen career as a leading man in the early 2000s, before returning to television for the sexy comedy Californication. The latter had seen perhaps greater critical success as an ensemble player in pictures such as Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth, Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story or Kevin MacDonald’s The Last King of Scotland, heavily leaning on her English roots as a future doyenne of the British film industry.

I Want To Believe, in 2008, was meant to be the cinematic proof of concept that The X-Files had big screen staying power. Even before it debuted in July of that year, Carter was making noises about a planned, potential third feature in the future, as he told Entertainment Weekly:

We would like to make another film. We’re not under the illusion that it’s a given; we’ve got to perform with [I Want to Believe] in order to give it another day.

The question is what a prospective third film would have entailed.

I Want To Believe does not end with Mulder and Scully in the status quo we later find them in ‘My Struggle’, returned to the FBI and agent status investigating weird Americana. It absolves Mulder of his technical fugitive status, the FBI seemingly having forgotten they were stacked with Terminator-esque alien replicants working for a colonising alien power, who actually wanted Mulder dead as part of a prophecy concerning the son he had with Scully, William, given up for adoption. Well, technically, biologically, the Smoking Man’s son. Don’t ask. To quote Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, “it’s complicated.” Carter perhaps wisely leaves all of this alone for I Want to Believe, giving Mulder and Scully a modicum of a happy conclusion, while the door remains widely open for more adventures.

It was assumed that said third big screen outing would see a bravura return to the alien mythology that dominated the series and served as the focus of Fight the Future. Carter told IGN in 2008:

There’s a date in the X-Files mythology – 2012 – that is very important. We’d certainly love to do something with that!

Carter refers here to the revelation in ‘The Truth’, provided by the Smoking Man, that the alien invasion/colonisation Mulder had long exposed over multiple seasons – a very complex and labyrinthian gambit between largely unseen aliens and a cabal of old government men concerning killer viruses, programmed bees, and deadly black substances – was going to happen on a very specific date: December 22, 2012. “The Mayans were so afraid that their calendar stopped at the exact moment our story begins” the Smoking Man tells Mulder and Scully. Apocalypse mythology in multiple cultures, particularly the Anasazi Native Americans, plays a key part in X-Files lore, and the Mayan inclusion was an extension of that.

If not quite matching the quiet hysteria of Millennium Eve, with Y2K fever and concerns we might be plunged back into a digital Stone Age, there was an anxiety about 2012 that certainly infected cinema. Roland Emmerich hit it square on with 2012, his ludicrous disaster (in more ways than one) movie, but you can feel that slight worry that maybe the Mayans were onto something in films such as Lars von Trier’s Melancholia or books like Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon sequel The Lost Symbol. In that context, it made sense for Carter (and his mythology co-pilot Frank Spotnitz) to utilise Mayan myth as the culmination of their alien machinations.

Had we been given a third X-Files movie in December 2012, therefore, what would it have looked like?

Details remain scarce, beyond it almost certainly featuring and perhaps even concluding the alien mythology storyline (such as it was ever possible to do that). Spotnitz confirmed as much to Den of Geek in 2012:

I’ve known for many years what I would like the movie to be and I’ve been talking to Chris Carter about it for many years, but there is no script … it’s the climax of the alien colonisation story that began the series.

Carter claimed to Vulture in 2013, around the point he was working with IDW Publishing and writer Joe Harris in developing a ‘Season 10’ continuation in comic form, that “even though a lot of people would like to see a third movie, I don’t think there’s a whole lot we need to elaborate on.” Yet three years later, as the ‘event series’ returned, Carter admitted to Vulture that he’d written a script, largely as as an exercise – he called it “a study, if you will” – and shown it to his wife, with a view to it potentially becoming the event series, but she advised it was not right for the small screen. Carter instead developed other ideas for the resulting revival.

The X-Files I Want To Believe

We can only infer that Carter’s script dealt with far grander, apocalyptic ideas in line with the revelations ‘The Truth’ provided, perhaps depicting the intended invasion in 2012, as governments decamp to secret underground bases, and a deadly alien virus infects the population, using them as incubators to birth extra-terrestrial biological entities. All this as a traditional invasion force of spacecraft bomb the landscape. These were all potential realities the series teased, in various ways, across the first nine seasons. However, depicting them on such a canvas, and allowing Mulder and Scully to operate in the investigative framework we know and love, would have undoubtedly been extremely difficult.

So why did it never come to pass? Why did 2012, the most vaunted future date in X-Files mythology, pass without incident?

First and foremost, the huge underperformance of I Want To Believe. Despite operating on a modest $30 million budget, less than Fight The Future even a decade later, the film very quickly sank without a trace under the weight of going up against The Dark Knight, in a summer crowded with blockbusters. It made just over $20 million domestically, though it performed better internationally, scoring close to $50 million. Whoever thought that made sense should be fired. Equally, for such a wintery, dark tale, I Want to Believe would have better fitted an autumnal release, rather than being part of the summer program.

All of these elements served to convince 20th Century Fox that The X-Files had had its day. The audience wasn’t there for the presumably more expensive third film they would need to bankroll. Carter, when asked by Empire in 2013, stated: 

It’s really up to Twentieth Century Fox, whether they have the will to do it. I think all of us are interested in putting the band back together. I have an idea for a third movie in my head. The colonisation date has passed and that is something we wouldn’t ignore. For the second movie, we only had the budget for a standalone story, but we want to go back to the mythology.

It did indeed seem throughout this time that Duchovny & Anderson were happy, indeed keen, to reprise Mulder and Scully in this fashion, both repeatedly when asked suggesting they were ready to pick up the baton again when laid down. Anderson said to Vulture in 2016: “I think we realized that we needed to wrap up the story in some way. [But] we got to a point where that was clearly not going to be possible.” This was ultimately realised in the revival seasons, though Anderson played a very different tune by the end of Season 11, which ended rather unceremoniously after some narrative choices around Scully made certain fans uncomfortable. When asked about appearing as Scully in the future, she said to Variety in 2022:

In order to even begin to have that conversation [about another season], there would need to be a whole new set of writers and the baton would need to be handed on for it to feel like it was new and progressive. So yeah, it’s very much in the past.

The chances, therefore, of a third X-Files movie, certainly with the original cast, remain slim. Rumours abound of a reboot led by Creed and Black Panther filmmaker Ryan Coogler. A strong fandom for the series remains, bringing in many new viewers as well as retaining the old. There is no doubt, however, that any movie after the revival seasons would look different from the one Carter envisaged before 2015. What he imagined might remain forever elusive, a fascinating ‘what if?’ cinematic event.

Or, perhaps, the truth about it is still out there.

Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:

Follow Film Stories on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Buy our Film Stories and Film Junior print magazines here.

Become a Patron here.

Share this Article:

More like this