The X-Files: “Arcadia”

Dump Thing
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 1999 by Sarah Stegall
Review of “Arcadia”
Writer: Daniel Arkin
Director: Michael Watkins
“The thrill is gone.” — Fox Mulder
Faced with the toughest housing crunch and highest real estate prices in the nation, Californians will do almost anything for a nice house in a decent neighborhood with clean streets. Even, perhaps, sell their souls for it. If you’ve recently priced single-family detached homes in San Diego, Los Angeles, or Palo Alto, the devil looks like a below-market lender without the points and fees. Sticker shock has driven more would-be Californians back to North Carolina and Texas than earthquakes and El Niño combined. So when the Kleins, residents of an upscale, gated community in San Diego, mysteriously disappear after violating the strict rules of the joint owner’s association, the neighbors turn a blind eye, ignore the screams in the middle of the night and cover their fear with bluster and denial, lest they be forced into the greater nightmare of house-hunting in California again. Everything is fine, they chant to themselves. Nice and neat and orderly, but by God get your pink flamingo off the lawn or you’ll be dead before morning.
Mulder and Scully go undercover as a yuppoid couple moving into this Stepford village. Faced at every turn by painted-on smiles and relentless cheerfulness, they look for the Kleins by moving into their immaculately tidied house. Their neighbors at ‘The Falls at Arcadia’ immediately show up to move “Rob and Laura Petrie” into their new house, in a barely controlled panic that the move-in might not be completed by the deadline of 6:00 PM. Inquiries about the missing Kleins are met with blank stares or nervous smiles. One neighbor, Big Mike (Abraham Benrubi), defies the owners’ association president and announces that he is going to warn Mulder and Scully of the menace they face. Before he can do so, however, he must fix the burned-out bulb in his yard light. Too late! A squishy, oily man-like shape rises to meet him on his own doorstep. The next morning, all is as serene and beige as before, only another resident is missing and Mulder and Scully–uh, make that Rob and Laura–are no closer to the answer than before. The story progresses from here as by-the-numbers and as drama-free as any architectural blueprint.
Have we really reached the point in this series where the writers are forced to mine fan fiction–and mediocre fan fiction at that–for ideas for stories? “Arcadia” plays out like the kind of story a fan plots out on his or her first fumbling attempt at continuing the lives of favorite characters offscreen. Like many such attempts, it loses track of its characters early on, resorts to cliché, mires itself in tortured sophomoric “romance” conventions, and finally fizzles like a firecracker in an El Niño downpour. As an exercise in storytelling, it may be a learning experience for the writer. For the viewer, it can be excruciating. Writer Daniel Arkin has strayed so far off the plumbline of his characters that even the actors fumble with this impossible material. Mulder, the quintessential maverick, looks just a little too comfortable in Ralph Lauren Polo shirts. His dry wit degenerates into juvenile facetiousness and his attempts at flirtation with Scully are wincingly inept. Without Mulder’s characteristic repression, Duchovny has a hard time holding to the center of his character. Only when Mulder is allowed to finally defy Owner’s Association President Gogolak (Peter White) with his “bring it on” War of the Yard Art can Duchovny set his alter ego on his feet again. Anderson fares better with a Scully who is focused on the investigation, not haring off into nose-tweaking forays against the neighbors. Still, Scully’s usual sobriety works against her in this environment of Desert Sand and Desert Sage: she comes across too often as humorless and single-minded. Abraham Benrubi plays essentially the same amiable bumbler he patented for “ER”, and Tom Gallop as tight-lipped neighborhood enforcer Win Shepherd is suitably sniveling.
All this could be overlooked for the sake of a scary ending. I thought the breezy surface and cookie cutter kitsch were leading up to reveal some dark, paranoid menace, a creature out of nature who, finding itself surrounded by wallboard and aluminum siding, was stalking the intruders on its sacred ground. The business with the burned-out light bulbs reinforced this expectation, as I remembered the prehistoric insects in “Darkness Falls” that preyed on humans foolish enough to stray outside the circle of artificial lighting. Surely the evil Gogolak, so one-dimensional, so petty, so patently false, was really a monster with an agenda more dark and dangerous than proper mailbox decor.
My jaw dropped in stark disbelief as the credits rolled and I cried, ‘That’s all?” Yes, that’s all it was–an imaginary creature from the back roads of the world, called forth by the homeowners for no other purpose than to stamp out the anarchy of plaster statues and crabgrass. The nefarious purpose behind it–making owners toe the line of some self-important deed restriction–is so trivial as to utterly destroy any dramatic tension built up by this flimsy story. To have murdered people over the deployment of a whirligig is too fantastic even in these days of mass suicides over comet sightings. On its best days, the X-Files could not have made me believe this one. My seven year old openly jeered at it.
Brand-name banality, too-obvious symbolism (must we be hit over the head with a tribal documentary?), and appallingly bad concept put this X-File at the bottom of the landfill. The entire story boils down to the venting of methane gas. “Village of the Damned” meets “Forbidden Planet” crossed with “Swamp Thing”, and the result is a mess.
For the sake of Scully’s “That’s right, Poopiehead!” remark, and for that alone, “Arcadia” gets a cruddy one sunflower seed.