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Men in Black, written by Ed Solomon from the comic book by Lowell Cunningham, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, 1997, 90 min.

Men in Black is that rarity among science fiction movies, an entertaining flick that feels smart and sharp and fresh. At least that's how it felt upon release. The comic book and the movie captured the spirit of the time with uncanny and possibly accidental accuracy, but the movie feels the slightest bit dated to me now. I also admit that my view of the movie has been altered by the immensely disappointing sequel, Men in Black II. If, however, Men in Black is one of those rare moments of serendipity, where all the elements came together with a click, never to be duplicated, that doesn't make it less of an achievement.

A super-secret agency known as the Men in Black have operatives busy policing the presence of aliens on our planet and making sure civilians don't find out what is truly going on. Tommy Lee Jones plays Agent K, a seen-it-all veteran of the business. At the beginning of the movie, his aging partner makes a mistake so now K is on the lookout for someone to join the Men in Black as his new partner, preferably someone with energy and smarts. Enter Will Smith, first as a New York cop who chases down a suspect (an alien whose presence has to be covered up), and later as the only promising candidate during a bizarre job interview process. The movie spends substantial time laying the groundwork for the Men in Black and their universe, although the plot does pick up surreptitiously.

A nasty bug-like alien has crash-landed on Earth and taken over the body of a human named Edgar (or rather disgustingly, his skin). Edgar has trouble moving around in civil society but less than you might think. He seems to be after a trinket that another alien is trying to protect, and soon strange bodies start showing up in the city morgue. The coroner (Linda Fiorentino) has several run-ins with the Men in Black's neuralyzer, a device that erases memory, before she too becomes part of the story. Can J and K track down the Edgar bug before too many other aliens die? The plot is a serviceable one, suitably brief, but a bit clunky (as Sonnenfeld points out on the DVD, the plot was drastically revised in post-production).

The comic success of the movie is partly due the way that most of the actors play their roles as a straight police procedural, especially Tommy Lee Jones as Agent K. No matter the absurdity surrounding him, like shaking down a talking dog for information, he's just a man doing his job. Some of the jokes are predictable, such as the urge to spray gross goo on our heroes. The creative team behind the movie is also busy throwing as many different alien creatures onscreen as possible. Wise-cracking worm guys hang out in the coffee room, a multi-tentacled alien runs the computers at the Men in Black headquarters, a tiny alien controls a human-looking body from a tiny cockpit inside the head, and many, many more. I would've liked to see more character development from the aliens, but the strategy of visual overload worked just as well.

In terms of the genre of science fiction, Men in Black is only a so-so movie, with a bit of attitude and a few jokes, consolidating a certain style but not venturing into new territory. The final 20 seconds of the movie have a jolt of perspective that is characteristic of the best science fiction, but it's a small dose; the movie rests more on its comedic strengths to impress.

DVD Note: Men in Black was released on DVD in several versions a few years after its theatrical release. These include two single-DVD editions, one designed for video stores and the other a Superbit version (no extras, high bitrate), and two double-DVD editions, one a standard 2-DVD set and the other a more expensive item with some frivolous things like a signed poster. The standard 2-DVD set is what I would recommend. It has the movie itself on disc 1, with commentary by Barry Sonnenfeld and Tommy Lee Jones. The commentary is available in audio or in both audio and video (somewhat gimmicky). Sonnenfeld and Jones talk mostly about technical matters; Jones seems genuinely curious as to how all of the special effects were added in post-production once he was no longer around. Sonnenfeld also talks about how the movie's structure changed in post-production: originally, two races of aliens were fighting, and the bugs were trying to exacerbate the conflict for their own purposes. The excision of this plot point coincidentally helped speed up Men in Black's pace, one of the key appeals of the movie to me. Disc 2 has fewer extras than I was expecting; the disc is divided into two sections, "Creating MIB" and "Meet the MIB," and the second section is mainly promotional material (including a teaser for the then-upcoming sequel). "Creating MIB" has one 25 minute documentary, "Metamorphosis of MIB" (this sole documentary reiterates many of the points in the director's commentary), and many different storyboards and image galleries. A decent package, but somewhat underwhelming.


First posted: October 14, 1997; Last modified: January 26, 2004

Copyright © 1997-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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