Men in Black (1997)

May 11, 1997

The movies have often looked to the skies for inspiration, and no wonder - as the profits of E.T.’s glowing phallus or the unbearable jingoism of Independence Day show, there be gold in them little green men. With purses overflowing, Hollywood is loving the alien, and the special effects studios are laughing all the way to the bank. With that in mind, Men in Black comes as no great surprise. It has all the components to be a huge box-office smash: two very bankable stars, a profitable and creative director coming off of back-to-back successes, a great premise, and of course, a whack of computerized aliens.

Still, having all the best ingredients in the world doesn’t necessarily make a quality repast, and while Men in Black is no *batteries not included (old people + cute aliens + Steven Spielberg = celluloid flatulence), it still leaves one feeling rather unsatisfied - a Big Mac wrapped in black.

Inspired by the Lowell Cunningham Marvel comic of the same name, which was itself based on UFO folklore, Men in Black concerns itself with a conspirant’s wet dream; the notion that there exists a secret organization that covers up the existence of an extra-terrestrial presence on earth. Dependable Tommy Lee Jones (MiB Agent ‘K’) and one-line wonder Will Smith (Agent ‘J’) are charged with that responsibility, and spend the bulk of Men in Black gallivanting around in sharp suits while blastin’ some alien butt.

There’s a lot of detail to like here - the gag that Sylvester Stallone, Dennis Rodman and executive producer Steven Spielberg are aliens, the fact that the MiB get a lot of their information from supermarket tabloids, and a nod to Twin Peaks with the inclusion of ‘the Giant’ Carel Struycken as an outer space guy are all nice touches. It’s also great seeing the gruff countenance of Rip Torn (as ‘Z’) on the big screen. Nonetheless, there doesn’t seem to be much going on, with diversions popping up and tripping up the scenario faster than pearls before swine. The small details are great, but a film made up of trivial details is, well, trivial.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family, Get Shorty) is adept at making featherweight movies that don’t insult their audiences, but here seems overwhelmed by the frivolousness of the material. A mindless popcorn film is one thing - light diversions are what Hollywood does best - but a film that’s so buoyant that it floats off the screen is bad news. Less jokes (and less Will Smith) would have made this a much more enjoyable experience.

Aliens-are-among-us films work best when they function as a metaphor for some insidious evil that plagues the establishment. Communism/the Cold War was plumbed extensively for allegory in the 50’s AFI productions, which gave their relatively lightweight films a political counterweight which worked wonders. Here there is no solid parallel that makes sense (except, perhaps, for a fear of unrestrained immigration) - perhaps The Man has just run out of larger-than-life enemies?

To wit, Men in Black is one of those films that, like a UFO sighting, leaves just as many credible witnesses as it zips by like the Flash with dysentery. While it is an improvement over the smoke and mirrors of last year’s Independence Day or The Arrival, it still fails to capitalize on what remains a fertile ground for sci-fi cinema. This movie is merely okay - and in the cramped world of big budget cinema, that just ain’t enough.


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