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Men in Black

Entry updated 2 February 2017. Tagged: Film.


Film (1997). Columbia Pictures Industries Inc/Amblin Entertainment. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, executive producer Steven Spielberg. Written by Ed Solomon, based on the Aircel Comic The Men in Black (1990-1991) by Lowell Cunningham and Sandy Carruthers. Cast includes Vincent D'Onofrio, Linda Fiorentino, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. 98 minutes. Colour.

Despite the blissful unawareness of almost everybody, Aliens are among us – especially in Manhattan (see New York), which is affectionately treated throughout. These aliens are monitored and policed by a top secret American agency called the Men in Black – a term that long predates the film (see UFOs; Urban Legends) – whose black-suited employees keep their existence under wraps by erasing the memories of any "civilians" they come into contact with (see Memory Edit). After a chance encounter with an alien, a brash New York policeman (Smith) is recognized as a potential Man in Black and inducted into the organization as agent "J". He is then partnered with MIB veteran "K" (Jones). On his first day of work, the agents are faced with an aggressive insect-like alien that crudely disguises itself in the skin of its first human victim (D'Onofrio). The "bug" alien and the Men in Black search New York for a miniature galaxy capable of producing immense power, despite being only a few centimetres across. Eventually the Men in Black triumph and order is restored, but K is so tired of his secretive lifestyle that he has his own memory erased and quits the organization.

Lowell Cunningham, the creator of the comic upon which Men in Black is based, admitted that he didn't study pre-established Man in Black mythology for his stories. The film makes the organization even more amiable and less threatening than its comic-book source did, and the result is a long way removed from the "real" Urban Legends. The Men in Black of the movie are most comfortable in Manhattan rather than rural settings, they are entirely human, they are an independent association not under the control of the US Government or of aliens and, in the biggest change of all, they are portrayed as benevolent. These softened Men in Black are Us, rather than Them.

None of this keeps Men in Black from being an imaginative and droll comedy. The interplay between K and J draws from established "buddy cop movie" formulae, but the chemistry of the leads (played by the appropriately named Mr Smith and Mr Jones) and their surreal situations keep it fresh. Even better is D'Onofrio's performance as the alien body-snatcher struggling to keep its rapidly decaying human costume from completely breaking down. While the scripts' focus is on the jokes, it is also pleasingly open to inventive ideas, such as the final shot which zooms out from New York across the stars to reveal that our universe is itself contained within an alien's toy marble. (This microcosm/macrocosm theme is only inventive in movie terms; it was a commonplace in the Pulp magazines – see Great and Small for a dozen or so examples.) It does, however, depend on some fairly authoritarian ideas about how lucky humans are to be protected by intrusive surveillance and unaccountable thought police; but like everything else in the film, these themes are not treated very seriously. The novelization was Men in Black (1997) by Steve Perry, and the theme tune by Smith was a number one hit in several countries including the UK (see Music).

Shallow but enjoyable, Men in Black achieved unexpected commercial success, leading to several equally popular sequels directed by Sonnenfeld and an animated children's Television programme, Men in Black: The Series (1997-2001), that ran for 53 episodes. Men in Black II (2002), written by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro from a story by Gordon, wastes precious time re-setting the conclusion of the original film before producing little more than an inferior copy. Men in Black 3 (2012), written by Etan Cohen, is much more ambitious and sees J Time Travel back to 1969 to prevent an alien Invasion and the death of K. Viewers may rise an eyebrow at the fact that the 29-year-old K of the past is played by 44-year-old Josh Brolin, but he makes for a suitably impassive foil to Smith's charisma and comic timing. Smart and funny, the third film breathed new life into the franchise, and a fourth is currently in production. [JN/PN/ML]


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