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Here Come the Men in Black

  • May 28, 2012
In the summer of 1997 Men in Black more or less blindsided us.  Not many of us knew what it was or what we should expect from it.  It was based off a comic book that (for the most part) very few people had even heard of (and even fewer people actually read).  We knew to expect aliens and Will Smith.  And, of course, our first thought was, "Didn't Will Smith kill aliens LAST summer?"  Yes, Independence Day happened.  Men in Black, on the other hand, just ended up being an overall better film for reasons that are sometimes hard to explain.  The easy way is that Men in Black takes a BIG universe and actually rolls with it.  The execution of everything it does is pretty fine tuned.  Likewise... in the summer of 1997 THIS music video was everywhere:

<iframe width="420" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/KSRF3slguhI" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Now, when it comes to The Men in Black, the movie is actually good for reasons that most number one's in a franchise are.  Not just because they're new and fascinating, but because they have a chance to set us up for a ride.  To really set us up for something good.  They often have to take time to introduce characters, get us acquainted with the world.  The different between say Men and Black and say... Spider Man is that no one goes in thinking you're really prepared thanks to any source material.  Sure Men in Black is based on a comic, but even the creators of this movie seem to realize it's a long shot that anyone has actually read it.  Thus, Men in Black has A LOT to establish to the audience in short time. 

It's the way they go about most of this that's very amusing.  When we're introduced to Agent Kay he's with another agent as they're stopping an Alien from crossing the border.  This pretty much shows us what the MIB do.  And it's not played in some quirky or strange way.  Both agents act fairly non-chalant.  In most movies the characters usually seem somewhat surprised by what they encounter, even when it's established that they've encountered this before (in Men in Black II, for instance when they find Jeff we have to be TOLD that it's supposed to be familiar... but the characters don't ACT like it's familiar).  They take down the alien, Agent K and his partner are as calm as ever and they neurolize and take care of the situation as though... it's their job.  As if they do this sort of thing all the time.  This also gives us a great introduction to Agent Kay, played by Tommy Lee Jones.  He is an efficient and professional man.  As I've stated before, film is a visual medium where we want to get to know our characters more so through their actions than what it is they actually tell us or what we learn about them in the past.  Film isn't like literature or video games where you can really dive into characters.  There's a time limit here and thus the actions have to define the character more so.  This is how we learn about them.

Thus, we are soon introduced to Jay.  As we are, he works for the police, chasing down a perpetrator.  He manages to keep up with him until the man plunges off the roof because he failed in some mission.  Again, Men in Black takes the not so subtle approach.  After that first scene with Agent Kay, the audience already knows that things in this films world are a little weird.  Jay, on the other hand, is more in line with the audience in the sense that he's just as lost in this world as we are.  He's the character we are to relate to because he's being introduced to the strange happenings in this movie just as we all are.  When Kay comes in to talk to him about what he experienced it's the first time they're together and how their dynamics work together and clash.  Agent Kay knows what he's doing, he's been around for a long time.  Jay, on the other hand, is more or less the new guy.  He goes to the MIB headquarters where he trains.  His methods are unorthodoxed by MIB standards but Kay sees that he could be a really good agent one of these days. 

Here is where Men in Black really gets good and picks up the pace.  When Jay finally becomes a member of the Men in Black the dynamic between he and Kay really comes out in full force here.  In part because Agent Jay is new and Agent Kay has been at this for a while.  What works in particular about it is that Jay IS new.  He's the guy who seems to actually care about what's going on and even wants the people the neurolize to be okay.  When Kay assigns new memories, it's Jay who wonders why they can't have happy memories.  But Jay is also inexperienced and learning about the universe.  That weird things exist.  And the audience is being taken along for this same ride.

The mystery doesn't just cease so that we can see Agents Kay and Jay, however.  Some alien has crashed into earth and has taken the skin of a man and is searching for the galaxy.  While Agent Kay is taking Agent Jay for some field experience, he's also solving this particular mystery at hand.  Not unlike how you'd train on the job at your job (depending on where you work). 

The alien is perhaps the golden thing about Men in Black.  He's portrayed as very foreign to us, behaves in strange ways and doesn't seem to know how to act around humans.  Again, what makes it work is how naturally it's played off.  All the humans note his strange behavior, but because he actually looks like a guy they just assume he's weird because, as Men and Black points out to us constantly: most people just don't realize how small and insignificant the human race is.  They also point out that many humans simply don't think there's much outside of the world.  The idea that aliens are around just doesn't really come up to the other humans in this movie.  This is in stark contrast to so many other movies which feature aliens.  Where the spectacle (or horror) of the aliens is center stage.  Here... it's the mystery of the aliens that's center stage as the MIB are trying really hard to make sure you DON'T know the alien exist.  They wipe your memory and try to be as secretive as possible.  Again, Jay doesn't quite understand this.  In a scene where he goes after the alien when they find blowing stuff up with his gun.  Kay pretty much tells him that the Earth is always in danger and that the reason they have to be so quiet about it is because the ignorance of this is bliss for everyone else on the planet.  The only way they can go on with their happy lives, Kay explains, is if they don't know about it.

It's that small tidbit that actually truly makes Men in Black stand apart from other alien movies.  The aliens are apart of OUR world but they can't reveal themselves.  So they take on other forms.  Like other human beings or a Dog or Dennis Rodman or something (if you got the Dennis Rodman joke, you definitely grew up in the 90's).  Men in Black isn't concerned with the spectacle of aliens as they're already integrated in our world.  It's almost like seeing all the different alient races interacting in the cantina in Star Wars.  You see it and just accept that this is the universe you've stepped into. 

In comparison, most other Alien movies are concerned with stopping a whole race of aliens or surviving an alien (the unknown).  Here, it's about stopping just ONE alien.  And it's no different than watching a movie in which one human tries to stop another human.  It's a good way to present things.

And Men in Black is almost perfect in that regard.  There's not much which really keeps Men in Black down because it goes against so many conventional standards that (especially in the 90's) we'd grown so accustomed to.  Take the female companion character.  Men in Black actually sort of just makes her integral to the plot but never tries to force a love story on anyone.  Men in Black is much more concerned about the mystery at hand and doesn't seem too interested in being distracted from it. 

What works the best are the characters, however.  Particularly the back and forth between Agent Kay and Agent Jay.  They're really well written characters played by two great actors.  Tommy Lee Jones is just an amazing actor all around, but Will Smith is charming.  Most things really come together in Men in Black.  The pacing is also really good for a movie of it's kind.  It's not too long but it keeps things going. 

Most everything about Men in Black really stands out as good.  I can't think of too many glaring things that stick out off hand.  It's just a good, fun, movie that is, at times pretty clever.  It can get a little heavy handed with reminding us that in this universe humans are fairly insignificant and part of a larger world (and also does the ambiguous ending to prove it).  It's what makes Men in Black work but at some point you just want to say, "We get it... aliens exist."  It's not too terribly annoying with this (and the moves presses on regardless) but at some point you do feel like it's driving this home a little too heavily.

Aside from that, Men in Black is actually a surprisingly tight film.  And like I said, when it came out it shocked me with just how enjoyable it really was.  It's weird, it went against a lot of tried and true movie tropes at the time and it succeeded.  It might be because it was so different back then that it's so likeable now.  Because it's a movie that actually stands out because of what it does. 

Now where exactly did the sequel go wrong?

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May 29, 2012
yo, Sean....did you know that I was put by MIB in protective custody here in Earth. I am an alien ;P
June 02, 2012
I bet the MIB are not happy you posted that. You might be in danger for as long as your readers remember your post.
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review by . June 14, 2012
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***1/2 out of ****    As humans, we assume that we are alone on this earth, but we are wrong. Extraterrestrials hop from planet to planet, and eventually they will land on ours. More than likely, they'll choose to stay. Some are peaceful and some are hostile. For the latter group, we have a top secret organization known as the Men in Black; an agency which is practically untouchable that consists of men in black suits. They work behind the scenes while the human race continues …
review by . May 02, 2011
If Men in Black had been done differently, if the directing had been different, if the characters were played by different people, it could have been an average summer movie. But it isn't. Men in Black has all the visual thrill and dazzling action of a summer sci-fi action movie, but it succeeds due to the fact that it's just so cool. That's the perfect word to describe this movie, cool. The characters are cool, the premise is cool, the special effects are cool, I mean who in their right …
review by . July 18, 2010
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I saw this movie when i was younger and it was always one of my favorites, though i never realized it was based on a comic book...until now. Will Smith was really great in this movie, as he is in most of his movies. The special effects are  really good especially if you look at how long ago it was made and how much we have advanced in the computer technology department since then. The story was really well written, easy to follow, and all around entertaining as far as alien …
Quick Tip by . October 01, 2010
Totally mad. Totally fun. Totally weird. And it works its way through the alphabet as well.
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Quick Tip by . July 26, 2010
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Entertaining with a good cast. Corny, but in an endearing way that makes the movie more appealing than other alien movies like it.
Quick Tip by . July 18, 2010
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A movie I would watch again it reminds me of my dad whom passed away he liked it too!
Quick Tip by . July 20, 2010
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About the reviewer
Sean A. Rhodes ()
Ranked #7
I'm a more analytical person. I believe that the purpose of the review is not for me to give you my opinion but for me to give you an analysis and help you decide if you want to get it. If you reading … more
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About this movie


In the 1950s a super-secret government agency was formed to monitor and police the activities of extraterrestrial aliens on the planet Earth. Some 40 years later a founding father of the agency, Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones), finds himself with a new smart-mouthed partner fresh from the NYPD who is soon dubbed Agent Jay (Will Smith). Their first mission is to save the Earth from destruction by a giant insectlike alien (Vincent D?Onfrio) that, incidentally, drives an exterminator?s truck. Armed with their matching Ray-Bans, skinny ties, and space-age weapons that Jay barely understands--he calls the Neuralyzer the "flashy thing"--the new duo begin another average day of fighting intergalactic terrorists. An amazingly hip and terribly clever movie that riffs on everything from E.T.--THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL to CASABLANCA, this Barry Sonnenfeld film is based on the equally savvy comic book by Lowell Cunningham.
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