Men in Black at 25 and the end of the practical effects era

What could the Will Smith sci-fi comedy teach the blockbusters of today?

1 August 2022

By Josh Slater-Williams

Men in Black (1997)

Centring on a secret organisation monitoring extraterrestrials on Earth, Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black (1997) may have spawned three wildly inferior sequels, but the original endures as a sci-fi comedy triumph, thanks to storytelling and production methods largely absent from the blockbuster landscape that followed.

While there was a considerable marketing blitz (see Will Smith’s inescapable tie-in single), the fact that Men in Black became summer 1997’s biggest hit domestically (and close worldwide) is surprising in many ways. Even in comparison with the same era’s TV mega-hit The X-Files, it boasts a very cynical worldview. Most alien invasion narratives incorporate some kind of sense of wonder (see Smith’s hit of the previous year, Independence Day), where a close encounter of the third kind is treated as the biggest thing to happen to our species. With Men in Black, it’s the opposite.

Smith’s rookie agent aside, everyone in the organisation maintains the perspective that everything happening on Earth is ultimately irrelevant. Tommy Lee Jones’ agent K delivers one particularly fun line about our place in the universe’s pecking order: “Human thought is so primitive, it’s looked upon as an infectious disease in some of the better galaxies. That kind of makes you proud, doesn’t it?” Positing that mankind doesn’t really matter – and is a minuscule part of a much grander story of the universe – is still a pretty unique driving concept for a movie aimed at getting millions of bums on seats. Yet somehow it worked.

Men in Black (1997)

Perhaps that’s because, despite the blasé attitudes of the veteran agents, there’s a streak of humanity in screenwriter Ed Solomon’s storytelling from the very start. In the opening, undocumented ‘illegal aliens’ are crossing the border. We see cops, who’ve stopped their driver, harassing the Spanish-speaking individuals, only for K and his current partner to intervene. Much is established about K right here: how he, unlike the officers, treats the border-crossers like people, with dignity and respect, reassuring them everything will be alright and asking them to please head into the United States. When he gets to the literal alien-in-disguise, Mikey, he also treats him with humanity, even though the creature has violated parole terms. Only when Mikey tries to attack an accidental witness to their secluded conversation does that change.

Everything we need to understand about K, as well as the first bits of information about MIB agents and the aliens among us, is concisely laid out through actions in those few minutes. Indeed, the whole first act is similarly economical, introducing three disparate plotlines, which are kept very much separate until two – those of K and Smith’s future agent J, initially NYPD cop James – coalesce near the 20-minute mark. The third follows villainous Edgar, played by Vincent D’Onofrio in a Lon Chaney-worthy performance as a giant bug (badly) wearing the rotting skin of a man. Enough colourful details about Edgar’s violent personality and methods are peppered in to provide a fully comprehensible thread to follow.

The pacing of this 98-minute movie is breakneck but highly efficient. Its succinct world-building embarrasses most subsequent studio genre efforts. The hugely successful Harry Potter instalments go to extensive lengths to explain every aspect of their world. You’re rarely left to infer things; you’re told how everything works. Every trinket gets a backstory. The first film in Marvel’s Thor series spends about a fifth of Men in Black’s runtime just explaining Asgard to the audience. Men in Black, meanwhile, hits the ground running. It presents right at the start that aliens have emigrated to Earth, but trusts you’re comfortable with finer details about the how and why coming much later.

Men in Black (1997)

And what of those alien designs? It’s not just decaying D’Onofrio that creates an impression. Sharing the award with David LeRoy Anderson, Rick Baker won his fifth Oscar for the film’s makeup, and for good reason. Even more so than the same summer’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Men in Black is one of the final creature-heavy blockbusters where tactile physical effects – elaborate animatronics, models and costumes – still far outweigh computer-generated creations. CGI is mainly saved for when issues of movement or stuntwork integration hindered purely practical means. Until he needs to scream and sprint, Mikey is entirely an actor in a suit. MIB headquarters, serving as Ellis Island for aliens, is populated by Baker creations which were actually within the same space on set as the actors. You buy into their existence far more because of the palpability and personality of their visual textures.

It may be futile, a quarter of a century later, to regret industry changes dating back several decades, but revisiting Men in Black now it’s difficult not to lament the fact that CGI became the default option for high-budget genre filmmaking, instead of a tool used to aid practical effects. And even here, it’s deflating in the climax when Edgar becomes a wordless, roaring CG creation. Men in Black may be a wonderful showcase for practical effects, but its finale was a warning of the way things were going: a close encounter where the alien wasn’t really there.

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