Men in Black

(Barry Sonnenfeld, USA, 1997)


Men in Black is blockbuster-comedy science fiction, with more action than horror in the spectacular thrills department. It’s a living, breathing paradox: a militantly unserious film about serious things like global conspiracy, insidious networks of social power and, indeed, the apocalypse. Exciting enough, and often funny, it is also instantly forgettable.


The truly beguiling thing about Men in Black is that instant amnesia happens to be its central plot device, since the heroes (Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith) flash a brain-wiping device over anyone who learns the truth-that-is-out-there about the alien presence on earth.


Men in Black, in its high-key, jokey way, takes us back to the 1980s; specifically, back to Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984, followed by a pale sequel) – another flip movie about the forces of Good and Evil duking it out, with the Earth’s future at stake.


What about the aliens? Here’s another very 1980s thing about Men in Black, which also comes up in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! (1996). Sonnenfeld and his writer Ed Solomon (working from the template of a comic book series by Lowell Cunningham and Sandy Carruthers) begin from the comic premise that, since every so-called normal person in a modern metropolis these days is really some kind of zany, eccentric nut, therefore aliens could just drop down to earth and fit in instantly.


So there’s absolutely no effort at all expended in imagining aliens as embodiments of difference (as another kind of fiction – or theory – would demand): the brittle pop culture joke of the whole piece is that they’re exactly the same as us in every respect; they smoke, drink, bitch and mouth wisecracks.


Men in Black handles this humorous short-circuit with consummate, slick skill at every point: its world is one in which the sleaziest tabloid headlines actually tell the truth about what’s going on in our mad world – and where the most revered stars of showbiz or talk-back TV are already fully integrated aliens.

MORE Sonnenfeld: The Addams Family, For Love or Money, Get Shorty

© Adrian Martin October 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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