Feature // Men In Black, 20 Years On

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“This little gadget is gonna replace CDs soon, guess I’ll have to buy The White Album again”

Men in Black celebrated it’s 20th birthday this month. The sci-fi classic rested on a few fault lines that have shifted in various ways. So have the two decades since been kind to the men?

One of Will Smith’s breakout film roles, Men In Black was a smart move. Perfectly tailored to his sense of comedy that brought great success with Independence Day the year before. His chemistry with Tommy Lee Jones was hilarious. Jones had recently starred in the critically panned Batman Forever, but his performance in MiB was proof that the haggard Texan even had comedy chops. Together, the agents of new and old saved the world from a threat we didn’t even know about and looked impossibly cool doing it.

In terms of performances, Rip Torn, Vincent D’Onofrio and Linda Fiorentino were all spot on too, but beyond the main cast lay some now-problematic casting issues. Faceless minorities as pawnshop owners and taxi drivers, the reveal of a border crossing alien to literally be an alien, plus uncomfortable parallels between royalty and Jews probably wouldn’t sit too well nowadays. Despite this, J in the original comic was a white blonde, so credit should be given for casting a black actor in a leading role originally written for a white guy. As another positive, Fiorentino’s character was a strong, educated woman, without whom the film would’ve lessened, and certainly had a lot less to salvage for 2017’s ethnically more diverse film industry.

Aesthetically Men in Black hasn’t aged much. The film owed a lot to the 1960’s and its oscar nominated art direction was heavily inspired by the early FBI and classic cars. Finnish designer Eero Saarinen’s work was the basis for MiB HQ and many other oddities throughout. The weapons were designed not from a 90’s point of view but were 60’s projections of futuristic weapons, campy and overblown. The monochrome palette was simple but effective in conveying the many dualities than run through the film; black and white, good and bad, de-atomiser and noisy cricket. While it didn’t win the oscar, the film had a very unique artistic character that was a huge part of its initial success.

If Men in Black was released in 2017, the black suits would probably be monopolised. A masculine MiB Gillette ad would dominate billboards and product placement would wreak havoc through the film. MiB did well to steer clear of it in 1997 but the sequels suffered. Relying on the mystique of the black wardrobe from shows like The X Files, MiB banked on black never going out of fashion. Sure, the boxy suits of the late 90’s look pretty terrible now. But so do the skinny suits of the late 2000’s. The changing nature of fashion will punish and praise the wardrobe as and when trends dictate, but the Men In Black will always look sharp.

Danny Elfman’s score was fantastic, harbouring something otherworldly in the choral swells and minor riffs as J & K pounded the streets. Great scores have always stood the test of time and MiB is no exception. Will Smith’s featured song, not so much. RnB may have been huge in the 90’s but Smith’s clean rap style would probably struggle today. Pitbull’s “Back in Time” released for 2012’s MiB3 failed to even make the top 10 in the UK or US, whereas Smith’s effort held the top spot in both for over a month. Perhaps this is more indicative of a change in music consumption, but it’s a change nonetheless.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld wanted as little CGI as possible, opting for prosthetics and costume design from acclaimed designer Rick Baker. The extraterrestrials looked great in 1997 and remarkably still do. The wormy aliens of the MiB staff room were given CGI treatment for the 2002 sequel and looked a lot less realistic. “Edgar the Bug” involved a rough looking D’Onofrio donning some serious make up, but he still looked fantastic because there was a great actor under all that. MiB proved that much like Jurassic Park a few years earlier, using as little CGI as possible always looks best because genuine effects are still very difficult to beat.

A film so reliant on technology will inevitably date, but we’re not quite there yet. Branding was kept to a minimum and everything was sleek the point of anonymity. Using little realism meant that there was nothing to compare to in 1997 and nothing to compare to now. The true power of the MiB was that they could erase memories, which would involve jumping through some serious hoops today considering nothing happens without being caught on camera. This partly overshadows modern viewings of the film, but complaining about realism in a sci-fi film is pretty unfounded. By the time MiB3 came around, the role of the neuralyser was significantly downplayed which is as good a way as any to address it.

A lot has happened since 1997 socially. In today’s Snowden era, the idea of government espionage is a lot less romantic than it once was. Knowing the American government has hidden various scandals means that where once a secret organisation walking the streets might’ve been comforting, it is significantly less so now. The missing twin towers that dominated so much of the film are a representation of how America has changed in the years since. The US edging towards war with North Korea and the UK leaving the EU are a far cry from the comparative social ease that was the 90’s. Would the public still flock to see a film about government agents operating under the radar? Probably, but it wouldn’t be without claims of propaganda and distraction tactics now.

All things considered, good humour lasts forever and Men in Black is worth a revisit to remember some great performances in a film that really stood out from its contemporaries. Somewhere between the streets of New York and the stars above there was something incongruous in the air which Sonnenfeld captured beautifully. Interestingly, the comic book company that spawned the original series (Malibu) is now owned by Marvel and with a reboot in talks, we may see J & K on the big screen again before the decade is out.

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Author: cultfilmedinburgh

Edinburgh's monthly cult film screening community.

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