Film and TV

The Outer Limits

The special effects in the sci-fi comedy Men in Black are an orgy of animatronics, mechanical effects, practical effects, miniatures, computer enhancements, makeup--the whole shebang. The film's mishmash of tones, from goofball to horrific, is equally all over the map. The trailer for the movie promised a great big Ghostbusters-style spoof, but it's not really that rollicking; it's too grungy and sinister for that. Men in Black has its cartoonish side, but it also has its Aliens side--and just about every other side, too. Like so many big special-effects thrillers right now, it occupies audiences by throwing everything at them.

It used to be a boon when a movie offered "something for everyone," but the current commercial thinking of the studios has perverted that ideal. Too often, "something for everyone" means a glop of pre-tested bits calculated to connect with the widest possible audience without regard to the logic of plot, story or emotion. It's a way of giving the audience its money's worth while picking its pocket.

To its credit, I suppose, Men in Black is a far better pickpocket than any of its throw-everything-at-you summer blockbuster rivals--although being best of breed with the likes of Speed 2, Con Air, Batman & Robin and The Lost World is no prize. It's the best of them because at least its knuckleballs and boomerangs have some velocity. But mostly what keeps you hooked in Men in Black is the knockabout premise plus the odd-couple pairing of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith as, respectively, Division 6 agents K and J--undercover detectives for an "unofficial" government agency devoted to keeping tabs on the 1,500 or so aliens in our midst, most of whom, naturally, reside in New York City.

The film--which was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, scripted by Ed Solomon and loosely derived from The Men in Black comic books by Lowell Cunningham--is keyed to an oddly reassuring idea. You know those people in your life who are just too strange or annoying to be human? It turns out they probably aren't. They're aliens in human camouflage. (That certainly clears things up for a lot of us.)

The notion of Men in Black didn't begin with the comic books. It's been a prime campfire tale among UFO-ologists since the '50s, when numerous alien-encounter eyewitnesses claimed to have been visited by two blank-faced, dark-suited men--feds? Martians? Jack Webb clones?--who scared them, at least for a time, into silence. (Subsequently, shows such as The X-Files and NBC's Dark Skies also have popularized the Men, as did the Frank Black song of the same name.)

In the Cold War '50s, a movie like Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers played up the paranoia of not really knowing who your friends are. Anybody could turn out to be a pod. Men in Black, though set in the present, works off the Kennedy-esque '60s, when NASA space exploration was promoted as rah-rah uplift as we shot our wad into the universe. The Men in Black are '60s throwbacks. They dress in black suits with white shirts, narrow ties and matching Ray-Bans. They drive a black Ford LTD with turbo engines.

Their top-secret agency, begun in the '60s, still looks like it's stuck there--its inner sanctum in New York City, presided over by the imperious, unflappable Zed (Rip Torn), has a corporate '60s functional modishness, like the TWA terminal at New York's JFK airport. It's the port of entry for the wayward of the universe--an Ellis Island for space aliens. In one of the film's nuttiest sequences, we see the aliens lining up for entry and disembarkation, and the concatenation of snouts and tentacles and bulbous bellies and gelatinous maws is the damnedest thing since the cantina sequence in Star Wars.

We've seen so many black-white cop buddies in the movies that the teaming of agents K and J is always on the verge of being generic. But there's nothing generic about Jones and Smith (except, come to think of it, their last names). Jones is a great choice for K because, in roles ranging from Eyes of Laura Mars to Cobb, it often seems he could be an alien himself; his wary deep-set eyes and knobby, punched-out features seem ready to mutate into something gloppy. In casting Jones as an alien-buster, the filmmakers appear to be playing a game of set-a-thief-to-catch-a-thief. Jones's K knows how to snag spacemen because, with the vibes he sends out, he could be a species of spaceman himself.

Next to Jones, Smith is all sweetness and light. His jive normality has been used as a foil before in the sci-fi realm--in Independence Day, where he got down to business by punching out an alien with a hard sock to the head. Smith's J is supposed to be our golly-gee surrogate in Men in Black, but, unlike most audience surrogates, he isn't some passive observer. He's psyched to root out aliens, and he clamors for the high-tech hardware K proffers, especially a penlight neutralizer that zaps the memories of humans who have witnessed alien stuff.

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Peter Rainer