Friday, August 23, 2013

Film Friday: Men in Black (1997)

Men in Black is an excellent film. It was such an excellent film that it made a fortune, spawned a franchise, and has proved to have very strong staying power. What’s interesting about this film though, is that it is the perfect marriage of a tent-pole film with a cult film. Seriously.
The Plot
Although it appears to have a complex story, Men in Black is really just a superhero origin-story centered around Agent J (Will Smith). Smith is a New York City cop who gets recruited by Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) to work for a shadow organization known as M.I.B. (Men In Black). Located in New York City, M.I.B. polices all the extraterrestrials who live secretly among the human population of the Earth. Their job is to make sure that the aliens behave and that the humans never discover the aliens. They also protect the Earth from various threats.
J’s first case involves tracking down a bug (Vincent D’Onofrio), who has come to Earth to kill an Arquillian prince. The prince lives in Brooklyn and his people are at war with the bugs. As J and K track down the bug, they are given an ultimatum from an Arquillian battle cruiser, which threatens to destroy the planet unless something stolen from the prince (“the galaxy”) is returned within a few hours. Simple.
What Makes This Movie Work
So what makes this film work? Well, in a sense, everything. The actors have a strong screen presence and excellent chemistry. Will Smith was a rising, bankable star at this point, having just come off of Independence Day. His presence in what appears to be a lighthearted summer film all but guaranteed success. Adding to that, Smith gets teamed with the cranky, quasi-redneck Tommy Lee Jones, also a bankable star at the time, which evokes memories of prior successful opposites-attract buddy-cop films like Lethal Weapon. Barry Sonnenfeld had cache as a direct as well, having just directed Get Shorty and the Addams Family films. Sonnenfeld did a great job too: solid pacing, clean visuals, memorable scenes and great effects. The film also had the right feel. It came across as lighthearted, funny, and easy to enjoy.

Those are the perfect tent-pole traits and are guaranteed to put butts into seats.
What kept them there, however, and what has kept people enjoying this film so many years later, is the thing almost all tent-pole films lack: intelligence. In fact, at its core, this is one heck of a smart film. That intelligence, however, was hidden within a ton of ambiguity, just like a cult film.

As I’ve said before, what makes a film into a cult film seems to be that the film is highly intelligent, but lacks the clarity most general audience require. Thus, the film finds an audience because of its intelligence, but it is a limited audience because of its ambiguity. You would think Men in Black would suffer the same fate because of its ambiguity, but it doesn’t. Consider this:

Unexplained Jokes: This film is crawling with jokes general audience will never get on their own. I saw this film in the theaters and it was fascinating to watch the audience. When Will Smith calls K’s car a “Ford POS,” about ten people laughed. The rest waited for the joke. When Z tells the smug guys who just brutally bombed the test to become members of M.I.B., “You’re everything we’ve come to expect from years of government training,” the same ten people burst out laughing. The rest didn’t see the joke. Oh, they laughed a moment later when Will Smith said, “Yo, yo, with the thing,” but they didn’t see the joke about government training leading to hopelessly rigid thinking.
Throughout this film, there are jokes that don’t pay off until a scene or two down the line. There are jokes that require you to grasp that what the characters say isn’t what they mean. There are jokes that require you to have some understanding of the outside world to get the joke. The general audience I sat with didn’t get those. Those other ten people got each one. Fortunately, there were enough other simple jokes that the general audience didn’t miss them. In effect, both groups laughed, they just laughed at different things.

Unexplained Background: So who are the M.I.B.? You never really find out. You get a lot of words thrown at you, but in the end there’s little in the way of clarity. In fact, it’s a running joke that Tommy Lee Jones avoids answering those questions. Then they toss out ideas like the nature of “the galaxy,” but they never clearly answer it, unless you are smart enough to connect the ending of the film to that answer -- it turns out the Earth is in a “galaxy” of its own, which is in a bus station locker, which is itself in a marble being played with by some kids.

Throughout this film, we are introduced to characters whose fates we never learn. We run into subplots that go nowhere. We get no answers to basic questions. This is the sort of stuff that excites cult-film fans because it leaves it up to the viewer to debate the answers and fill in the movie... this is the stuff a thousand web pages are made of. But general audiences don’t normally like this. So why did they like it here? The reason is that every time something ambiguous happens, the scene finishes with Will Smith distracting the audience... “Look, shiny!” That way, both audiences get what they want.
Hidden Depth: The film is crawling with hidden depth too. A good chunk of the jokes involve scientific principles or theories. The film constantly makes hilarious analogies, always without telling you. For example, the film starts with border patrol agents rounding up illegal aliens. That is exactly what M.I.B. are, which makes that scene rich with irony. But no one points this out. The bug is driving around in a truck belonging to an exterminator. The fact that “superior” aliens view coffee and cigarettes as our highest achievement is hilarious too.

Then there’s philosophical depth. Throughout the film, you are constantly being bombarded with ethical, moral and philosophical questions. Is it immoral to change someone’s memories? Does it make it less immoral to give them a happy memory? Would you want to be able to block out memories? What is the nature of the human race? One of the most insightful comments ever in film was this:
J: “People are smart. They can handle it.”
K: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”
There was also this: “The only way these people get on with their lives is they don’t know the truth.” That’s very true of humans. Do our prejudices blind us to truth:
“Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.”
These are not only intensely complex questions, but the film frames them in amazingly clever ways to allow those who “get it” to think about it and to allow those who don’t to just see dialog.
So what does all this mean? Well, on the one hand, I think the intelligence is what has given this film its longevity. Tent-pole audiences are remarkably fickle, but cult-fans tend to be the ones who watch movies over and over. It also tells us that you can make a film that appeals to both audience. This film provides a guidepost on how.

Think about this. Here is a film that actually satisfies both groups, groups who rarely see eye to eye: “It was mindless and stupid” v. “It was confusing and stupid.” The reason it did was that it let each audience see what they wanted. People who are looking for smarter films got deep, philosophical points, jokes that trusted the audience, and rich depth throughout. Then people who are looking for something mindless got The Big Shiny from Will Smith to punctuate each joke or close out each philosophical moment.

I would call this a model for successful filmmaking.

49 comments:

Koshcat said...

Because these kind of films are so rare, it must be very difficult to pull off. Great review. I have nothing to add as I couldn't have said it better.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Koshcat. That must be the other side. It all seems rather obvious, but pulling it off must be a good deal harder than it looks because films like this are so rare. That's too bad.

Backthrow said...

Hmm... another one I'll have to give a second look at, after many years. It's the sort of thing that, by all rights, I should love (sci-fi adventure, crazy aliens, satire), but I remember being underwhelmed, despite its pedigree and the aspects mentioned in the review. Not that it was bad, just sort of struck me as 'blah'. Cleverness all around, but little that actually tickled my funny bone... as if some sort of insane spark (present in directors like Edgar Wright, Sam Raimi (sometimes) and early-career Terry Gilliam) was somehow missing from the equation.

Or, maybe I'm just not a Barry Sonnenfeld fan, apart from his strong, clean visual sense (not surprising, as formerly an ace cinematographer). I hated THE ADDAMS FAMILY movie (a recent re-viewing did nothing to change my opinion). GET SHORTY was another I thought I'd love, but was painfully disappointed with. THE WILD WILD WEST speaks for itself. MEN IN BLACK II... meh. I passed on BIG TROUBLE, RV and MIB III.

I did like the first couple of PUSHING DAISIES episodes, which he directed/produced ("Pie-lette" and "Dummy"), so go figure... had to be the Sonnenfeld visuals/pacing married to the Bryan Fuller scripting, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Great review. I'm leaving for work and don't have a lot of time but you hit it on the head with "clever ways to allow those who getit to think about it and those who don't to just see dialog."
One of the greatest lines in all the history of film, up there with "We'll always have Paris," Keep your friends close and your enemies closer" and so many,many more is this gem - Elvis didn't die,he just went home."Delivered in the context of the film it means Elvis was an alien,which works. But you can take the meaning two ways,and that makes me happy when I think about it. :)
GypsyTyger

shawn said...

Love this film. Certainly a lightning-in-the-bottle film, because even Sonnefeld couldn't duplicate it with the sequels.

I did find the sequels entertaining, just not on the level of the first movie and I would rate them :
1. MIB
2. MIB3
3. MIB2

Probably my favorite line in the movie is "Or do I owe her an apology?" after J explains why he shot the cardboard cut-out of the little girl carrying the calculus books.

PDBronco said...

Great review!

In a lot of ways, the humor was structured like a good Warner Bros. cartoon from the 1930's-40's (the "golden age" of WB animation), jokes/site gags aimed at the kids in the audience, and other jokes that only the adults would get. A good episode of MST3K has the same structure - shiny objects for the mass audience, the occasional deep/obscure joke for the few ("I believe that all things are predetermined." Crow: "Ah, so he's a Calvinist!").

So K's line "A person is smart. People are dumb..." was also a good description of the movie's approach to humor.

tryanmax said...

The first hurdle to clear in making a cult/tentpole is to find the appropriate subject matter. There really aren't a lot of topics that can be easily taken lightly and heavily at the same time. Scifi is probably the perfect genre for that, which is why when scifi is good, it's really frickin' good. (And when it's bad, you still get the big shiny.)

KRS said...

I'm sorry, I can't comment on this article, Andrew, but I'm sure it's very good.

I just found out that Ben Affleck is the new Batman and the world no longer makes sense to me.

Anonymous said...

Great movie and great review.

Though for me it doesn't get as many re-watches as other cult films that I like. And it does beg the question that what went wrong with the second movie?

Scott.

djskit said...

Agent J: ...so I don't want nobody calling me son or kid or sport or nothing like that, cool?
Agent K: Cool, whatever you say, slick...

Concisely establishes their relaionship and is still funny every time I see it.

ScottDS said...

Backthrow -

Big Trouble is actually a fun little movie that happened to be released at the wrong time. And MIB 3 wasn't the worst thing in the world - it had its moments, and I say that as a former skeptic. :-)

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I always liked this movie but I never LOVED it, and I still don't know why. It has everything I like in a movie but this might be one case where I had seen too much beforehand (the trailers and HBO making-of showing all the best parts).

The "fifteen hundred years ago" speech is a favorite of mine as well. Would it surprise you to know that screenwriter Ed Solomon also co-wrote the Bill & Ted movies? (Where do you think the name De Nomolos comes from?)

I also love the look of this film. Bo Welch is one of my favorite production designers (he also worked on a few Burton movies) and he brought a wonderfully retro "World of Tomorrow" vibe, which is a style I admire.

The second film is a faint memory. I remember Johnny Knoxville and Lara Flynn Boyle (when she still looked good) and it might've been my first exposure to Rosario Dawson. The third film is slightly better and Josh Brolin actually makes a great young Tommy Lee Jones. But neither film is as unique or interesting - or well-managed - as this one.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, If you don't like it, you don't like it. People don't all like the same things. :)

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, Thanks! I thought about the Elvis line too. That's one of those where you need to know something outside the film. You need to know about this group that thinks Elvis is still alive. And then you need to connect that to their saying he was an alien, because Jones never spells that out.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, That is a great line. I love his chain of logic too: "I know how I'd feel if somebody popped me when I was in the gym." LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

PDBronco, Thanks! I actually thought about connecting that line to the point of the review, as I suspect there is a bit of poking fun at the audience with it... "some of you are getting it... the rest are just following the herd."

Putting that aside though, that's just one of the many lines in this film which really zero right in on human nature in very astute ways.

Agreed on this being like an old-time cartoon. The humor is presented at various levels so that everyone can take what they want from the film and leave satisfied.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That's very true and I'm not sure there are a lot of genres that are capable of this kind of dual treatment. Sci-Fi certainly. Perhaps horror. Maybe a war film, though I doubt it. After that, it kind of gets sketchy.

Of course, the tent pole aspect is the real problem. Those seem to be limited to sci-fi and action with the very, very rare romance.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, I saw that and I concur. Who in their right mind choose Affleck? Maybe Matt Damon can be his boy wonder.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Thanks! And agreed. I think the tent-pole aspect dilute the cult aspect to a degree. This is a deep film with a cool universe, but it doesn't feel it as strongly because it does have the air of being a summer general public film.

As for 2 and 3... I think 2 got lazy. It was just a rehash of the first without adding anything new. So all the cool discoveries you make in this film and all the cool philosophical moments are gone. Basically, the cult aspect failed. Three struck me as the tent pole aspect failing. Jones is visibly too old to even move and Smith is too old for his "brash young guy" routine to work. So it feels like it's forced.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, Exactly. And lines like that make movies because they totally define what the audience should expect. Yet, few films manage to include those, possibly because they don't have distinct characters or possibly because they just don't have good writers who can distill the essence of a character or film.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I love the look of the film. The retro "world of tomorrow" aspect really makes this film stand apart. Also, the aliens have a real feel. Not only are they all different, but they make sense -- they look like things that might evolve.

As for liking and not loving, well, everyone has different tastes and sometimes a film just doesn't take with some people.

On 2 and 3, as I say above, I think the cult aspect failed in 2 and the tent pole aspect failed by the time of 3. So the nature of those films changed.

I didn't realize he wrote Bill & Ted, but I can see it knowing that now. Similar style.

Anthony said...

The guy who played the villian in the original MiB (a violent cockroach wearing the skin of a wife beater) did a really great job. I didn't care much for MiB2 and I completely skipped 3.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I agree. D'Onofrio did a great job. I enjoyed 2, but not as much. 3 left me cold.

RetroHound.com said...

And here I thought it was just the relationship. We just watched these 3 with my teenage boys.

Spoiler alert!****



I loved in 3 when they go to The Factory and meet Andy Warhol. I was fully on board with Warhol being an alien, but then they subvert that expectation!

AndrewPrice said...

RetroHound, I thought that scene was hilarious, how they make his whole thing an act. "I'm watching a man eating a hamburger... it's... uh... transcendent." And the other bought it. To me, that was one of the strongest moments in that film. "You've got to get me out of here!"

Patriot said...

Andrew......Great review!

Another scene I like is when K is introducing J to the MIB HQ and he shows the two many armed aliens working the screens....."Meet the Twins, Bweryang and Bob."

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Patriot! That's funny too. The juxtaposition of names is hilarious. I also like when he grabs Smith before he touches the one alien and all he says is, "He's cranky."

T-Rav said...

Agreed. This is one of those movies you can watch whenever it comes on the TV and never get tired of it. I really don't have anything to add.

I haven't seen MIB 3, but one of the things I learned online that struck me as wrong was using the whole time-travel thing to show that J and K had a distant past connection or whatever. The movie didn't need that. There was no reason why they had to have an entwined backstory--or really, any backstory beyond what we got in the first movie. They're two guys who team up to fight bad aliens, end of story.

tryanmax said...

To all those who haven't seen MIB3, while it's far more tentpole than cult, it's still a fun romp.

In defense of the "distant past connection" without giving any spoilers, 90% of it is just modern-J teaming up with past-K (presumably b/c TLJ can't jump around as much anymore) and the other 10% is an incidental "coincidence" that doesn't really affect anything. Maybe there's a slight emotional ret-con, but nothing substantive.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I don't think the past connection was needed either. It was just tossed into the film at the end and I didn't care for it because it changed a lot of the meaning of their relationship if you actually thought about it.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, My problem with 3 was mainly that Smith is now too old to play the same "brash young guy" character he plays. It felt faked to me.

KRS said...

Andrew - Matt Damon as Robin? Just when I was recovering, that image put me back down again. Thanks, Andrew, next you'll be recommending nipples on the body armor :O

Now that I've fully regained my senses, I can speak. Everything you say about MIB is spot one. I came to it without seeing much of the previews somehow, so it took me by surprize and and I was delighted to see it in theater.

I tend to be suspicious of sequels to really brilliant work because it's hard to clear that bar again - maybe impossible. I know Toy Story did it, but I can't think of another offhand.

Nonetheless, I really got into the opening of MIB2 until LFB popped up in her undies. There was something about that moment that told me the rest of the movie wasn't going to make it over the hill. Not that I didn't like seeing her in her deities, but that sort of thing right at the start kinda sends a message that's never good.

Tennessee Jed said...

Never saw this one so I can't really comment much. I enjoy feels that are rich in irony, and trust an audience rather than spell everything out. It sounds like you have to work a bit to like this one, and that's o.k. On the other hand, sometimes film makers mistake inside jokes for intelligence and ambiguity. Sounds like that was not the case here.

Jocelyn said...

MIB is one of my all time favorite movies. I can watch it over and over and laugh at it. The last time I was in NY, I went to Battery Park just to take a picture of the building that was used as the HQ and went to the old Worlds Fair place to take a picture of the flying saucers, just because I can.

I love all the scenes; even when they are visiting the pawn shop and the couple on the bike goes by and they are all lite up. Those little things just add to the movie. I also use that quote, "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it." a lot in describing the mass public. A person is smart if they are informed, but once they are in a herd they are dumb.

T-Rav said...

KRS, if you needed any conclusive proof of how inbred and completely unserious and tone-deaf Hollywood is, all you'd have to do is listen today to all the entertainment "critics" and "commentators" talking about how much gravitas and grit Affleck will bring to the role. (groan)

I don't really dislike Affleck, and I object mainly to the very idea of bringing Batman back only three years after TDKR. But still.

Koshcat said...

Why do we need another Batman? Why can't we go forward with Robin Blake? The story of Nightwing would have potential especially since we already have the back story in place.

Jason said...

The “cult film” aspects of this movie probably helped explain why it became such a big hit when it premiered. The audience thought that they had discovered it instead of it being hyped down their throats.

Know what the big hit of that summer was supposed to be? Batman and Robin. Well, the second big hit; the first was The Lost World: Jurassic Park. B&R had all the starpower you could ask for and following up on the successful Batman Forever. By contrast, Men in Black had some witty trailers, but would it be big? At the time, I didn’t have an inkling of it.

Well, we all know what happened. Batman and Robin was drowned in (well deserved) bad reviews and Men in Black opened with a smash.

Also, I really liked Men in Black 3. :)

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, Take that! LOL! Just kidding. Sorry about that. I can't believe anyone thought that casting Affleck was a good idea.

On MIB, it's very hard to repeat magic in a sequel and I think that's probably because writers tend to see sequels differently than they do the first film. Rather than making the cool story they loved, then end up trying to make a knock-off of the same story and that ends up themeless.

Agreed on MIB 2. Seeing her in her underwear, while I enjoyed it, kind of signaled that they were aiming for a more juvenile film that time. And that's kind of what we got.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, The jokes here were definitely meant to be gotten, they aren't inside jokes. The best way to put it really is that this film caters to all levels of humor.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't thought of MiB as a mix of cult film intelligence and general film lightness, but that does explain a lot of its appeal. I thoroughly enjoyed it when I watched it in the past. Smith and Jones worked really well together and I liked Linda Fiorentino's character Laurel a lot, too. One of the biggest things that disappointed me about the sequel is that she didn't come back; I thought there was a lot of potential for a new adventure with her on the team.

There's not much I can add about how good the dialogue was, too. Zed's line about government training, the line about how a person is smart but people are dumb and panicky, Laurel's comments about the alien body's...missing orifices, and Elvis going home still stick with me. It was definitely a good, fun movie and you've given me more to think about when it comes to the philosophical parts!

- Daniel

AndrewPrice said...

Jocelyn, "just because I can"! LOL! I love that. That's the attitude that makes America what it is. :D

I totally agree about the scenes like the bike. This film is visually rich as every scene is packed with so many things you can look it. It makes the film a joy to watch.

Exactly! People can be smart, informed and very rational, but put them into a mob and they lose all of that and just go stupid.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I don't actually dislike Affleck either, but there is no way he's up to the part. He's far too lightweight to be an action hero.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, We need another Batman because it sells... that's the only reason. And teaming him with Superman will SELL. That's why they're doing it.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, It is funny that in hindsight it seems like this was guaranteed to be a success, but it really wasn't. As you point out, this was not THE big film that summer.

I think you are right that the "cult film" aspect certainly helped this movie big time with word of mouth. By giving all these layers of humor, people get a feeling of "Oh, I figured it out!" even if they only got part of it. It creates a feeling that the film spoke to you in ways you know it didn't to other people. That makes it feel special, and I would suspect that leads people to run out and tell their friends to go see it. How many people do you think told their friends to go see Batman and Robin?

I didn't care for MIB 3, but I'm glad you did. :) There was a lot I liked about it, but it just didn't feel right to me overall. I certainly can't say it was a bad movie, it just didn't feel right to me.

AndrewPrice said...

Daniel, Interestingly, I remember all those lines as well and think about them from time to time. I think that is a sign of truly genius writing when people remember your dialog years later.

I think the reason the cult aspect isn't obvious at first is because this just feels like a surprisingly smart summer film. But it isn't until you start to think about it that you see how similar this film actually is to other cult films except that each scene ends with the big shiny for the summer crowd.

There is a lot of philosophical stuff in this film, but it's also handled very subtly, so you can ignore it if you like. I think that's probably key to keeping everyone happy too.

Rustbelt said...

Well, I'm late to this chat, and, honestly, there's only two things I can add.

First, this film is good, but it doesn't scream out for a re-watch as far as I'm concerned. It just seems so...90's. Like a pre-9/11 relic, or something like that. It's hard to express. Maybe I was surprised by the lack of concern for humanity in this film. It just has such a "yeah, whatever..." feel to it that seems almost...hipster-ish? I don't know. It just seems to have such a detached, unemotional, and almost Kubrick feel to it that I feel no need to revisit it, no matter how smart it is.

And speaking of Kubrick...
I don't feel that the Earth being part of another "galaxy" thing at the end has any special meaning. (Or the locker thing at the end of MiB2, for that matter.) I've always had the same feeling about it that I have about Jack's picture at the end of 'the Shining.' There's nothing to it, IMO. It's just the director trying to put up a visual because "it looks cool" and then trying to trick the audience into thinking it means something. And yes, I have the read the Commentarama 'Shining' thread. So, I'm all caught up on this subject. And that's my two cents.

All in all, it's a good film, but not one that makes me want to re-watch it, like 'Ghostbusters,' 'Big Trouble...," or "Firefox."

Anyway, it's good to be back. Oh, and, uh, I left a few comments and links in 'the Warriors' thread. (Andrew, shame on you for putting that up while I was away!) Please enjoy!

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, There's no crime in that. People see movies differently and have different tastes.

I don't get a hipster sense at all from the film. What I get mainly is a celebration of individuality and a heavy disdain for "the crowd."

I think the ending is meaningful in the sense of perspective. It's like the Twilight Zone episode where Claude Akins terrorizes the microscopic people only to have giants land on top of him later. It's kind of like a statement that says, "Imagine what you'll discover tomorrow."

Rustbelt said...

Twilight Zone influence, eh? Well, that certainly deserves the Spock reply of "Fascinating."

But if that's the case, showing that we're all just insignificant parts of something small and really don't matter, wouldn't that hurt the celebration of the importance of the individual? Okay, now I know I'm really reaching out there, but the idea just hit me. Food for thought, I guess.

Anyway, mentioning the Twilight Zone is only heightening my mood. I went to a football scrimmage at my old high school this evening and it has left me in a fall mindset. I suddenly miss 'Fear Friday' on AMC. I definitely feel like it's time to break out the old B-movies for a late night viewing, preferably something with Peter Cushing and/or Christopher Lee...

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, This film isn't presented a unified theory of the universe nor is it everything it talks about something it deals with in the film. What it does, is that it examines human nature -- individuality v. group think -- and it otherwise throws out lots of questions and issues, but leaves those for you to consider rather than exploring them. You can't try to link all the things it raises as one theory.

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