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

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…

Full feature for the BFI

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