A Reminder That The Original ‘Men In Black’ Was A Perfect Film

It was that elusive popcorn blockbuster that studio execs dream about.

Men In Black original film

It’s hard to understate the cultural impact of Men In Black, especially in 2019, some 22-years removed from its initial summer release.

Yet the sci-fi comedy was more than just a popcorn blockbuster that hit big, in a year when so many other high-budget offerings were failing to do so (Batman + Robin, Con Air, Starship Troopers, Spawn, Event Horizon, Alien: Resurrection). Based on a now mostly forgotten comic book series, the movie adaptation grossed nearly $600M internationally, off a $90M budget and was one of those rare beasts: a critical and commercial hit.

Legendary film critic George Siskel called it a “clever romp”, and gave it an almost a perfect score of 3.5/4 for the Chicago Tribune, calling it: “A smart, funny and hip adventure film in a summer of car wrecks and explosions.”

In a testament to its reach, Men In Black’s tentacles extended far beyond the theatre. There was Will Smith’s No.1 US Billboard hit song to accompany the film, complete with CGI aliens doing the Electric Slide and catchy hooks (galaxy defendeeeeeers).

The animated series was a staple of breakfast television, along with a line of tie-in toys from McDonald’s that every kid growing up in the 90s was smashing Happy Meals to get.

Nothing Can Sink The Men In Black

Titanic was the biggest sail away hit of 1997, released towards the end of the year on December 19: but from July onwards the biggest cinema success story was Men In Black.

With the exception of The Fifth Element and the aforementioned big boat, none of the other top 10 highest grossers of ’97 had the same enduring impact as Men In Black. Not The Lost World: Jurassic Park, not Air Force One, and definitely not As Good As It Gets.

This was due to a culmination of elements, rather than just one.

There was the talent, of course, with Men In Black hitting at just the exact moment several key creatives were at their apex. Cinematographer-turned-director Barry Sonnenfeld had just come off the one-two punch of The Addams Family (1991), and Addams Family Values (1993): two brilliant, subversive, and deeply underrated family films.

Vincent D’Onofrio was still in that deeply fun, deeply weird stage that gave us The Cell, and as the almost unrecognisable Edgar he delivers a captivating physical performance. It was seemingly one of the last times Tommy Lee Jones gave a shit on camera, and on the tail end of Batman Forever and Volcano, he needed a hit.

Then there was Will Smith, at the peak of his movie star powers.

The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air had officially wrapped, Bad Boys (1995) and Independence Day (1996) had proven his blockbuster bonafides, and he was still dropping chart hits every other week. His debut solo album Big Willie Style was released in ’97 and spawned four of the year’s biggest hits, including Getting Jiggy With It, Just The Two Of Us, Miami, and, of course, Men In Black (just bounce with me, just bounce it with me, come on, let me see ya just sliiide with me).

He represented everything that was cool and modern and fresh about Hollywood: Tommy Lee Jones was everything that was old school, classic, and a little stale. That’s one of the reasons their odd couple pairing worked so effectively.

Galaxy Defenders

Yes, it was a popular trope in the 90s with buddy cop flicks like Lethal Weapon, Rush Hour, Blue Streak, The Last Boy Scout, and countless others.

Men In Black took that formula and exploited it beautifully, with Tommy Lee Jones’ signature dryness as Kay being a wonderful embodiment of the bored public servant archetype, and in juxtaposition to everything fantastical occurring around him.

Smith’s Jay is the vessel for the audience, the conduit we all wished we could be, as he has the veil pulled back and sees the world for what it really is.

They play off each other perfectly, but also visually: when we’re first introduced to Jay, he’s vibrant. Even as a street cop, he navigates the world in bold shapes, loud patterns, and strong colours through the clothing that he wears.

He’s in stark contrast to the world of the Men In Black, Kay’s world, which is embodied by “the last suit you’ll ever wear”.

Visual Storytelling At Its Best

The Men In Black uniform looks like the Men In Black world: minimal colour, clean lines, monochrome, and classic cut.

Jay is someone who always stood out before, as represented by his clothes. Now his job as MiB is to conform and blend. The suit is the physical manifestation of that and ultimately becomes the symbol of what he feels restricts him later as the series moves on with Men In Black 2 (rubbish) and Men In Black 3 (actually great), both directed by Sonnenfeld.

It’s visual storytelling at its most simple and most effective, with the odd couple nature of Jay and Kay being more than just black and white, old and young, cool and not-cool: it’s human and alien as well.

The costumes helped add layers to the highly efficient world building, which included art direction that was nominated for an Academy Award and make-up effects that won the Oscar. Throw in Danny Elfman’s original score (also nominated), and a signature aesthetic was able to be created that extended through the original trilogy, then onwards with the new Men In Black: International.

Men In Black: International

After all, the building blocks were already there: so too was the world, rich with some of the best sci-fi world-building. With a skeleton from Lowell Cunningham’s comic series, a bulk of the brilliance comes from Ed Solomon’s tight one hour and thirty-eight minute script.

To repeat: a high budget blockbuster with succinct world building, thrills, and intergalactic spills well under two hours. The 90s were a simpler time.

Among the heavy-lifting of the alien bureaucracy Solomon creates, there’s also some genuinely poignant lines of dialogue. Namely the moment when Jay is questioning whether he wants to become not part of the system, but above it, and join the MiB.

Understandably overwhelmed, it’s Kay who breaks things down: “Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody ‘knew’ that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody ‘knew’ that the Earth was flat. And fifteen minutes ago, you ‘knew’ that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

It’s a killer moment, even more so when you consider Solomon’s last film was the disastrous Super Mario Bros and before that a string of television comedies plus the Bill & Ted films.

With Emma Thompson’s ‘Agent O’ one of the few returning elements from the original trio of films (sorry, the talking pug in a tux doesn’t count), Men In Black: International has less heavy lifting to do than a franchise reboot should after two decades of brand awareness.

That’s because the first movie was so good at establishing not just the world, not just the alien universe, but the odd couple formula that will go on with Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson as Agent H and Agent M respectively.

Men In Black was more than just another notch on Will Smith’s movie star belt: it was hugely entertaining, visually original, and just a wee bit creepy (as all great sci-fi should be). It was that elusive popcorn blockbuster studio execs dream about, one that can hit four quadrants and then some with its mass appeal.

Men In Black was no longer part of the System. It was above the System. Over it. Beyond it.

Men In Black: International is currently in cinemas.

Maria Lewis is a journalist, screenwriter and author of The Witch Who Courted Death, It Came From The Deep and the Who’s Afraid? novel series, available worldwide.