Men in Black

Men in Black
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Screenplay: Ed Solomon (based on Marvel comic by Lowell Cunningham)
Stars: Tommy Lee Jones (K), Will Smith (James Edwards/J), Linda Fiorentino (Dr. Laurel Weaver), Vincent D'Onofrio (Edgar), Rip Torn (Zed), Tony Shalhoub (Jack Jeebs)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 1997
Country: U.S.
Men in Black Blu-Ray
Men in BlackBarry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black has a lot in common with Ghostbusters (1984), even if Sonnenfeld likes to think of it as a sequel to The French Connection, except with aliens instead of drug dealers. Both films were substantial summer hits that derive the biggest laughs from their characters’ ho-hum attitude toward things that most of us would consider extraordinary. For the most part, MIB simply replaces the hoard of ghosts with a hoard of aliens, exchanges the four Ghostbusters with a pair of super-secret government agents in black suits, and the result is a frequently hilarious, semi-self-parodying, geeked-out sci-fi thriller.

Based on a fairly obscure Marvel comic book and written by Ed Solomon (who also scripted both Bill and Ted movies), Men in Black sets out to convince us that, for the last 50 years, aliens from all walks of the universe have been hiding out on earth for various reasons, and a top-secret, underground government agency is responsible for keeping tabs on them. According to Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), a hard-nosed veteran with a stolid demeanor akin to that of Dragnet’s Joe Friday, there are some 1,500 aliens presently living on Earth. Of course, many of them are well known figures, including Newt Gingrich, Sylvester Stallone, and Dennis Rodman. But, still others are posing as cab drivers, pawnshop owners, and illegal Mexican immigrants (the movie’s initial gag, and one of its best, is that an illegal alien is a literal alien).

K recruits a new partner in James Edwards (Will Smith), a tough-talking, sarcastic New York cop (that’s a new one). Once Edwards decides to join K’s team, his fingerprints are burned off, all his records destroyed, and his identity is reduced to the letter J. Under the guidance of the agency’s leader, the ever-stoic and humorless Zed (Rip Torn), J and K are entrusted with making sure that no “bugs,” or illegal aliens, are running amok on Earth. Their main enemy turns out to be a derelict visitor from space who literally assumes the skin of a redneck farmer (Vincent D’Onofrio) and wants to destroy the earth.

MIB is certainly far-fetched and at times downright ludicrous, but Sonnenfeld realizes this fact and exploits it without being too obvious. The movie is filled to the brim with conspiracy/alien/X-Files jokes--one of the best being the idea that most of the alien stories in the supermarket rags are actually true (“Best investigative journalism in the world,” K maintains)--but all are done in a low-key manner so they don’t draw undue attention to themselves. In this respect, Sonnenfeld was the perfect choice to helm MIB because of his unique ability to bring living comic book visions to the screen. The only other director who could have pulled it off well is Tim Burton, but even he might have made it a little too weird (MIB does feature a spirited Beetle Juice-like score by frequent Burton-collaborator, Danny Elfman).

Working with cinematographer Donald Peterman (with whom he also collaborated on Addams Family Values and Get Shorty) Sonnenfeld fills the screen with bright, eye-popping images. There is often a great deal going on in the background that might be missed the first time, which is especially true of the agency’s modernist underground headquarters. The special effects are unsurprisingly top rate, thanks to a strong collaboration between the digital wizards at Industrial Light & Magic and Rick Baker, who is arguably the father of modern make-up effects. The various aliens range from tiny E.T.-like creatures with big eyes, to 20-foot tall insects with drooling jaws. As MIB was made near the beginning of the digital age, there is still a heavy reliance on animatronics and make-up effects, which gives the film a visual grounding it probably wouldn’t have if it were made today.

Even with scene-stealing aliens popping up every five minutes, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith are still the backbone of the film. Their odd-couple pairing of the hardened veteran and the wise-cracking new recruit is as old as the movies themselves, but it works because both actors invest themselves entirely in the characters. Jones has never been so serious and so funny at the same time, and Smith tightened his smart-ass routine to near perfection without becoming annoying. Never lost amid the special effects or the throw-caution-to-the-wind-we-know-it’s-stupid-but-we-don’t-care-because-it’s funny attitude, Jones and Smith keep MIB down to earth, thus keeping it from sailing off into the stratosphere of overcooked summer movies.

Men in Black Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround
  • Portuguese Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Thai Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Arabic, Bahasa, Dutch
  • Telestrator commentary by director Barry Sonnefeld and actor Tommy Lee Jones
  • Audio commentary by Sonnenfeld, Rick Baker, and Industrial Light & Magic team
  • Alien subtitle track
  • Extended and alternate scenes
  • “Metamorphosis of Men in Black” documentary
  • Original featurette
  • Scene editing workshop
  • Visual effects scene deconstruction with commentary
  • Character animation studies
  • Storyboard comparisons
  • Three stills galleries: Storyboards, Concept Art, and Production Photos
  • Will Smith Men in Black music video
  • Original theatrical and teaser trailers
  • Intergalactic Pursuit multiplayer game
  • Ask Frank the Pug! interactive game
  • BD Live content
  • DistributorSony Pictures Home Entertainment
    Release DateJune 17, 2008

    Men in Black’s new high-definition 1080p transfer looks superb. The image is an all-around improvement from the previously available DVDs, with sharper detail (the goop all over Tommy Lee Jones after he blows his way out of the giant roach has never looked ickier), better colors (notice how much the red of Will Smith’s jacket pops), and darker, richer blacks that also bring out more detail in the shadows. The image still retains a pleasantly filmlike appearance, which means that it doesn’t feature a lot of digital sharpening and edge enhancement, which I greatly appreciate. The Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround soundtrack (available in English, French, and Portuguese, with standard 5.1 in Spanish and Thai) is also thoroughly excellent. Danny Elfman’s perfectly wrought musical score has plenty of room to soar, and the surround tracks are used aggressively to surround you in the various action sequences.
    Since the two-disc Special Edition DVD from 2000 was so thorough, not much has been added. The only new supplements are a pair of relatively useless games and an “alien subtitle track” that puts weird-looking characters on the screen whenever an alien is speaking. The first game, Intergalactic Pursuit, is a single or multiplayer trivia game that asks you questions about the movie and those involved in it. The second new supplement is the ridiculous Ask Frank the Pug! interactive game, where you are supposed to ask a question out loud and then select a related category (romance, career, money, health, etc.), which prompts a badly animated Frank the Pug to offer a brief, probably unhelpful response. (There is also some BD Live content, the first of Sony’s Blu-Rays to have this offering, but it doesn’t go live until the disc streets, so I couldn’t check it out.)

    You’re better off with the original supplementary material, even if it’s all in standard-def. You have an option of two informative screen-specific audio commentaries. The first is by director Barry Sonnenfeld and actor Tommy Lee Jones, while the second features Sonnenfeld, creature effects supervisor Rick Baker, and a handful of Industrial Light & Magic artists and technicians. The Sonnefeld/Jones commentary also has a “Telestar” option in which you see their outlines on the screen while they talk and they can circle parts of the screen to which they’re referring, sort of like commentators during a football game. It’s a bit gimmicky, but kind of fun, too.

    There are two featurettes: a generally worthless 6-minute bit from the electronic press kit and the more in-depth 23-minute “Metamorphosis of Men in Black,” which includes interviews with Sonnenfeld, Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, comic book artist Lowell Cunningham, and make-up effects maestro Rick Baker, among others. There are four minutes of deleted and extended scenes, all of which are relatively brief and don’t offer much difference from the finished film.

    The majority of the supplements are aimed at effects junkies, starting with the Visual Effects Scene Deconstruction, which allows you to go through the tunnel scene and the Edgar Bug fight scene in five different stages: storyboards, bluescreen shoot, bluescreen composite, lighting and animation, and final cut. Similarly, the “Character Animation Studies” allow you to examine the development of Mikey, Jeebs, and the Worm Guys through four stages: preliminary, adding skin and texture, animation with lighting, and final character composite into the scene. For those who love the creatures, there is the “Creatures: Concept to Completion” section, which allows you to see the Edgar Bug, Jeebs, Mikey, Mr. Gentle, and Farmer Edgar in their various design stages. All three of these sections are great, but the only problem is the interactive design, which keeps the various options on the lefthand side of the screen, thus reducing what you’re looking at (whether it be a video clip or a still image) to a tiny window on the righthand side of the screen. Even watching on a projector and a 92-inch screen, it was hard to discern as much detail as I’d like, especially on the storyboard-to-final-film comparisons of three scenes. The Scene Editing Workshop is one of those features that’s cool, but not quite as cool as you’d hope. It gives you excerpts from three scenes in the movie, each of which is composed of three shots. You have three options for each of those shots that you can choose, thus creating different versions of the same scene that you can then compare to the scene as it plays in the movie. It’s a simplified, but interesting example of how editing works.

    Finally, there are three extensive stills galleries (Storyboards, Concept Art, and Production Photos), as well as Will Smith’s “Men in Black” music video and both the original theatrical and teaser trailers.

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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