Movies That Get Carded Now: “Men in Black”

Welcome back for another entry in our series of reviews in which we look back at films that have reached the 21 year milestone. These movies hit theaters so long ago that if they could consume food and beverage, they would be old enough to legally drink alcohol. A lot of these films will be ones we haven’t seen for years or even decades. We’ll be looking back on our first experiences with them and compare that with our most recent viewing. Today’s pick is Men in Black.

This is a film I did not see when it was in theaters. In fact, I did not see Men in Black until almost ten years after it was released in the summer of 1997 and became, at the time, one of the highest grossing films ever. It was also the second consecutive year that star Will Smith faced off against extra-terrestrial foes. He and Jeff Goldblum had achieved box office glory doing just that in Independence Day in 1996.

Alex:

As it normally is, you have a much better memory of when you watched this film for the first time than I do. I do remember watching it as a kid. As is the story of most of my childhood film viewing experiences, I was probably much too young to be watching this movie. However, I do remember thoroughly enjoying it. And upon re-watch, I understand why. This film has aged surprisingly well and is actually a really fun watch.

Nate:

One more thing I’d like to point out before I delve into my thoughts about Men in Black is that several months before its theatrical release, the original Star Wars trilogy returned to theaters to celebrate the 20th anniversary of A New Hope. Though Men in Black ultimately turned out to be a far less successful franchise than Star Wars, it’s interesting to make the comparison between how Men in Black holds up visually two decades later and how Star Wars held up two decades after its release. 1997 was the first time I remember watching A New Hope. I know it actually wasn’t the first time I had seen it, but it was the first time I really paid attention. I have to say, the visual effects and makeup in Men in Black are still pretty impressive, and probably hold up on par with the way those in A New Hope held up at the three decade mark. I may at some point re-watch Men in Black 3 and see how the visual effects and makeup from 2012 compare to those in the 1997 film. I will not, however, be watching Men in Black 2. Not ever again. It doesn’t exist as far as I am concerned and I will not mention it again in this review.

Alex:

That is a really interesting comparison. I do agree that the visual effects of Men in Black aged surprisingly well. Considering the leaps and bounds that have been made in film making, and in particular, visual effects, I really expected the visual effects of this movie to be quite laughable. There were only a few minor instances in which the visual effects seemed off. Other than that, visually, it was actually still pretty cool film.

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Nate:

It was striking during this viewing how much the human composition of film has changed in the last two decades. Yes, there is an African American man in one of the starring roles here, but almost all of the remaining police officers and army cadets are white and male. They are also mostly presented as good guys. There aren’t any corrupt police or government officials here. The worst thing any of them are accused of is laziness.

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 Alex:

You know I have kept this rant locked up inside for a long time. The lack of useful female characters drove me nuts the entire time we watched this film. I got really excited when the film first introduced Dr. Weaver ((Linda Florentino). She had potential to be a really great badass female character, but she was completely wasted. She served absolutely no purpose other than to reassure the male characters and to be a damsel in distress. I get that it was the 90s, but come on. She could have been so much more useful and it only would have improved the film overall. But, I digress.

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Nate:

The first scene that I took issue with was right after Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) tells J (Smith) that if he wants to join the organization, he will have to sever all human contact. Then we get a very brief shot of Smith sitting on a bench overnight and weighing his decision. This would mean something if, prior to this scene, the script had done something to establish that J had any human connections. We never hear anything about his family, friends or a significant other. Without any concrete evidence that J is giving up meaningful relationships, this scene is pointless. We do get a sense throughout the film that K walked away from a loved one. Because of Men in Black 3, we now know a lot about J’s father. This installment really fails though in terms of making J anything more than a smart-ass. K, at least as far as genre exercises such as this go, feels like a developed character. J is trope.

Alex:

I definitely agree. In general, J just felt like a goofy sidekick. We learned nothing substantial about him other than the fact that he was hesitant to leave behind is life to join the Men in Black. I wish we had learned just a little something about his past life that would have humanized him a bit more.

Nathan:

What works well is the buddy cop pairing of Smith and Jones. I forgot how funny parts of this film are, and the humor largely holds up. The banter between these two, and some of the alien characters they encounter, are this film’s greatest asset. There is some clunky, clichéd dialogue, including a climactic fight scene where J says there’s “Only one way off this planet, and that’s through me.”

Alex:

I really was surprised about how funny this film still was. Often times, watching an older film like this, the humor really doesn’t age well. I think it really speaks to how solid of a screenplay this film had. It was witty and the jokes really held up well. The action scenes also held up surprisingly well. There weren’t too many cringeworthy action sequences and it was actually pretty minimalistic and simple at times given the subject matter of the film.

Nate:

It would be quite a stretch to call Men in Black groundbreaking in really any way. It could also be more diverse and have more complex female characters, but even the men in this film aren’t that complicated either. Still, I’d say Men in Black is a solid way to kill 90 minutes or so and have some hearty laughs. I’ll gladly watch this film again someday, and I can’t say that about Independence Day or a lot of other sci-fi/action films from this era.

Alex:

All in all, I would say was a really fun movie to revisit. Honestly, I was really expecting to just make fun of this film a lot when I wrote about it. It was a pleasant surprise to actually enjoy it. It was even more of a surprise that the sexism was my biggest complaint. Wait, no it wasn’t. That is usually my complaint about movies. On that note, I would really like a coffee cephlapod, even if they are sexist. I feel like I could ignore it for a good cup of coffee.

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