20 Movies 20 Years Later

A Bright Spot In A Hostile Universe, One Sci-Fi Flick’s Message Is Especially Meaningful Today

"Men in Black" turns 20 this year.

20 Movies 20 Years Later remembers and explores the films that touched us back then and still resonate today. Join A Plus as we rewatch movies released in 1997 and celebrate their contributions to pop culture.

In President Trump's first few months, his administration has antagonized Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans, gays, women, and most recently, encouraged police to be even more aggressive with suspects. The 1997 film adaption of the cult comic Men in Black epitomizes the antithesis of this xenophobic, authoritarian, and regressive ideology. In the film, which opens with a metaphoric skirmish along the Mexican border, government agents are responsible for both securing the homeland and managing relations with assimilated yet incognito shape-shifting aliens. The objective of the program being to reap the benefits of advanced technologies without causing a panic in the human population. Inevitably, there are some aliens with dubious behavior in the mix, but as Will Smith's character explains, "Most of them are decent enough, they're just trying to make a living." The film's communal ethos is applied not just to the aliens, but to Smith and co-star Tommy Lee Jones as well. Watching Jones as experienced Agent K train Will as novice Agent J, we not only learn how to get along with other species but how to get along among our own kind.

That this premise seems unfathomable now speaks to how far society has devolved into paranoia and hostility, themes common in dystopian science fiction where aliens are often desperate explorers at best or genocidal invaders at worst. MIB inverted that trope and audiences embraced it. Made for $90 million, MIB remains the highest grossing buddy film, making more than $589 million worldwide. At the core of its success are its arguably pro-immigration and pro-technology messages, a sly sense of humor punctuated with timely cultural references, a soundtrack filled with R&B and hip-hop artists, cutting-edge special effects, and an affable cast led by Tommy Lee Jones as sardonic and world-weary Agent K and Will Smith as bewildered but progressive Agent J. Other notable cast members include Vincent D'Onofrio, who went on to be better known as Det. Goren on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Tony Shalhoub, who would later earn Golden Globe and Emmy awards as OCD detective Monk.

Jettisoning the violence of Lowell Cunningham's 1990 comic book where aliens and witness are eliminated outright, MIB uses the concept of "memory wiping" to maintain peace among earth's cosmically diverse citizenry. The family-friendly approach broadened its appeal to a cross-section of movie lovers. Christian outlets gave it good reviews: this film is great fun. It is quirky, imaginative, and intelligent. Kids gave it good reviews: you might say what is this movie, but what the heck are you doing? This is made to make you laugh your butt off. Roger Ebert gave it a good review that nailed its fundamental charm: a lot of big-budget special-effects films are a hair this side of self-parody and don't know it. Men in Black knows it and glories in it.

A large part of the reason the film adaptation could make the changes it did stems from powerhouse Marvel Comics acquiring the original publisher of MIB. Without Marvel's budget and resources, it is doubtful MIB would have received the proper packaging and treatment it did. Even so, MIB was not an easy sell. Smith and Jones both had to be talked into taking their roles by Steven Spielberg, whose sci-fi classics E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind share MIB's optimistic view and tone. Before they agreed, Jones' role had been pitched to Clint Eastwood, and Smith's to Chris O'Donnell and David Schwimmer. Prior to Barry Sonnenfeld signing on to helm, other directors approached included Quentin Tarantino and John Landis, who passed because the script felt like "The Blues Brothers with aliens." In retrospect, it's impossible to imagine any other team making MIB.

By the time of MIB's release, Will Smith was already famous thanks to his music career with DJ Jazzy Jeff, the hit series Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and his savior role in Independence Day, a more conventionally confrontational sci-fi film. His influence as a successful recording artist was noticeable on the film soundtrack, which featured a who's who of hip-hop and R&B, including Alicia Keys, The Roots, Nas, Destiny's Child, De La Soul, and Snoop Dogg. The MIB soundtrack went to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 the last week of July and early August. MIB's theme song was also Will Smith's first solo hit and won him a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance.

In addition to its blockbuster performance at the box office, MIB also won an Academy Award for Best Makeup, one of three Oscar nods it earned including Best Art Direction and Best Original Score by former Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman. Elfman, who had already scored The Simpsons and several Tim Burton films including Batman, has since become one of the most successful film composers in the business. MIB even improved the career of the Industrial Light and Magic crew who created the eye-popping effects. Robotics expert Mark Setrakian, who has since worked on numerous projects including Pacific Rim and Netflix sensation Stranger Things, called it "a touchstone of my career." Asked what made the film great, Setrakian agrees with Ebert: "The fact that he had a dry sense of humor and a really good sense of pacing, a really good sense of visual style, that's what mattered. That really made the movie great."

These days, MIB's influence can be scene in films such as Oscar winner The Martian, wherein Matt Damon jokes about disco and that technology is a tool for good, as well as The Arrival, wherein visitors gift Amy Adams and humanity with paradigm-shifting insight into the nature of time and space. Inevitably, there have been rumors of a Men in Black reboot, but it is doubtful it would generate the same warm feelings or box office buzz. The world is at present a lot more jaded about the government and less welcoming to romantic ideals like building interstellar community. If it were to be remade now, it would likely be a lot more like the original, violent comics, making 1997's MIB shine like a falling star streaking across a dark and hostile universe.  

Men in Black is available on AmazonGoogle PlayiTunes, and YouTube.

Cover image: Columbia Pictures

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