Ethics & Public Policy Center

Men in Black

Published in EPPC Online on July 1, 1997



Men in Black, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld from the comic book by Lowell Cunningham, is offered as a justification for weird sort of benign paranoia. The government, we are asked to believe, really knows all about the alien presence in our midst (that much is familiar) but they are keeping the knowledge of it from us for our own good. The universe is such a dangerous place that we would all go crazy if we knew the full extent of the alien penetration. “The only way these people get on with their happy little lives is they do not know about it,” says the hero, a Federal cop from the secret INS Division Six (the “Men in Black” ), who goes by the name of “K” (Tommy Lee Jones). He helps them to forget with the help of a “neuralizer”—a little wand-like thing that pops like a flashbulb and makes people forget all about their alien encounters.

It is an interesting idea and gives rise to some good laughs. Will Smith plays K’s assistant, “J” , a hip young NYPD cop who joins the Men in Black and is chosen over several more straight-arrow types from the armed forces. As we might expect, the chief qualification for protecting the earth from aliens is not a sense of duty or honor but a way with a wisecrack and the cheap sophistication that our young are taught by the pop culture to value above all things. “Man” says the sententious Mr. K, is nothing but “unevolved, undeveloped pond scum totally convinced of its own superiority.” This is not, as it may at first appear, a statement of humility but of arrogance; it is a consolation for slacker adolescents who want to think that those who really are superior are no better than themselves in the cosmic scheme of things.

Vincent D’Onofrio plays a farmer whose body is taken over by a bug-like alien. His poor abused wife is surprised when it comes back into the house in her husband’s skin, which is too big for it, and asks for sugar water, but she still assumes that he is her husband. This seems to me a missed opportunity, a chance for a futuristic blend of Metamorphosis and The Return of Martin Guerre in which the wife would come to prefer as a husband the insectiform alien, once she had got used to him. But, as is generally the case with this sort of film, the plot is instead a hackneyed and uninteresting exercise in saving the world from the bug-people with the help of a sexy morgue attendant called Laurel (Linda Fiorentino). This goes on for far too long, but if you are less sick than I am of being saved from ultimate annihilation by wisecracking kids (even Tommy Lee Jones is a mental teenager here), you might enjoy the one-liners.

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