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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #409: Men In Black


I don’t know exactly when it all began, but aliens are now part of the world’s greatest myths, right along Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. There are plenty of reports of people seeing them, many blurry photographs, but actual proof? None. Conspiracy theorists say that’s what the government would have you believe, and Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1997 comedy “Men In Black” shows you just how a government agency would hide the aliens in plain sight. The joke is that some aliens are so bizarre they get careers in entertainment. Which makes me wonder about Charlie Sheen. Did he not say he was from Mars?

I first saw “Men In Black” about a year after it had come out and my brother had already seen it on the big screen. He loved it so he figured I would like it too. So we watched while our parents were out for the night. This was back when we were living in Santiago, Chile, so the movie was in Spanish. Will Smith is still funny in Spanish, but unfortunately I had a hard time laughing.

If I am to follow my blog’s mission statement and say what this particular movie meant to me when I first saw it, then I have to swallow my pride and be brutally honest: the first time I saw “Men In Black” it scared the crap out of me. I know, I know, it’s a comedy and it was never meant to be scary in the first place. Unfortunately when I first saw it, I somehow had this profound fear of aliens, probably from just seeing an image of the monster in “Alien.”

What really didn’t help is that scene when a flying saucer crashes on the truck of Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio) a farmer complaining to his wife about his day. When he gets close to the crater, an arm reaches and pulls him inside. What comes out is an alien wearing his skin. The problem is that in my mind I couldn’t shake the image of Edgar being skinned alive. This proves that when it comes to monsters, your imagination will often do a better job than whatever is shown onscreen. I really should have told my imagination to take five.

It’s a shame, because the movie is a lot of fun. We first meet the mysterious government organisation as they pull up in a black car wearing black suits, white shirts, black ties, and black sunglasses. (Very Blues Brothers of them.) We meet the tough Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) who quickly sniffs out an alien hiding among a group of…illegal aliens from Mexico. The way this alien is designed says it all. He’s gray, tall, with a big mouth and eyes that can look behind its back. These aren’t aliens that can pass for human beings; these are creatures straight out of b-movies from the 1950s.

When then meet NYPD officer James Edwards (Will Smith), who is chasing a suspect with seemingly superhuman strength. When he corners him on top of a building, the man blinks horizontally, says the world will soon come to an end, and jumps to his death. At the precinct, Edwards’ superiors laugh off his story until Agent K walks into the room. Edwards tells him the whole story, including the part about the world ending, to, which K asks: “Did he say when?” Now Edwards is getting very concerned.

After the agency puts him through a series of tests, they decide that Edwards can join the ranks of the Men In Black, a top-secret organization dedicated to protecting Earth from the scum of the universe. They erase his identity, rename him Agent J, give him a classy suit, and hand him his first assignment: save the world. No pressure.

The cockroach that has taken Edgar’s skin is looking for an object known as the Galaxy. If he gets his hands on it, it will trigger an intergalactic war that will destroy the Earth. Classic MacGuffin: no one really knows what it looks like or what it does, but everyone wants it.

The movie won the Oscar for Best Makeup and rightfully so. When Edgar sheds his skin for the final confrontation, computer effects take over and Smith and Jones are fighting a giant animated cockroach. But for the rest of the movie, Vincent D’Onofrio is walking around New York looking like a man who is wearing dead skin over his body. Not to mention the rest of the weird aliens Agent J meets for the first time, including a tiny one that lives inside the head of human-shaped robot.

This makes for an amusing ride through a world we think we know, New York City, but shows us clever ways in which aliens could be hiding among us. Smith and Jones have a good chemistry together as the eager rookie earning his wings and the gruff veteran who does everything by the (non-existent) book. The sequel was inevitable.

F.Y.I, I now have seen so much violence, gore, and creepy crawlies eating people alive that I am pretty sure no monsters can scare me ever again. As a matter of fact, “Aliens” is now one of my favourite movies.

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