Wednesday, April 13, 2011

1997 Saturn – MEN IN BLACK

The Saturn is far from the most prestigious award that I’m covering, but I wanted to include it for the sake of variety in my movie reviews. It has also awarded some very strong films that outshined their more prestigious Hugo competitors in the long-run (Soylent Green over Sleeper, Terminator over 2010, 12 Monkeys over Babylon 5). So, the Saturn has recognized its fair share of strong sf movies. This is not one of them.

Men in Black is a big-budget science fiction action comedy special effects extravaganza. There’s also some sort of story and characters in there, but they’re mostly overwhelmed by a combination of slime jokes and cg goo aliens. The film, adapted from an obscure Marvel comic book whose existence I cannot verify, taps into the alien conspiracy craze that the super-popular X-Files had rekindled at this point while adding lots of elements from the aesthetics of Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton (Spielberg executive produced, though director Barry Sonnenfeld seems more indebted to Burton on this one). The men in black are mysterious well-dressed government agents who cover up alien encounters. Tommy Lee Jones plays an uber-professional man in black, basically by reprising his role from The Fugitive. Will Smith plays the headstrong new recruit in a set up that is only slightly incredibly generic. Rip Torn is the bossy boss. Linda Fiorentino is underused as the love interest. Tony Shaloub and others play weird aliens, just barely passing as humans. I think I’m listing the cast because there’s so little plot to recount. Aliens threaten to blow up the world, and the Jones/Smith team must stop them. The film undercuts itself by repeatedly reiterating that the plot may seem exciting, but this is really just a normal, boring day at the office for the men in black.

If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m not a fan of this movie. It’s quite popular among lots of sf fans, but it rubbed me the wrong way the first time I saw it, and it rubbed me the wrong way again this time. Jones could pull this roll off in his sleep (and, he may actually be sleeping through most of the movie – what are those sunglass hiding?), and Will Smith is his usual, sickeningly charismatic self. They’re the best things about this mostly stupid film. There’s a fair amount of childish gross-out humor, which is generally not my favorite, and the rest of the jokes depend on the idea that anyone at all unusual must be an alien.* “New Yorkers sure are weirdos, they must be aliens!” Har…har? I don’t want to seem oversensitive; a smarter script could probably make these things work. This is not a smart script.

So, yeah, not funny. Not even a good riff on the alien conspiracy idea. The best thing I can say about this film is that it’s very short and quite inoffensive…and yet, I am offended by its inoffensiveness. Sorry, I think I have an irrational hatred for this film. The fact that it won in a good year for sf-on-film over the likes of Gattaca, Contact, and The Fifth Element just makes me even more annoyed.

The sequel, by the way, makes this movie look like The Godfather II.

Grade: C-

*By the logic of the film, shouldn’t Rip Torn be an alien rather than a man in black?

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