Secret, save-the-world organizations are fun. Aliens from outer space are fun. Old-school science fiction stuff is fun. So when they all come together in a balanced blend, the result is the kind of movie that might not be high cinema, but it doesn’t have to be. Considering the number of truly terrible movies there are out there—movies that make you stop and wonder how many hungry children could have been fed with its budget instead of making two hours of screen tripe—simply enjoying a fun popcorn flick is a worthy goal. And that’s what Men in Black is: a goofy romp that has fun with a premise impossible to take too seriously. But what sets it apart is how it still carries a compelling theme about what it means to shoulder a burden that not everybody can carry.
The story takes place in NYC, which, it turns out, is a thriving hub of extraterrestrial activity for aliens from all over the galaxy, who see the Earth in general and the Big Apple in particular as an ideal neutral ground and/or travel hub. To keep the human populace from freaking out, a secret organization called the Men in Black utilize all kinds of reverse engineered alien tech to keep the peace between our guests as well as keep them hidden from view. In the event that an alien is discovered, the MiB cover it up and repair any damage. So, when hotshot NYPD officer James Edwards collars a superhumanly fast and agile perp that turns out to be an alien, he gets a visit from MiB Agent K. K promptly wipes Edwards’ memory, but senses the kid might make a good addition to the MiB, so he recruits Edwards and gives him a black suit, cool shades, and a new code name: J. Welcome to the MiB, kid. J partners with K and as he begins to learn his beat as part of the world’s secret alien police, he must also contend with a world-threatening development in the form of a renegade alien with a penchant for wearing the skins of dead humans, swallowing people who get in its way, and searching for an alien artifact of such power that were it to fall in the wrong hands, the galactic community would not think twice about destroying Earth just to be on the safe side. In other words: just another day at the office for the MiB.
This is an enjoyable genre mashup of buddy cop story, fish out of water story, first day on the job story, secret defenders story and science fiction creature feature all somehow blended together into something that works despite its strange list of ingredients. It’s a lot of fun watching J go through the paces of understanding just what kind of a commitment he’s signed on for, that every day reveals to him some new aspect of his job he never bargained for, and that he is the first, last, best and only line of defense between planetary oblivion and any given day of the week. There is no such thing as down time or minor problems in his new line of work. There is an absurdity to every single part of K’s new job, from its mission statement, to the tech and methods it uses, to the extremely amorphous relationship it has with the truth. And yet, it all coalesces into something that we begin to understand as worthy. We see why there are so few Men (and women) in Black—most people simply couldn’t hack the job. And we see why having this story take such a comically deadpan approach is the only way to go; how else could you have a fresh alien threat every day and it not become some kind of weird joke, at least to the people who live in harm’s way?
And yet, despite the dark humor, there is a real cost to being a secret defender of the world. Agents have loved ones they have left behind. It’s hard to trust your own memories when you wipe other people’s minds all the time. And the longer you work as one of the MiB, the more you see things you can’t unsee.
There is a moment of truth early in the film when K is first recruiting J, and he lays out the truth about aliens on the planet, what the MiB is all about, and that signing up means giving up every aspect of one’s former life. Family, friends, relationships…everything. During the conversation, J wrestles with the necessity for such a grand subterfuge. Why go to all this effort? Why not just hit people with the truth? Surely they can handle it, right? And that is when K drops one of my favorite monologues in recent movie history: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”
That’s pretty deep for a popcorn movie that doesn’t mean to make any grand statements. But it matters even more later on, when K reveals that he recruited J to be his replacement, not his partner. After some 40 years of service, the guy has hit his limit. He knows that it doesn’t matter if you save the world today because you’ll just have to do it every other day of the week, too. He can imagine what he’ll learn tomorrow, and he knows that he will most likely wish he could forget it. So when J brings out his memory-erasing gizmo to oblige him, we understand. Some jobs reward long service with a fat pension or a gold watch. The MiB let you forget you ever took the job.