Men in Black is a 1997 American comic science fiction-spy film directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, produced by Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald and starring Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. The film was based on Lowell Cunningham's The Men in Black comic book series, originally published by Marvel and Malibu Comics, with a plot following two agents of a secret organization called Men in Black who supervise extraterrestrial lifeforms who live on Earth and hide their existence from ordinary humans. The film featured the creature effects and makeup of Rick Baker and visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic. The film was released on July 2, 1997, by Columbia Pictures and grossed $589,390,539 worldwide against a $90 million budget.
An animated series based on the film, titled Men in Black: The Series, ran from 1997 to 2001 on The WB. A live-action sequel, Men in Black II, was released in 2002. This was followed by Men in Black 3 in 2012. The success of the film inspired Marvel (who, by 1997, owned the property) to option other properties for development, later collaborating with Columbia Pictures to produce Spider-Man among other projects.
Men in Black (M.I.B.) is a secret non-government agency that polices and monitors extraterrestrial activity on Earth. The agency operates from an underground base at a Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority ventilation station in Battery Park, New York City. MIB members use neuralyzers to erase witnesses' memories of alien sightings. The MIB is monitoring about 1500 aliens around the world, most of them in the vicinity of New York City.
One night, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and his partner, Agent D (Richard Hamilton) intercept a truck containing illegal immigrants and Mikey, an extraterrestrial disguised as a human. Mikey starts to run and K is forced to kill it when it tries to attack a border patrol officer. D, realizing that he is too old, asks K to neuralyze him into "retirement." Later, the MIB leader Zed (Rip Torn) suggests that K search for a new partner.
Meanwhile, James Edwards (Will Smith) is a New York Police Department officer pursuing a crime suspect on foot. While chasing the incredibly fast and agile fugitive over the rooftops, Edwards sees the man's irises blink vertically, and realizes he is not human. K arrives at the precinct station, questions Edwards before neuralyzing him, and leaves the cop an MIB business card. Later, Edwards goes to the secret headquarters and competes with several others to qualify to join the MIB. After the tests, K takes him aside (while the others are neuralyzed) and offers him the position. Edwards accepts and his identity is erased, becoming Agent J.
Suspicious of why extraterrestrials are suddenly leaving the planet en masse, the M.I.B. investigate a farmer named Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio), who has been acting strangely after an alien craft crashed on his farm. Edgar has been killed and his skin used as a disguise by a "Bug," a member of a giant cockroach-like species that are at war with several other alien races, including the Arquillians. An Arquillian prince hiding in Brooklyn who is disguised as a human jewelry store owner named Rosenberg is attacked, and tells J as he dies that "the galaxy is on Orion's belt."
M.I.B. informant Frank the Pug (Tim Blaney), a Remoolian disguised as a small lapdog, explains that the missing galaxy is a massive source of energy housed in a small jewel. Edgar the Bug figures out the galaxy is hanging on the collar of Rosenberg's cat Orion, which refuses to leave the prince's body at the morgue. Orion has been taken care of by Dr. Laurel Weaver (Linda Fiorentino). J arrives at the morgue just as Edgar kidnaps Weaver and grabs the galaxy. The Arquillians deliver an ultimatum to M.I.B. to secure the galaxy within an hour, or they will destroy Earth to keep the galaxy away from the Bug species.
Edgar the Bug arrives at the site of two disguised flying saucers, the observation towers of the New York State Pavilion at Flushing Meadows. The Bug escapes on one saucer, but K and J are close behind and fire more powerful weapons, destroying the ship. The Bug sheds Edgar's skin and swallows J's and K's guns. K tells J to stop the Bug from getting onto the other ship, then taunts the Bug until he too is swallowed. J taunts the Bug by crushing cockroaches and saying they are his relatives, infuriating the extraterrestrial.
The Bug is blown open from the inside by K, who located his gun in the Bug's stomach. As J and K sit on the ground covered in slime, the insect tries to attack again, but is destroyed by Weaver, using J's gun. The three return to M.I.B. headquarters and K tells J that he has not been training him as a partner, but rather as a replacement. J neuralyzes K, using a coma cover story to allow him to return to his civilian life and the young woman he left behind. A few days later, it is revealed that Weaver also joined M.I.B. and is now J's new partner, Agent L.
The camera rapidly pulls back, showing that Earth and the Milky Way galaxy are also inside an alien jewel being used as a marble in a cosmic game.
- Tommy Lee Jones as Agent K: Agent J's grizzled and humorless mentor, formerly known as Kevin Brown: he found J. Clint Eastwood turned down the part, while Jones only accepted the role after Steven Spielberg promised the script would improve, based on his respect for Spielberg's track record. He had been disappointed with the first draft, which he reportedly said "stank". Jones felt it did not capture the tone of the comic, which he declared was what motivated him to get into the project.
- Will Smith as Agent J: Originally James Darrell Edwards III, an N.Y.P.D. detective recruited by K to join the M.I.B. Smith was cast because Barry Sonnenfeld's wife was a fan of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Sonnenfeld also liked his performance in Six Degrees of Separation. Chris O'Donnell turned down the role because he found the role of a new recruit too similar to Dick Grayson, whom he played in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. David Schwimmer also turned down the part. Like Jones, Smith said he accepted the role after meeting with Spielberg, who had been suggested to invite Smith for J by his wife Kate Capshaw.
- Linda Fiorentino as Laurel Weaver: A Deputy Medical Examiner who has had a few run-ins with the M.I.B. in the past.
- Vincent D'Onofrio as Edgar the Bug: A giant alien insect who eats a farmer and uses his skin as a disguise. He comes to earth to kidnap the Galaxy and use it to destroy the Arquillians. John Turturro and Bruce Campbell were both offered the role. The make-up increasingly enhanced the damage on D'Onofrio's face to indicate the decomposition of Edgar's skin worn by the Bug.
- Rip Torn as Agent Zed: The head of the M.I.B.
- Tony Shalhoub as Jack Jeebs: An alien, posing as a pawn shop owner, who deals in illegal weapons.
- Siobhan Fallon Hogan as Beatrice, Edgar's wife.
- Mike Nussbaum as Gentle Rosenberg, Arquillian jeweler: Guardian of The Galaxy, which he has attached to his pet cat's collar.
- Jon Gries as Van Driver
- Sergio Calderón as Jose
- Carel Struycken as Arquillian
- Fredric Lehne as Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Agent Janus
- Richard Hamilton as Agent D: Agent K's partner at the film's start, he decides he is too old for the job and has K erase his memory so he can retire.
- Kent Faulcon as 1st Lieutenant Jake Jensen
- John Alexander as Mikey
- Keith Campbell as Perp* Patrick Breen as Mr. Redgick
- Becky Ann Baker as Mrs. Redgick
- Sean Whalen as Intergalactic Passport Officer
- David Cross as Newton the Morgue Attendant. Sonnenfeld himself had considered taking this role, but he cast Cross for his better comic timing.
- Tim Blaney as Frank the Pug (voice): A smart-talking Pug-like alien.
Development and writingEdit
The film is based on Lowell Cunningham's comic book The Men in Black. Producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald optioned the rights to The Men in Black in 1992, and hired Ed Solomon to write a very faithful script. Parkes and MacDonald wanted Barry Sonnenfeld as director because he had helmed the darkly humorous The Addams Family and its sequel Addams Family Values. Sonnenfeld was attached to Get Shorty (1995), so they approached Les Mayfield to direct, as they had heard about the positive reception to his remake of Miracle on 34th Street. They actually saw the film later and decided he was inappropriate. Men in Black was delayed so as to allow Sonnenfeld to make it his next project after Get Shorty.
Much of the initial script drafts were set underground, with locations ranging from Kansas to Washington, D.C. and Nevada. Sonnenfeld decided to change the location to New York City, because the director felt New Yorkers would be tolerant of aliens who behaved oddly while disguised. He also felt much of the city's structures resembled flying saucers and rocket ships. One of the locations Sonnenfeld thought perfect for the movie was a giant ventilation structure for the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel, which became the outside of the MIB headquarters.
Filming began in March 1996. Many last-minute changes endured during production. First, James Edwards chasing a disguised alien was to occur at the Lincoln Center. But once the New York Philharmonic decided to charge the filmmakers for using their buildings, Sonnenfeld and Welch went for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Then, five months into the shoot, Sonnenfeld decided that the original ending, with a humorous existential debate between Agent J and the Bug, was unexciting and lacking the action that the rest of the film had. Five potential replacements were discussed. One of these had Laurel Weaver being neuralyzed and K remaining an agent. Eventually it boiled down to the Bug eating K and fighting J, replacing the animatronic Bug Rick Baker's crew had developed with a computer-generated Bug with an appearance closer to a cockroach. The whole action sequence cost an extra $4.5 million to the filmmakers.
Further changes were made during post-production to simplify the plotline involving the possession of the tiny galaxy. The Arquillians would hand over the galaxy to the Baltians, ending a long war. The Bugs need to feed on the casualties and steal the galaxy in order to continue the war. Through changing of subtitles, the images on M.I.B.'s main computer and Frank the Pug's dialogue, the Baltians were eliminated from the plot. Earth goes from being potentially destroyed in the crossfire between the two races into being possibly destroyed by the Arquillians themselves to prevent the Bugs from getting the galaxy. These changes to the plot were carried out when only two weeks remained in the film's post-production, however, the film's novel still contains the Baltians.
Design and visual effectsEdit
Production designer Bo Welch designed the M.I.B. headquarters with a 1960s tone in mind, because that was when their organization is formed. He cited influences from Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, who designed a terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Being the arrival point of aliens on Earth, Welch felt M.I.B. HQ had to resemble an airport.
Rick Baker was approached to provide the prostethic and animatronic aliens, many of whom would have more otherworldly designs instead of looking humanoid. For example, the reveal of Gentle Rosenberg's Arquilian nature went from a man with a light under his neck's skin to a small alien hidden inside a human head. Baker would describe Men in Black as the most complex production in his career, "requiring more sketches than all my previous movies together". Baker had to have approval from both Sonnenfeld and Spielberg: "It was like, 'Steven likes the head on this one and Barry really likes the body on this one, so why don't you do a mix and match?' And I'd say, because it wouldn't make any sense." Sonnenfeld also changed a lot of the film's aesthetic during pre-production: "I started out saying aliens shouldn't be what humans perceive them to be. Why do they need eyes? So Rick did these great designs, and I'd say, 'That's great — but how do we know where he's looking?' I ended up where everyone else did, only I took three months." The maquettes built by Baker's team would later be digitized by Industrial Light and Magic, who was responsible for the visual effects and computer-generated imagery, for more mobile digital versions of the aliens.
Danny Elfman composed the film's score, making use of his usual combination of orchestra and electronics. The score also makes prominent use of jazz for the M.I.B. theme, which consists of an ostinato, usually played on lower instruments. Will Smith recorded a song based on the film's plot, also called "Men in Black". Elvis Presley's cover of "Promised Land" is featured in the scene where the MIB's car runs on the ceiling of Queens–Midtown Tunnel.
Two different soundtracks were released in the U.S.: a score soundtrack and an album, featuring various songs. In the U.K., only the album was released.
Galoob released various action figures of the film's characters and aliens. An official comic adaptation was released by Marvel Comics. The official Men in Black game is a third-person shooter developed by Gigawatt Studios and published by Germlin Interactive. Released to lackluster reviews in October '97 for the PC and the following year for the PlayStation. Also a very rare promotional PlayStation video game system was released in 1997 with the Men in Black logo on the CD lid. Men in Black: The Animated Series was created by Sony Pictures Television, and also inspired several games. Men in Black was the inspiration behind the Men in Black: Alien Attack ride at Universal Studios Orlando, in which Will Smith and Rip Torn reprised their roles. A Men in Black role-playing game was also released in 1997 by West End Games.
Men in Black won the Academy Award for Best Makeup, and was also nominated for Best Original Score and Best Art Direction. It was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy.
The film holds a 92% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes film critic website, and the consensus on the site states: "Thanks to a smart script, spectacular set pieces, and charismatic performances from its leads, Men in Black is an entirely satisfying summer blockbuster hit." The film holds a 71% on Metacritic, indicating "Generally favorable reviews".
Following the film's release, Ray-Ban stated sales of their Predator 2 sunglasses (worn by the organization to deflect neuralyzers) tripled to $5 million.
American Film Institute Lists
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs - Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
- Agent J & Agent K - Nominated Heroes
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
- Men in Black - Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
- "You know the difference between you and me? I make this look good." - Nominated
- AFI's 10 Top 10 - Nominated Science Fiction Film
- This is the first Columbia Pictures film to be produced by Amblin Entertainment, and also the second Sony Pictures film to be produced by that company.
- This film has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA.