Men in Black as "serious" Science Fiction?
What about Men in Black?
Men in Black represents a comic parody of the conventions of the Science Fiction genre as established by the films which preceded it. However, it also acknowledges and utilises some of the conventions, placing it within the bounds of the genre. The film is speculative and features some of the stock characters of Science Fiction, including an abundance of creatively designed aliens. Unlike some Science Fiction films, Men in Black is set on earth and in the present era, but it does feature the concept of space travel and include futuristic iconography. The narrative theme of first and continuing contact with other life forms is explored in a lighthearted fashion which provides a contrast to invasion films which promote fear of alien life forms.
Defining Science Fiction
In Science Fiction: the illustrated encyclopaedia, Clute (1995:6-7) defines “Science Fiction” or “Speculative Fiction” as fiction or film that portrays “a changed world that has not yet come into being”. This “change” has to be significantly different, and “consistent with the... arguments of contemporary science” including extensions of current scientific thinking for a text to qualify. Common motifs in Science Fiction include space travel, alien visitors, machines, urban jungles, alternate energy forms, nuclear explosions, weapons, and colonies in bio-domes on other planets; all of which mirror the dreams and inventions of industrialised society. (See Clute 1995:10-31)
A Short History of SF
Many critics date the origin of Science Fiction as a literary form with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818, followed by the works of Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells The Time Machine in 1895. (pp.34, 37). Writers such as Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) and Robert Heinlein (1907-1988) wrote prolific amounts of fiction which had a formative effect upon the literary genre and also film, as many plots, motifs and conventions were carried over into film (Clute 1995:128-129, 134-135). For example, Asimov’s “three laws of robotics”, which restrained mechanical beings from harming people, have been explored in films such as The Forbidden Planet. (Clute 1995:69, Lacey 2000:175)
Scientific iconography, trick effects and scientific speculation appears to date back almost to the invention of film. Clute (1995:36) reports that the praxinoscope, zoescope, thaumatrope and stroboscope which all worked by moving still images fast enough to fool the eye, as does modern film, were all invented during the 1820s. A one minute film by George Melies was made in 1897 and featured a skeleton which detached itself from the body to which it belonged and a twenty-one minute filmic adaption of Jules Verne’s A Trip to the Moon was released in 1902(Clute 1995:250). Other early movies included film versions of Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) and a weekly screen cartoon of Flash Gordon in 1936, Batman in 1943 and Superman in 1948. (Clute 1995:254-255, 258-259)
During the 1950s, Science Fiction film began to distinguish itself from horror and solidify its conventions. Notable films included: Destination Moon in 1950, The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951, The Forbidden Planet in 1956 and The Fly in 1958. The 1960s saw another version of The Time Machine (1960), Dr. No the first of the James Bond actionseries which feature nuclear domination plots and gadgets (1962), The Day of the Triffids (1963), Dr. Strangelove (1964) and 2001: a space odyssey adapted from Arthur C. Clarke’s thought provoking novel and featuring a computer called HAL in 1968. (Clute 1995:262-263, 266-271)
The Planet of the Apes filmed in 1968 was followed by several sequels in the 1970s. (Clute 1995:274-279) Many films were crossed with horror or action and Science Fiction productions were often low budget, the market being considered limited to a niche of intellectuals and cult fans. However, in 1977 Star Wars, a combination of “fairy tale...space opera” and “adventure” was a box office hit and greatly enhanced the market appeal of the genre (p.278). Close Encounters of the Third Kind was also made in 1977 and Alien was a gruesome sensation in 1979.
The 1980s saw the continuation of the Star Wars saga with The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 the darker Bladerunner and the tear jerking E.T. The Extra Terrestrial who wants to phone home, in 1982. Return of the Jedi finalised the Star Wars saga in 1983 and Terminator chilled the screens in 1984. Cocoon promised regeneration to residents of an old folk’s home and Back to the Future combined minimal science with time-travel in a teenage feel-good movie in 1985. (Clute 1995:282-187)
Science Fiction films produced in 1990s included Total Recall in 1990, Jurassic Park in 1993, sequels to Alien and Terminator, several Star Trek movies and Independence Day in 1996. (Clute 1995:290-291) Lacey reports that in 1997 four of the top ten box office hits were Science Fiction. These were The Lost World: Jurrassic Park leading at $605 million, Men in Black at $533 million, Star Wars RE:97 (a digitally enhanced re-run of the original) at $255 million and The Fifth Element at $233 million. (Lacey 2000:168) The popularity of Science Fiction products and the development of computer generated graphics has ensured the growth of the genre with the completion of the three prequels to Star Wars, and remakes of such classics as The Time Machine in 2002, War of the Worlds in 2005, a sentimental adaption of Asimov’s classic Bicentennial Man starring Robin Williams in 1999 and the more convincing treatment in I, Robot starring Will Smith in 2004. (IMDB various)
Men in Black was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and written by Lowell Cunningham and Ed Solomon. It stars Tommy Lee Jones as Agent K, Will Smith as NYPD cop James Edwards who becomes Agent J, and Linda Fiorentino as Dr. Laurel Weaver. (IMDBb) While accepted as Science Fiction due to its strong iconography, Men in Black does not fulfil Clute’s criteria of emphasising and exploring the arguments of contemporary science. (1995:6-7) It is however, speculative in that it explores a ‘what if’ question, namely ‘what if aliens were already living amongst us and only a select agency knew it?’
Following from the first ‘what if’ question is another question, ‘what if alien visitors could come and go from the planet? Wouldn’t they need visas, quarantine, customs and immigration control like standard international visitors?’ This question is posed in the opening scene where music reminiscent of the James Bond theme plays as the camera focuses on the wings of a dragonfly. The dragonfly splats onto the windscreen of a mini-bus containing a group of South American passengers. They are stopped at a roadblock by immigration officers. Agent K intercepts this roadblock and unmasks the real alien, Mikey who cannot speak a word of Spanish. Mikey explodes into blue slime and the memories of the officers are neutralised by K.
Men in Black is also unusual for its predominantly comic mode. Although Science Fiction may contain subtle humour, for example in The Day the Earth Stood Still the alien Klaatu posing as Mr. Carpenter is referred to as a man out with his son, which is amusing because Klaatu is not human and moreover is the source of the disturbance. (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation,1951) On the whole however, Science Fiction has tended towards being “a form of horror” (Clute 1995:257) filled with “paranoia” about technology and space (Clute 1995:264). The narrative of Men in Black can be perceived to employ a small amount of paranoia as a dangerous alien crash-lands on a farm, kills the farmer and assumes his body, using it to murder an Arquillian Prince, which prompts an Arquillian battle cruiser to place the whole earth under threat, but the predominant treatment is light-hearted. The alien farmer fits his skin badly, asks his wife for “sugar”, gets his vehicle impounded, and generally stumbles around like a zombie.
‘One-liners’ and quips also predominate as Agent K calls the harmless illegal immigrants “dangerous aliens”. Moreover when the farmer tells the alien “you can have my gun when you pry it from my cold dead fingers” the alien replies “your proposal is acceptable”; and before the alien kills the exterminator it says “you know, I’ve noticed an infestation here”. Another example occurs when J asks “what government department do we report to?” and K replies “none they ask too many questions”. The use of quips and one-liners can be seen to have moved from action movies such as the Bond series, into Science Fiction, for example, in Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger says “consider that a divorce” when he shoots his false wife. (Studio Canal Image, 1990)
Unlike much science fiction which is set in the future or the past, Men in Black insists on being placed in the present, with first contact being made March 2 1969. The MiB agents clean up the evidence of alien activity so humans can live in blissful ignorance. Newspapers can sometimes get isolated elements of the truth and publish articles of use to the MiB team. K admonishes J not to fire his weapon in public because their activities are secret. Human thought is considered primitive and not meant to be translated, but there is no suggestion that alien thought is better, the bugs are prone to random destructiveness and the Arquillians attempt to solve problems with threats from their mother ship.
King & Krzywinska (2000:13) suggest the critic look at the kind of future imagined by a Science Fiction film, which is interesting because Men in Black can be seen to support the maintenance of the status quo. Indeed this comes at a price because the agents have to sacrifice their connection to society. This position is relatively unique in Science Fiction as many films posit that society needs something; and argue that things will be better after the quest or display nostalgia for the past. On one hand it sounds philosophically and politically naïve, but on the other hand it is profound, because accepting that people’s every-day lives are not perfect, it still affirms they are worth fighting for, and not just one battle, but a continual process of protection and maintenance.
Men in Black is also set on earth rather than another planet or alternate universe. The main action is in Manhattan, where K says some 1500 aliens live, with some excursions into rural scenery along the highways as aliens attempt to move out of the controlled zone. Many of the aliens are political refugees, and the message is that the earth is a good place to live. None of the human characters appear to be interested in leaving earth to travel into space. When the missing galaxy is said to be “on Orion’s belt”, attention is focused on the stars, but this turns out to be a false lead, as the galaxy is attached to the collar of the cat called Orion. Attention is once again focused on the earth, which could be said to still form the centre of the universe for the human psyche.
Space and Iconography
King (200:22) asserts that “a key ingredient of science fiction is travel through space”. There is space travel in Men in Black as the aliens arrive and depart on a regular basis through the spaceport. Dangerous aliens like the bugs may crash land to escape the MiB, and when frightened, many aliens attempt to leave earth using private shuttles. Images of an Orion star map appear on a monitor and another screen shows the earth from space. K and J are working to prevent the bug with the galaxy from leaving the planet, and the camera pans out from earth, onto a view of stars at the end.
An important element of Science Fiction identified by Lacey (2000:186-7) is futuristic iconography. Men in Black features flashing guns, large silver guns, and a small gun with a large kickback. The alien bug in the farmer’s body has a traditional saucer shaped spaceship. The MiB bunker and spaceport looks like a concrete building on the outside, but features lifts, lots of glass, sliver/white walls, white tables and chairs together with glowing lights. Side rooms contain lockers and mini laboratory table set-ups. Screens and monitors are used to display data and track alien movement, completing a background indicative of the genre. (King 2000:9) suggests that “flashy special effects” are also a signature of science fiction. Special effects in Men in Black include gunfire, exploding slime, gathering mists and alien make-up. Several aliens also burst out of their disguise with sensational effects.
Other elements of Science Fiction identified by Lacey (2000:187-190) are common narratives or plot lines. The narrative of first contact is most relevant to Men in Black, as K displays a picture of a group of humans presenting some flowers meant for his girlfriend to the tall alien. Sightings and rumours such as that at Roswell are assumed to be factual, and contact has been on-going since that time. The alien’s however, are not invading, some are seeking refuge, some are touring and a few are stirring up mischief, but K explains that the majority just want to be able to live in peace. The Arquillians do put the earth under threat at one point in the film, however their sole aim is the safe return of the galaxy from the bugs. Kakoudaki (2002:123) notes that films like Men in Black “continue some of the themes introduced by Alien...on a lighter tone...they use a tongue-in-cheek apocalypticism, parodic representations and meta-narrative effects”.
In conclusion, Men in Black combines the fast pace and special effects of an action Science Fiction film, with the humorous and grotesque representation of comedy. The film fulfils enough of the conventions of Science Fiction to be considered part of the genre, but lacks the serious paranoia found in earlier works. It affirms life on earth as we know it, while speculating about a world secret alien activity unbeknown to the average bystander. As a product which combines several modes, it successfully comments upon and expands the repertoire of Science Fiction production.
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