For this month’s Criterion Consideration, coming up with a suitable equivalent to Barry Sonnenfeld’s latest film, Men in Black III, was a bit of a challenge. In many ways, the franchise can’t be compared to other films of the genre. How exactly would you categorize MIB? An odd couple buddy-cop sci-fi comedy? Immediately I thought of Ghostbusters, which has been threatening recently to corrupt its origins with an unnecessary sequel, but Ghostbusters had already had its day in the sun when Criterion was still pumping out laserdiscs. I could easily have tried to loosely tie a thousand different titles to MIB III, but really, the only reasonable association is the first film in the franchise. Like most things, the original is always the best, leaving its successors in the dust. It’s been a decade since we all sat through the utterly intolerable MIB II, and no matter how fresh and shiny Sonnenfeld’s latest effort may attempt to be, it will ultimately only remind us of the power of the original film.
Based on the comics by Lowell Cunningham, the original film was an inventive reworking of the Men in Black mythology, a phenomenon that emerged in American pop culture shortly after that supposed UFO-crash incident in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. Sonnenfeld took further inspiration from the resurgence of conspiracy theory permeating 1990’s pop culture. The paranoid visions that pervade The X-Files are rendered to ridiculous extremes as Earth’s resident aliens hide in plain sight. What makes Sonnenfeld’s film work is the business-as-usual approach that the Men in Black take toward in their daily routine. The black-suited men of mystery are merely intergalactic immigration officers, content to anonymously survey all alien activity in the New York area. Contrary to the shameless marketing strategies that would befall the franchise, the film’s offbeat deadpan sensibilities were a welcome break from those of the mainstream blockbusters of that time.
This perfect combination of elements made MIB exceptionally ambitious and artistically innovative. Sonnenfeld’s experience behind the camera (notably with the Coen Brothers’ early films) brought a subtle visual wit to an otherwise flashy elaborate blockbuster. The decision to cast underrated comedians in minor character roles also added class to seemingly minor scenes. Ed Solomon’s writing provided some endlessly quotable one-liners, and helped reinforce the chemistry between Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. The way they play off each other appears genuine, with Jones’ straight-faced delivery pitted against Smith’s posturing wisecracks. Rick Baker, the special effects wizard behind every notable sci-fi/horror film from the past thirty years, is allowed to let his imagination run wild, creating some remarkable alien life.
Oddly enough, the qualities that made the first MIB so engaging are exactly what killed its first sequel. The formula for its success became so immediately apparent that even the original risked losing its charm. Celebrities quietly suspected of being aliens were now given needless cameos, CGI took over most of the creature effects, and although the relationship between Agent K and J still works quite well, the rest of the film does not. Early reviews of MIB3 have been mixed, but overall the formula remains unchanged. Try as Sonnenfeld might to neurolize any trace of Men in Black II, his latest installment might very well be the long-awaited end to a nearly forgotten franchise.