[Our Sunday Visitor, July 21, 2001]
Men in Black II
One thing the makers of "Men in Black II" want you to know: this movie does not take place in the future. It’s happening right now, today; a title at the beginning of the film announces "July 2002" and any viewers who checked their watches right then would feel pleasantly punctual. Of course that title will soon make the film feel dated, but that didn’t dissuade the filmmakers. In a sea of movies set in the nebulous near future, they wanted to stress the presence of unseen realities, right here, right now.
It might seem like a stretch to read metaphysical implications into a two-word title. But that is the central joke of the "Men in Black" movies: things you’d never suspect are all around us, had we but eyes to see. And if we could perceive these mysteries, we’d be surprised at how truly dumb they are. Aliens dwell among us, all right, but only after they’ve gone though the alien immigration bureau. There they are supplied with wigs and given advice like, "Do not go out during the day. If you must go out, make it the East Village." There a tall creature in red feathers and a beaky nose scrutinizes a form, while nearby a portly, pasty alien kid spills french-fries on the counter. It could be the Motor Vehicle Administration, except that some of the clients have gills.
As in the first "Men in Black" (1997), the title refers to the bureaucrats tending this federal agency, who wear black suits that would be the envy of any funeral director. While the aliens look like tourists everywhere, the feds policing them are square-headed bureaucrats right out of "Dragnet." No dashing intergalactic swashbucklers here; the Men in Black are just doin’ their job, ma’am.
The sequel has been faulted for lack of originality, and that’s an unavoidable problem; the first "MiB" proposed a delightful new concept, and any movie that utilizes the same concept is bound to have an echo. In the original, Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) recruits street tough Will Smith (who becomes Agent Jay) to join him in combating a renegade giant cockroach. At the end, Kay decides to retire and has his own memory erased-he’s "neuralyzed." In the new film, Agent Jay must locate Agent Kay in retirement, "deneuralyze" him, and ask his help in combating a renegade multi-headed giant worm (which usually takes the more convenient shape of Lara Flynn Boyle).
Given those plot constraints the second film must inevitably follow the footsteps of the first. Thanks to the playful charge between Smith and Jones, however, none of the fun is lost. These two seem to have been born to work together. Though Smith is provided a love interest (luminous-eyed Rosario Dawson) and dutifully hankers over her, there’s more crackle on the screen when he’s tossing one-liners with ever-deadpan Jones. While some laughs are lukewarm, enough succeed that the film rolls merrily along.
As audiences roll merrily out the doors they haven’t been given anything weighty to chew on, except perhaps that initial proposition that there is more to life than meets the eye, that magic may be surrounding us unseen. This film offers a playful answer to a deepset human longing to believe that there are elves in the cupboard and fairies in the forest, or at least aliens in the post office. In fact, that hunger to find something wonderful in the midst of everyday life is not at all alien. God planted that hunger in every human being, because he had a plan to make it come true.
Years ago a friend observed to me, "What if someone could have killed Hitler before he came to power? If they’d stopped him in time, he wouldn’t have taken a single life." I said, "Then that person would have been guilty of murdering an innocent man. He would have been more guilty than Hitler."
That’s the moral dilemma posed by Spielberg’s latest, "Minority Report," based on a fifty-year-old short story by Phillip K. Dick. This film is definitely set in the future, but it attempts to combine sci-fi aesthetics of two different ages. I haven’t read the original story, but it still seemed to me that the two elements are imperfectly joined; those parts that (I think) are original have classic mid-century charm; those parts that (I suspect) are contemporary updates are ugly, gratuitous and distracting.
The basic plot is a good one, and though it has some holes, it keeps zipping along. In the year 2046 the city of Washington, DC, became the site of a daring experiment. Three clairvoyants have been found who can see violent crimes before they have been committed. They are kept resting in a semi-conscious state in a water tank, where their insights are electronically recorded and conveyed to the Precrime Unit of the city police, who must intercept the murderer before the deed is done. The "trial" takes place at the time the visions are received, and the would-be criminal is locked away immediately upon apprehension, which prompts questions among characters about justice and even theology. Things heat up when the chief of Precrime, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), is accused of the future murder of a man he doesn’t know, and must escape his police colleagues and clear his name.
All this has the kick of a classic murder mystery. But there is no plot reason for Anderton to blindly bite into a rancid sandwich, then wash it down with ancient green milk, then spew both over the floor. There is no excuse for repeated close-ups of bloody eyeballs in a baggie. The film falls prey to a contemporary fallacy, that for things to be "real" they must be ugly. Every one of the last four movies I’ve reviewed has had a vomit scene-it seems to have become a requirement—but "Minority Report"’s is the most spectacular. While "Men in Black II" is determinedly set in the present, "Minority Report" is the future twice-baked. The bottom layer, the basic story, has a fascinating aroma. The top layer, unfortunately, is a bit flaky.
Dog Days of Summer: For something completely different, try "Best in Show," a comic fake documentary by Christopher Guest (who got his start with this sort of thing in "This is Spinal Tap"). Guest and his collaborator, Eugene Levy, dreamed up a story about hopefuls converging on the fictitious Mayflower Dog Show in Philadelphia. They recruited actors, briefed them on the story and the exaggerated characters they were to play, and turned on the cameras. This mostly-improvised film is consistently funny and contains no discernible aliens.