Film: An alien act

Men in Black Barry Sonnenfeld (PG)

The history of special effects in the cinema is, to a large extent, the history of the reaction shot. How often would 1950s audiences have believed in the monster without the screams of the hero's girl? Screaming is currently out of fashion, now that women have become more macho in action pictures without men becoming less so, except in the stalk-and- slash genre, where it's indispensable. One of the interesting things about Luc Besson's recent The Fifth Element was that it introduced a character, the DJ played by Chris Tucker, technically straight but a gay caricature for all that, whose main function was to scream at scary bits, a role now considered demeaning for self-respecting women.

Widening eyes and muttered expletives are still acceptable Hollywood reactions to the extra-terrestrial. But special effects have now become so convincing that the makers of Men in Black can dare to try the most sophisticated type of reaction shot of all: the one that says, "So what? Seen it all before." Only now that aliens seem palpably to be there is it thinkable for a character to act unimpressed, to explain flatly, "Those were gills not eyelids. He was out of breath."

Tommy Lee Jones is certainly the man for the job of looking unimpressed. His seen-it-all persona makes Steve McQueen look eager to please. It's hard to believe he got his start playing Ryan O'Neal's room-mate in Love Story - would you fall in love with Ali McGraw if Tommy Lee Jones was around to witness it? In Men in Black he hardly moves a muscle but his acting is eloquent and continuous. He has the ability to convey an interaction that is both minimal and absolute - the Mitchum trade mark, though Robert Mitchum never had to share the screen with extra-terrestrial refugees.

Jones plays K, a long-serving operative of an agency that doesn't report to any branch of Government ("They ask too many questions") and supports itself by exploiting patents derived from the technology of alien visitors: Velcro, microwave ovens, liposuction, that sort of thing. This is the key shift in paranoid style from the Seventies to the Nineties, from the Government Knows Everything to the Government Knows Nothing.

There are earlier precedents, of course. K asks new recruit J (Will Smith) if he is familiar with the movie Casablanca. "Same thing, just no Nazis." He explains that roughly 1,500 aliens are granted asylum on earth at any one time, mostly in Manhattan.

Men in Black was originally a relatively obscure early Nineties comic strip, with a retro-Sixties flavour and an appropriately noir feel. The film version is unashamedly a comedy, but full of crispness and surprises. Director Barry Sonnenfeld prevailed on his writer, Ed Solomon, to set the film in New York, a decision that makes possible some enjoyable locations, such as a sequence set at the Guggenheim Museum (though viewers may be concerned to discover the museum has no night staff or alarm system).

The film exploits a particular New York sensibility, a world view that is at the same time cosmopolitan and intensely parochial - as if what didn't happen in Manhatten didn't happen at all.

K may be sworn to protect the earth from the scum of the universe, as the poster copy puts it, but he's still scathing about the New York boroughs. Explaining that the World's Fair, with its stylised flying saucers, was put up on the site of an actual landing, as a perverse sort of camouflage, he adds: "Why else would they have built it in Queens?"

The film has a similar mixture of perspectives: a fleet of space ships threatens to destroy the earth in a Standard Galactic Week (which is the same, unfortunately, as 60 earth minutes) unless a galaxy the size of a marble ("When will you humans learn that size is not important?") is located and returned. Cosmic immensities co-exist with B-movie dialogue like "Boys, go down to Rosenberg's jewellery store - see what you can turn up."

When the apprentice J is finally allowed a weapon, he's mortified that it's so effete-looking and teeny (size again), but when he uses it, the results are cataclysmic and he's hurled backward by the recoil. This is a nice joke - a tiny gun with a huge recoil mocking the omnipresent huge shooters with none at all - but it also shows the fragility of the reality principle, or else the great strength of our desire to fantasise. We laugh at the joke and go right back to accepting what the joke mocked - huge weapons with no kick.

Ed Solomon hasn't come up with much in the way of plot, but he contrives some very pleasing situations, not all of them laden with effects. Particularly choice is Will Smith's J having to explain why, when faced with a number of menacing entities in a shooting gallery, he chose to shoot the cut- out of an eight-year-old girl in the head ("Why exactly did you feel little Tiffany deserved to die?"). Smith's wry freshness works well with Jones's impassiveness, so that it comes as a shock that the older man wants to retire. He's been training a replacement, not a partner. The only hint of this ahead of time is a sequence of K calling up on screen spy-satellite footage of his childhood sweetheart, who never married, digging a flower bed. He gets almost misty-eyed. His throat wobbles - it's the only bit of bad acting in the whole performance. It's too late now for Jones to convince us he doesn't live for his job and would rather go back to a normal existence.

Steven Spielberg's name appears as the film's executive producer, but this is not what you would think of as a Spielberg movie. It's true that Spielberg has embraced wonder in his own films as director, with Close Encounters and ET, while as producer he has been associated with fantasies that are kookier (Poltergeist) or more amoral (Gremlins). But perhaps even Spielberg has turned against the childlike openness to other possibilities that he once seemed to endorse so fully.

There has been a definite dumbing-down in aliens over the last couple of decades, a lowering of expectation to match our own. More and more people seem to believe in extra-terrestrials, but they hardly offer us the keys of the universe. Even when they have an advanced technology, they are simply predators (as in Independence Day) or giggling imps (as in Mars Attacks!) whose childish appetite for destruction mirrors our own.

Men in Black lacks the sourness and kick of Mars Attacks! but here, too, the aliens are regular Joes at best. Their science brings us not a cure for cancer, but Velcro, not cold fusion but liposuction. The main villain of Men in Black is a giant alien cockroach, no more than a bug with a bad attitude. More endearing, but no more elevated as life forms, are the Worm Guys, a quartet of entities who do little but drink coffee and smoke and chat. They fit right in on earth, but the only things they like about us are our bad habits, and when the going gets tough for our planet, they slide away back home, dragging their little trolleys of duty-free.

`Men in Black' opens tomorrow

Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
TV It all goes wrong for Iain's Baked Alaska as 'bingate' ensues
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?