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

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