It’s been ten years since the second movie and fifteen years since the first*…so, the obvious question is, was it worth reviving the series?
The answer is yes.
Men in Black III is worth seeing. Screenwriter Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder), and original MIB director Barry Sonnenfeld have created a worthy successor.
Rick Baker’s physical alien makeup designs, along with the CGI, can still surprise you with their whimsy and cleverness.
Josh Brolin, as a younger Agent K, is no mere imitation of Tommy Lee Jones…while his performance is spot on, it is, if anything, more nuanced than the original: no mean feat.
Not for me. The original had the real advantage of discovery of a novel concept, and that just can’t be matched. However, the latest movie both honors the previous entries (there is a nice little shout out to Frank the pug, for example), but stands as a story in its own right.
One of the surprising weaknesses for both my Significant Other and me was Will Smith. We are both fans, but we both said the same thing…it felt like his timing was off. My SO tried to argue that perhaps Smith was playing Agent J after ten years as an MIB: still trying to be jokey, but being weighed down by all the death and destruction. Maybe…I think that might be a generous interpretation, particularly because the script didn’t seem to reflect it. To be clear, Smith wasn’t bad…I just didn’t feel that same magic.
Bringing new magic was Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Stuhlbarg, with a truly charming and simultaneously melancholy performance.
I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t say much about the script. My favorite line, though, was wisely used as a throwaway by director Sonnenfeld, and felt particularly Sonnenfeld-esque. It’s in a scene with Will Smith and a small child…I’m not sure most people in the theatre even got it. It was subtle and subversive, without being mean at all. It made you think about something important, without stepping aside to make the point. Kudos to Cohen and Sonnenfeld for that small bit of business.
Overall, I’d recommend the movie, even though it probably won’t be the best movie you see this year. Not everything needs to be, to be enjoyable.
* There was also an animated series from 1997 to 2001.
Bonus: here’s an article I published nearly 15 years ago, before I had seen the first movie…
July 2, 1997
Who are the Men-in-Black?
The movie opening this week is based indirectly on a sub-plot of the UFO story. At its most basic, it concerns mystery men who visit UFO witnesses and investigators and advise silence.
The variations are many, as are the theories. Often noted is their immaculate dark clothing, and new appearing cars. More ominous, though, are details that suggest something other-worldly about these intimidators. Perhaps the brand-new car they drive is a model many years old. Maybe they step outside the door and vanish when there is nowhere to go. Sometimes they show unfamiliarity with common objects, like ball-point pens, or the MIB who tried to drink Jell-O. Maybe they’ll make a coin vanish or perform some other apparently magical feat. In the most extreme cases, they do not even appear to be human!
The legend really began (although there were precedents in other paranormal fields) with the publication of THEY KNEW TOO MUCH ABOUT FLYING SAUCERS in 1956. Gray Barker, a movie-booker and flying saucer investigator, penned this volume. While it covered such things as the “Flatwoods Monster” and a possible shifting of the Earth’s axis, the bulk of it was devoted to the “Bender Mystery”. Albert Bender had founded the International Flying Saucer Bureau in 1952. It became quite successful, and then Bender got out of the “saucer business”, claiming to have been visited by three men who influenced him to do so. Barker found it all quite mysterious, and gave it a great build-up. This is how he sets it up in the book:
“Three men in black suits with threatening expressions on their faces. Three men who walk in on you and make certain demands.
Three men who know that =you= know what the saucers really are!
They don’t want you to tell anyone else what you know.”
THEY KNEW TOO MUCH ABOUT FLYING SAUCERS (page 92) by Gray Barker, 1956
These original Men-in-Black are certainly nefarious, threatening, and seem to have an unusual knowledge. However, they are not portrayed as supernatural or non-human. In fact, Barker ties them in with a man in a black suit who was allegedly involved in the Maury Island Affair. This series of events, now widely (but not universally) considered a hoax, involved Kenneth Arnold, the pilot whose sighting on June 24th 1947, started the modern interest in “flying saucers”. He went Tacoma to investigate a report of a flying saucer in trouble having spewed out some sort of material. One of the witnesses, Harold Dahl, told Arnold that the morning after his encounter, he was visited by a man in a black suit who invited him out to breakfast. At the restaurant, the MIB proceeded to describe everything that had happened the day before. The shocking part was that no one had reported it anywhere yet!
It seemed that the man might have somehow been involved in the event. The stranger then warned Dahl not to talk about it, and threatened him and his family.
Thus established, the “Bender Mystery” had enough steam to last until 1962, when Bender’s own book about it, FLYING SAUCERS AND THE THREE MEN, was released. As described here, they were definitely not human. This is how their first clear appearance is described:
“The room seemed to grow dark, yet I could still see. I noted three shadowy figures in the room. They floated about a foot off the floor. My temples throbbed and my body grew light. I had the feeling of being washed clean. The three figures became clearer. All of them were dressed in black clothes.
They looked like clergymen, but wore hats similar to Homburg style. The faces were not clearly discernible, for the hats partly hid and shaded them. Feelings of fear left me, as if some peculiar remedy had made my entire body immune to fright.
The eyes of all three figures suddenly lit up like flashlight bulbs, and all these were focused upon me. They seemed to burn into my very soul as the pains above my eyes became almost unbearable. ”
FLYING SAUCERS AND THE THREE MEN (page 90) by Albert Bender, 1962
He also gives us a clearer description when they appear to him in a more physical form:
“Their clothing was made of a black material which reminded me of cloth used in the attire of clergymen. It was well pressed, appeared almost new. All the other apparel, such as ties, shirt, stockings, and shoes was also black.
Their faces were unpleasant to look at. Their eyes shone like tiny flashlight bulbls, and the teeth were pearly white, set in a very dark complexion. I could not see their hands, covered by black gloves. A bluish radiance enveloped their entire bodies, and I wondered if this was giving off the sulphuric odor.”
FLYING SAUCERS AND THE THREE MEN (page 106) by Albert Bender, 1962
At the time, Bender’s tales of lights in his room, out-of-body-experiences, underground bases, and telepathic communication were so wild that it was suggested the book (published by Barker’s own Saucerian Books, with an introduction and annotation by Barker) was a put-up job to throw saucer researchers off the track and make them look crazy. However, in the context of today’s reported alien abductions, it doesn’t sound as strange. In fact, there are several clear correspondences.
For the next twenty years, until 1983, Gray Barker continued to put out books trumpeting the MIBs. One such title was M.I.B.: THE SECRET TERROR AMONG US (New Age Books, 1983)
Other authors have also contributed considerably to the Men-in-Black mythos.
Timothy Green Beckley, who is known for reporting the more sensational stories, started covering the subject in 1962. In about 1970, he put out MEN IN BLACK: THE EXPANDING CASE FOR ALIENS AMONG US (Kitchener). In this book, he claimed that MIB reports went back to the great nineteenth century airship crazes. 1979 saw the release of his similarly titled MIB: ALIENS AMONG US (Global Communications). In the simply titled UFO by Milt Machlin, which was written with Beckley (Quick Fox, 1981), there are several pages on the MIB. The authors describe several types, including this:
“Another type of MIB, now common throught the United States, is represented by men who travel in pairs. The same description is always given. One is tall, blond (usually witha crew cut), with a fair complexion, and seems to be Scandinavian. His companion is shorter, with angular features and an aolive complexion. The blond usually does most of the talking while the other remains in the background. There seem to be several identical pairs of these individuals operating simultaneously in various parts of the country.”
UFO (page 82), by Milt Machlin with Tim Beckley (1981)
The connection of MIBs with the occult was stressed in Ramona Clark’s 1970 volume (also by Kitchener), THE TRUTH ABOUT MEN IN BLACK. The same year, Kitchener released two more MIB titles by Kurt Glemser, THE MEN IN BLACK, and MEN IN BLACK: STARTLING NEW EVIDENCE (by Clark and Glemser together). They followed up in 1973 with THE MEN IN BLACK REPORT by Glemser.
John A. Keel is an amazing on-the-scene investigator and author. Even though he’s “been there, done that” on many “fortean” topics, he still comes across as a pragmatic journalist. Several of his books have been highly influential in shaping the beliefs of those in the “UFO community”. One of the reasons for this is his implication that he is only giving some examples of stories from the many people who have contacted him, leaving many untold. This has given added weight to what he does say. In his book UFOS – OPERATION TROJAN HORSE (Putnam, 1970…also known as WHY UFOS), he has this to say:
“Mrs. Butler’s story may sound bizarre, but I have heard the same things too many times in too many different places to dismiss them lightly. In case after case, I have heard about strange men who paid pointless visits and sometimes posed as Air Force officers. The descriptions are always the same – – short of stature, dark olive skins, sharp pointed features. And most of these scattered witnesses specifically noticed that these men were dressed in clothes that seemed =brand-new=. Even the soles of their shoes appeared to be unwalked on. If they have occassion to pull out a wallet or notebook, that also is brand-new. (Most men, even Air Force officers, carry beat up old wallets.) I have carefully kept many of these small details to myself and have never published them or discussed them. They provide a yardstick by which I can measure the validity of new stories.”
WHY UFOS (page 173), by John A. Keel (1970)
Keel’s 1975 book THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, is a great book regardless of your beliefs. Much of it focusses on the MIBs. They are definitely not simply agents of the government in this one. These excerpts from the Christiansen family’s meeting with one will attest to that. They had just moved into a new home, and had not yet been published in the phone book. A visitor came to the door, asked for Edward Christiansen by name. The huge man, at least six foot six (two meters) tall, and very broad-shouldered, said he was from “…the Missing Heirs Bureau”:
“…an unusual head, large and round while his face seemed angular, pointed…his eyes were large, protruding, like `thyroid eyes,’ and set wide apart. One eye appeared to have a cast, like a glass eye, and did not move in unison with its companion…When he sat down they could see a long thick green wire attached to the inside of his leg. It came up out of his socks and disappeared under his trousers. At one point it seemed to be indented into his leg and was covered by a large brown spot…The Christiansens said their visitor had an unusual pallor. They assumed he was sick. His voice was also strange, with a high `tinny’ voice…he spoke in clipped words and phrases, `like a computer.’ Connie said he sounded as if he were reciting everything from memory.”
THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES (pages 76-78) by John A. Keel (1975)
There are many other authors who should be mentioned: folklorist Berthold Schwarz brought us a great case in FLYING SAUCER REVIEW; Alan Greenfield, who pointed out the occult historical connection; Brad Steiger; and many others.
I apologize to those I didn’t cover.
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog. Who Are the Men-in-Black originally appeared in Bufo’s Weird World in 1997.