Science fiction is grounded in real-life concerns. The genre allows for speculative thinking to be literalized (what if robots supplant humans, what if reproduction become a factory process, etc). Probably the most “speculative” concern is how would we react to intelligent alien life; since we haven’t encountered much to suggest they exist. As such, most fiction dealing with human-alien interaction tends to be less interested in scientific progress and moreso in affirmation. Particularly, the affirmation that humans kick ass! Aliens will either improve humanity or get trampled by us. Strangely, one of the few sci-fi franchises to challenge this is the comedy/action/sci-fi franchise Men In Black.
The premise: Very black cop J (played by Will Smith) is approached by very white kind-of-cop K (Tommy Lee Jones) to join an organization that polices aliens. Hilarity ensues.
With such a simple premise, you wouldn’t think that Men In Black (1997) couldn’t have much narrative weight. What stands out intellectually isn’t so much the actual plot, but the underlying themes.
As part of his introduction to the MIB, K explains to J one of the core directives of the organization: the hiding of alien life; ” Humans don’t have a clue and they don’t need or want one. They’re happy. They think they have a good bead on things ” This is a pretty dark idea for a major motion picture: people (i.e. you) are too fucking dumb to accept aliens. The MIB works to protect Earth not only from alien attack, but also the very IDEA of aliens.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind ( 1977 )
As mentioned before, a common thread with these kinds of films is the life affirming nature of extraterrestrial life. The best American example of this is Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which coincidentally was directed by Steven Spielberg, the producer of Men In Black), where the protagonist Roger Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) becomes obsessed with otherworldly visitors after an encounter with a UFO. He has a mental image of a hill stuck in his mind after his encounter which he later finds is a message from the visitors showing where they will make contact. His knowledge of this causes him to lose his family and job as he is unable to stop thinking about the hill. Being ostracized doesn’t quell his fascination with the hill and the aliens. When he does eventually reach the hill, he (and by proxy, we) get rewarded for his curiosity with a glorious vision of the aliens and their craft. They then accept him into their ship.
Neary was right all along: it WAS worth it to believe when no else did. The final scene signals the dawn of an “Age of Enlightenment” which would supposedly lead to even more wondrous discoveries for Neary and humanity.
Men In Black (whether intentional or not) is placed in the same thematic continuity through Agent K. He shows J that his introduction to extraterrestrial life (and subsequently, MIB) was through a farm sighting where he met face to face with an alien, along with other future agents. This parallels Close Encounters; an ordinary man makes contact with aliens in a mundane setting and it changes his entire world view. K’s character arc began in the “Age of Enlightenment” that Close Encounters ended on. Except, K’s enlightenment hasn’t “fulfilled” him. In fact, it’s done the opposite.
Remember K’s first partner; the first recipient of “flashy thinging”? Before his memory is erased, he looks to the sky and muses ” look at the stars…we never just look at them anymore“. This signals to K that his partner is no longer capable of being an agent, hence why he neuralyzes him. The sky, a sight that is meant to be simply appreciated for the feeling it evokes, has been disenchanted by knowing what lies beyond it. Unlike in Close Encounters, realizing the complexities of the universe is diminishing rather than empowering. As K tells J, knowledge of aliens challenges everything we believe. K puts this in context for J:
A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow
K stresses here the inherent delusion of “common knowledge.” People are inclined to believe not only what is apparent, but what is comfortable. The existence of alien life requires a massive reconsideration of our understanding of the world. According to K, this is a bad thing. This is why throughout the film, the neuralyzer is by far the most important gadget the agents wield. It is the ultimate “defense” against aliens in that it protects humanity from the knowing they exist.
Those that aren’t protected from the truth are irrevocably changed, as exemplified by K himself. As the senior MIB agent, he’s more of a jaded cynic than a romantic top officer. Nothing excites him. Nothing entertains him. Since he’s basically a ghost, his interactions with people are brusque and often disdainful. After the first use of the neuralyzer on some rangers, he quips to himself wryly ” damn, what a gullible breed “.
When K is neuralyzed by the end of the first film, it’s confirmed that he reunites with his childhood sweetheart and gets married. This is important because it’s implied that seeing the alien visitor is what derailed their relationship initially. The flowers he gave the alien were supposed to be for her, thus showing K’s first step towards losing touch with humanity.
A scene where K “checks in on her” (read: stalks her) shows he never got over the woman. Thankfully, the film ends with K getting neuralyzed and then reuniting with his sweetheart…which was then flushed down the toilet in the sequel (2002) where it turns out K’s marriage fell apart rather quickly. Jay attributes this to “the way he views the stars”, a call-back to the first film. In Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces, the archetypal hero’s journey is circular: once one gains knowledge, he can return home to integrate said knowledge into his old life (which Campbell dubbed “The Crossing of the Return Threshold”) :
“The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world. Many failures attest to the difficulties of this life-affirmative threshold. The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real…the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life.”
Stargazing is one of the many “passing joys” of humanity. Stars aren’t “luminous spheres of super-heated plasma” to the layman, they’re something to be enjoyed superficially. They’re just…beautiful. MIB agents know so much about the stars and beyond that they can’t ever see them as “just beautiful” again. That lack of naive whimsy is what separates normal people from the MIB. K’s experiences has changed him so much that he’s practically an alien himself, unable to connect with society.
Even J is shown to have lost much his vigor by Men In Black 2 (probably because he was in Men In Black 2). J’s burgeoning relationship in the film mirrors K’s relationship with another alien in the past. Both end with the loss of their love interest and…that’s it. There’s nothing to be gained from it. Their lives are just that terrible They even have the nerve to give K yet ANOTHER love interest that doesn’t come to fruition in Men In Black 3 (2012). Fuck Steven Spielberg.
Despite how cynical the films are about the pursuit of knowledge, it doesn’t seem to have much reverence for the ignorant masses of humanity either. Besides the MIB, every human being with speaking lines is either an asshole (Edgar the farmer, J’s police partner) or an idiot (Edgar’s wife, the Rangers). The film has this degraded view from the start: the opening credits of the film doesn’t have us viewing anything awe-inspiring or exciting, they have us following a dragonfly moving across the desert sky.
We accompany the dragonfly until it hits a truck, dead on impact. This introduction puts us as an audience in the lowest cosmic rung; compared to the vast universe, we are insects.
Furthering the insect/humanity parallel is the film’s antagonist: the Bug. The Bug seems to have either an inferiority or superiority complex (I studied english, not psychology). His kinship with smaller insects makes him severely conscious of their “abuse” by earthlings. He, in turn, compensates by diminishing humanity. In a bit of dramatic irony, he describes humanity to an exterminator who thinks he’s describing roaches: “(they are) undeveloped, unevolved barely conscious pond scum totally convinced of their own superiority as they scurry about with short, pointless lives “. The only motivation even given to the Bug is his hatred for humanity, with the much larger plot being an implied conflict between his race and another. In fact, the other race (who are the “good guys”) nominate to blow up Earth should the Bug abscond with the “galaxy marble” that serves as the film’s plot token. MIB’s leader Zed accepts this idea without much judgement, knowing that it would be best for the universe even if it means the death of humanity. And I guess this is the closest thing we get to a “positive” point in this fairly bleak film: Zed, K, and eventually J, accept their roles in the universe.
At the end of the film, J to gets the upper hand on the bug by playing to his fragile ego. He purposely kills several roaches to distract him from leaving Earth with the galaxy marble thing. Despite the jeopardy of his mission, the Bug goes out of his way to confront him, which leads to his failure. He stepped outside of his role for revenge. Contrast this with the cool detached nature of the MIB agents; K didn’t hesitate to allow himself to be eaten alive if it meant he could get his job done. Even when he lost his memory and became a postman, he carries on a clockwork routine in his life. K epitomizes a samurai-like professionalism which allows him to be the perfect agent. This zen outlook extends beyond just killing aliens and mind-wiping cops. The moment after K regains his memory in Men in Black 2 parallels a scene from the first film after J realizes aliens exist.
Men In Black
Men In Black 2
At one point he was about to step on a cockroach, but knowingly doesn’t (which was a good thing because it turned out to be an alien).
For what little good it does them, J and K know their and everything else’s role in the universe. Their roles might not be lofty, but at least they have “a bead on things“. Knowledge isn’t always uplifting, but that’s not a bad thing. In a way, Men In Black still manages to affirm the role of humanity, if not it’s perceived grandeur. The ffilm ends with a dramatic zoom-out showing our entire solar system to be as small to a gargantuan alien creature as the galaxy inside the marble was to us. In such a recursive reality, everything plays some kind of part, no matter how hard it is to see.
For more thoughts on sci-fi franchises: