Approximately 1,500 aliens secretly share our planet. They have, in various ways, assumed human form. Most reside peacefully on New York's Manhattan island, but rebels, rogues and ramblers are kept in check by a covert government agency uniquely privy to alien activity. It's called the Men in Black.
Building on this premise, the sci-fi buddy-cop action comedy Men in Blackbarrels along with the intergalactic scope of Star Wars, the devilish wit of Gremlins and the explosive—often slimy—action of Ghostbusters. And were it not for numerous profanities and a few violent moments, it would be a teen-friendly romp.
A savvy MiB veteran (Tommy Lee Jones) introduces the organization's newest recruit (Will Smith) to earth's confidential subculture of incognito E.T.s. Aliens masquerade as cab drivers, pawn shop owners, jewelers and assorted blue-collar citizens. Others assimilate into the media, politics, public education and entertainment ("Elvis is not dead," Jones reports, "he just went home"). The audience share's Smith's sense of amazement and discovery as he processes this surreal diversity which, by comparison, makes the actual streets of midtown Manhattan seem bland and homogenous.
As the plot develops, that wonder gives way to urgency. One extreme foreigner, an enormous bug, dons human skin in a diabolical scheme to steal a marble-sized galaxy and have earth destroyed as part of an interstellar conflict. When the creature's plans are uncovered, it's up to MiB to avert global disaster . . . discreetly.
Men in Black has a winning sense of humor, though its clever dialogue is punctured by offensive language, including an exchange in which sexual innuendos fly between Smith and a female coroner. Even so, the film doesn't include any sex or nudity. As for violence, watching Jones blast aliens into pools of slime isn't as disturbing as the evil bug's casual extermination of human characters. A nasty farmer is sucked out of his skin (implied). A pest controller is killed with his own gear. Men are stabbed through the neck with sharp appendages. Though frequent injections of comedy keep the tone from getting too dark, the objectionable elements make a significant impression.
In a movie season dominated by lackluster sequels and R-rated actioners, director Barry Sonnenfeld has put an enjoyably original concept on the big screen. And young people are flocking to it. Men in Black earned more than $50 million opening weekend. For many families, however, the film's profanity and violence will present a close encounter of the unacceptable kind.