Sunday, April 24, 2011

Men in Black 1 & 2: Knowing and Pretending

 This post contains comments from both MIB (1997) and MIB II (2002). After MIB III comes out, I'll add to the post again.

MEN IN BLACK (1997) 98min PG-13
Budget $90M Est
Domestic BO: $250M
Worldwide: $326M

Writers: ED SOLOMON, based on a LOWELL CUNNINGHAM comic.

WILL SMITH: Agent Jay (James Edwards)
RIP TORN: Chief Agent Zed


Men in Black's antecedent is a 1990 comic. (The Men In Black at Wikipedia.)  Not as deep or celebrated as other well-known superheros (Superman, 1939).  In many classic super hero comics, the "super" refers generally to the good guys who
save us from the scum of the Earth. It's a take-off on Christian tradition of a superman coming to Earth to save mankind.

In MIB, however, the "super"  refers to some serious bad dudes from alien worlds that are are trying to do us harm...or, at least, as depicted in the comics the villains were aliens, demons, and mutants. The tag line for the movie is: "Protecting the Earth From The Scum of the Universe."

While the villains and the supers may have exchanged roles, the villains in both type of stories still stand-in as metaphors for the various evils or vices that plagues mankind — that is the psychological and moral vice that has personified into a physical presence so a story can be told on the screen where visuals are the director's primary tool. 

The psychological underpinning (or moral premise) for MIB (1997) as to do with the vice and virtue of KNOWING.   As you'll read below, MIB II (2002) has a lot to do with PRETENDING; and MIB III (2012) as a lot to do with ---- well, that's to be seen.

As evidence of the issues about KNOWING that MIB (1997) raises, consider:

A. In the opening sequence Agent K and and older agent have some nasty business with an alien named Mikey in the desert. It's nastier than it needed to be (evidently) because the older agent could not get out his alien-stun gun working, and Agent K is forced to liquefy the beast. When it's all over the two sit down and commiserate. The older agent wishes for his own life back when he could look at the stars and think how beautiful they are. Whether by plan or by his error, it's time for the older agent to have his memory neutralized with a neuralyzer, back to a time before his involvement with the alien police force.  He says, "I'm going to miss the chase." To which Agent K says, as he dons his Ray-Bans and sets the neuralyzer, "No, you won't." The connotation is that to NOT KNOW about the MIB and the ALIENS is a good thing.

B. Joining up with the MIB has its disadvantages. Your identity is erased. You become anonymous. Because you know so much, your loose your ability to exercise your human rights freely. It reminds me of the scene in BRUCE ALMIGHTY when Bruce complains to God about having to answer all the prayers that find his way into his brain and his email. God's answer is that with great power comes great responsibility. The Men in Black have such great responsibility that they give up who they are for the benefit of mankind.

C. That such knowledge is a humble and scary thing, is reinforced by this dialogue during James Edwards' recruitment.
Edwards: Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.
Kay: 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.
Edwards: What's the catch?
Kay: The catch? The catch is you will sever every human contact. Nobody will ever know you exist anywhere. Ever. I'll give you to sunrise to think it over.
Edwards: Hey! Is it worth it?
Kay: Oh yeah, it's worth it. If you're strong enough!  
I often have thought of this conundrum while listening to the political pundits who seem to be omniscient. I know that in 100 years our descendants will look back and and laugh at the general stupidity of our time.  I am always somewhat scared of "what don't we know?"

D. The idea conveyed in the movie is that such "omniscient" knowledge (or at least knowledge that extends way beyond what a normal human being is expected to be responsible for)  is a grave, solemn, and perhaps sacred gift that carries a great and selfless responsibility. Before Agent J accepts the journey of becoming a MIB agent, he thinks about it over night, as he watches the sunrise over Manhattan.  

E. Here's a line that draws us closer to the moral premise of this movie. The line implies that too much knowledge leads to fear. While just enough knowledge allows happiness.
Kay: There's always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet, and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they DO NOT KNOW ABOUT IT! 

F. At the end of the movie we discover that J has not been recruited to be K's partner, but to replace K. K longs for the life outside of MIB when he can rekindle his marriage of 35 years ago. K longs to look at the stars and not fear what they hold, but hold the one he loves and gaze romantically at the stars. It's the fitting bookend to the older agent in the desert at the movies beginning.

G. After Agent K retrieves his gun from the gigantic bug, by taunting the bug to swallow him whole, and find his gun in the bugs stomach, and then blasting the bug from the inside out, he commiserates from Agent J and asks J to neuralize his brain back some 35 years. Part of his argument to do that is this line:
I just went down the gullet of a mega-stellar cockroach. That's one of a hundred memories I don't want.
This leads to the Moral-Physical Premise Statement (MPPS) for Men In Black that can be articulated like this:
Too much knowledge leads to fear and unbearable responsibilities; but
Not knowing everything there is to know leads to the chance of a happy life and bearable responsibilities.
Now, at this point I have a problem reconciling this with the change in Agent J's moral arc. Normally I've believed that the vice (desire for increased knowledge) is demonstrated to the extreme in the antagonist's character... and perhaps that's true because the bug (Edgar) does have that knowledge lust as he seeks to obtain the "galaxy"... the McGuffin, which we might assumes will give him ultimate knowledge and power. 

If we consider J and K co-protagonists then we can imagine K arc'ing from acceptance of the secret MIB life with it's burdensome knowledge of the universe, and his desire to move away from it. Meanwhile J moves in the opposite direction. J's Moment of Grace, by the way, occurs when he gives birth to the squid. He begins to seriously embrace the responsibility of protecting life through "alien" birth... and thus gives, metaphorically birth to his acceptance of aliens. That moment is in the middle of the film.

Agent K's Moment of Grace may be when he searching for his long lost love on the computer and considers how nice it would be to look up at the stars and smile... as she does in that scene when he seeks her out with the satellite cameras.

So, applying the MPPS statement to J, he moves from Not Knowing to Knowing, and from a relatively happy life (that we don't really see) to one of unbearable responsibilities, and K moves from a relatively unbearable responsibilities to one of a happy life with his long lost love.

MEN IN BLACK II (2002) 88min PG-13
Budget $140M Est
Domestic BO: $190M
Worldwide: $235M




As MEN IN BLACK 3 gets under production next month in New York, it's about time I take a look at the last episode.


The big idea behind MIB 2 is about being who you were meant to be and not someone else. Apart from that big idea, everything else is up for laughs by playing it straight. [Not to get away from the "lie that tells the truth—that aliens from outer space are everywhere disguised as everything; and their presence tells the truth about ourselves.] The ironic humor stems from the aliens' efforts to fit in with the normal human population, when it's too hard for humans to define, let alone act, normal.  It's the super secret, highly funded, Men in Black government agency's job to keep a lid on all things alien—and protect earth from the scum of the universe.

As crazy and fun as MIB 2 is, "underneath" the story line is a true and consistently applied moral premise. Let me get it out of the way so I can explain how the various characters portray it.

Pursuing who you aren't or doing what you shouldn't
leads to danger for yourself and all of earth; but
Pursuing who are meant to be or doing what you should (by the book)
leads to safety for yourself and all of earth.

In a shorter form, perhaps:

Pretending who you are not, leads to danger; but
Being who truly are leads to safety.

Let's see how each character in MIB 2 exemplifies this truth.

The fictional world that MIB creates, of course, is about disguising or hiding the ugliness of who aliens really are. They live on Earth incognito, which always creates problems for "normal" earthlings and the MIB enforcement teams.

Because the MIB are also in the deception business, they have their share of problems: corralling aliens, investigating them, prosecuting them, and neuralize  the population.

[Sidebar: FAIR PLAY: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying by James Olson, Former Chief of CIA Counterintelligence, is a worthwhile book on the subject of deception and when or not it is morally justified. But Olson's book is not as funny as MIB 2.]

In this MIB story, Agent Jay discovers that Serleena, an intergalactic alien menace that invades space and people as a fast growing sewer root, has returned to Earth disguised as a glamorous underwear model. "She" is looking for the "Light of Zartha" (the McGuffin) which she supposes is an artifact that when in her possession will establish her as the Queen of the Universe. Her outward "disguise" as a Victoria Secrets model instantly gets her in trouble when she's attacked by a Central Park mugger. Except, in this case, the mugger is taken behind a bush by Serleena and swallowed whole. Muggers are pretending to be something they aren't—infallible and all powerful purveyors. Wearing such a mask (literally) will always get you in eventual trouble.

But Serleena's inner disguise is that she thinks she should be the queen of the universe. Such arrogance (excessive self-deception) will always lead to danger. It's an arrogance that is styled explicitly after the Biblical Satan. When J and K return to MIB headquarters which has been locked down because of Serleena's invasion of it, the "security" guard is reading a tabloid with headlines that proclaims "SATAN ESCAPES FROM HELL" and the guard says to J and K, "That lady in there is causing all kinds of hell." (More on Serleena's Biblical antecedents below.)

But she's not rightfully the queen. It's not who she really is. And as vicious, cunning, and villainous as she is, as long as she tries to be someone she's not, she's doomed.

The previous Queen (the good one, we suppose) was killed by Serleena 25 years earlier in an attempt to find the Light of Zartha, but unless Serleena can obtain the artifact, she will be stuck to the "underworld."  (roots in undergarments, no doubt).  But the Light of Zartha is also in disguise; it's not an artifact, such as the bracelet that Laura wears and begins glowing for some reason we're not told. The Light of Zartha is,  infact, Laura herself, and even she doesn't know her heritage or future. She is the off-spring of the Queen of Zartha and Agent K, it seems. She is a princess. And her presence on earth endangers earth until she returns to Zartha as queen. She's the result of a an alien mating with a human. (Another Biblical antecedent.)

The first half of the movie, up until the Moment of Grace (MOG), Jay is acting like he is MIB's best agent. He's cocky, but he's also making mistakes. This "mask" or "pretense" gets him in trouble. He doesn't follow the book on several occasions. At the MOG when Agent Kay fully regains his memory, Jay is humbled on several occasions and becomes the inferior to Agent Kay, MIB's best ever agent. Thus, Jay assumes his true identity and things work out for him.

Neither J nor K make progress toward their goal of stopping Serleena and getting to the Light of Zartha first, until the moment of grace for J and K.

At the beginning of the movie Kay has been neuralized and has forgotten his true identity. And until Kay gets his memory back, some of which we discover was his own select neuralyzing -- earth, MIB, and Jay and Kay are in trouble. So, being who we are meant to be, and not pretending to be someone else, leads to safety.


We found it remarkable that Serleena's character has several strong antecedents to story elements about Satan found in the Biblical books of Isaiah and Revelation. We suspect that this was not consciously planned by the writers but simply an example of how no story is really, truly original. Polti suggests there are really on 36 plot variations in all storydom.

But in MIB 2 there are some very explicit references that we found interesting:

2 Corinthians 11:14, NAB:
Satan masquerades as an angel of light.
Serleena masquerading as a Victoria Secrets lingerie model is wholly appropriate for what's going on here. To many she will appear as an "angel" of sorts, attractive and vulnerable. Indeed, a while back, Victoria Secrets did an "angel" campaign. But Serleena is a sinister villain, as Satan is.

Isaiah 14:12-15 (KJV)
How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!  For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north:  I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.
As mentioned earlier through the security guard's paper and his dialogue, Serlenna is connected to Satan who has escaped from hell.
  • She is modeled after "the false Light"— " Lucifer" (aka Satan) means "angel of light". In Isaiah the words are "son of the morning" or "star of heaven." 
  • Like Lucifer, Serlenna, wants to rule the world, even if it is not her place to do so.
Revelation 12 (the whole chapter)

I'll summarize some of this passage then quote a few verses, then point to the plot points in the story that are similar.

In Revelations 12 we have a queenly woman, clothed in light (the sun) who is pregnant. The baby is born and then a red dragon (the Devil or Satan), having multiple heads and a tail, goes after the child to destroy it, because the child will prevent the dragon from ruling the world. But the child is eventually caught up to the heavens, and the dragon cursed to hell, is "cast upon the earth."  Satan is also referred to here as a serpent. In Catholicism this passage is interpreted as Satan attacking Mary (the mother of Jesus) and the spiritual children of Mary's son, Jesus, the true light of the world.
  • The allegorical elements in MIB2 are Serleena searching out the "light" which is the off-spring of the queen mother (Lauranna). Notice that Laura's mother is LaurANNA" St. Mary's mother was Anne. Mary's son, Jesus, is the "light of the world."
  • And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time. And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child. And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent. (Rev. 112:9, 12-16, KJV)
In MIB 2:
  • Serleena's natural state is that of a fast growing, infectious, menacing, irritating root. But her tentacles are also similar those of a mythical dragon's tail, and serpent.
  • Serleena is out to deceive whomever she can about her identify and purpose.
  • The inhabitants of Earth should be warned because Serleena is among the population.
  • Serleena persecutes those that are connected with the queen and the Light of Zartha.
  • Laura is given wings to fly into the wilderness of space, to take her place on the throne of Zartha, or heaven.


George said...

Biblical references. Hmm... Stan, are you familiar with a fim called Tron?

Stan Williams said...

TRON (1982) with sequel on the way. Yep. to get the iridescence effect on the character's costumes, all the frames were blown up to cells, hand-painted and then rephotographed.

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