Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Men In Black: Collector's Series (1997)
Studio Line: Columbia TriStar - Protecting the earth from the scum of the universe.

Agent Jay (Will Smith) and Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) are turning up the heat on alien terrorists in the biggest sci-fi comedy hit in the galaxy. Go behind the scenes of Men In Black and experience a universe of special features exclusive to this collectible DVD!

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Rip Torn, Vincent D'Onofrio, Tony Shalhoub
Academy Awards: Won for Best Makeup. Nominated for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Original Score-Danny Elfman, 1998.
Box Office: Budget: $90 million. Opening Weekend: $84.133 million (3,020 screens). Gross: $250.147 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1 & Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English, Spanish, French; closed-captioned; single sided - double layered; 27 chapters; rated PG-13; 96 min.; $29.95; street date 9/5/00.
Supplements: Visual Commentary from Director Barry Sonnenfeld and Star Tommy Lee Jones; Deleted Scenes; Character Animation Studies Using Angles; Tunnel Scene Deconstruction Using Angles; Conceptual Art, Storyboards, and Production Photo Galleries; Storyboard Comparisons; Original Featurette; All-new Documentary: "Metamorphosis of Men In Black"; DVD-ROM and Web Links; Music Video; Letter From Barry Sonnenfeld; Production Notes; Talent Files; Theatrical Trailers.
Purchase: DVD Limited Edition | DVD SE | DVD SE - DTS | Official Companion Book - Barry Sonnenfeld | Score soundtrack - Danny Elfman | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/A-/B+

Many regard the films of director Barry Sonnenfeld as triumphs of style over substance, and I won't dispute that claim. Sonnenfeld began his film career as cinematographer and he retains a keen visual eye to this day. Perhaps it's too keen, since his movies tend to look great but frequently offer less-than-satisfying plot and character elements.

Sonnenfeld's main problem is that he's just not very good at telling a coherent narrative. His films tend to provide lots of strong sequences but they don't meld together terribly well. Check out the Addams Family movies for perfect examples of this tendency; both flicks are collections of slick and stylish shots in search of a story.

Frankly, I've never genuinely disliked any of Sonnenfeld's films; though Addams Family Values left me fairly cold and Wild Wild West certainly wasted a lot of potential, I still found each to provide at least a few entertaining moments. The closest thing to a complete movie made by Sonnenfeld, however, has to be 1997's Men In Black. It provides a neat marriage of comic book storytelling and elaborate visuals that doesn't feature a lot of substance but nonetheless takes us for a wild ride.

The film features a very simple plot. The Men In Black (MIB) are a secret government organization who deal with extraterrestrials who live on Earth. Intrigue develops because of a rampaging bug whose actions threaten to bring the wrath of powerful aliens down on our planet, and the MIB have to stop this killer insect before things get too hot. Tommy Lee Jones plays veteran agent "K", and Will Smith comes on-board early in the film as his new partner, "J". The two work to track down and exterminate the bug throughout the movie.

Obviously there's not much to that story, so we won't find Usual Suspects-type plot twists and complications to keep us interested. MIB has two things going for it: a solid and engaging cast and many inventive and wonderful creatures and devices. In regard to the former, both Jones and Smith show a very nice chemistry between them and they work extremely well together. Jones' seriousness and hang-dog appearance contrast neatly with the energy and verve of Smith, and the two feed off each others' skills; Smith's spark and humor add to Jones' versatility, and Jones' stature and presence give Smith greater substance than he'd otherwise have. Smith has charisma to spare, but as the dull relationship he shared with Kevin Kline in WWW showed, he needs someone with whom he's in tune to reflect his power, and Jones makes for an excellent partner.

In addition, Vincent D'Onofrio provides an absolute terrific turn as Edgar, the human whose body is "borrowed" by the marauding bug. D'Onofrio turns in a great piece of physical acting with the ways in which he contorts his movements; I'm not sure I ever really felt like this was a critter inside an Edgar suit, but D'Onofrio makes the possibility seem more believable than it should. Also in the fine supporting cast are the great Tony Shalhoub (underused as Jeebs, unfortunately), Rip Torn, luscious Linda Fiorentino, and funky Siobhan Fallon - briefly Elaine's roommate and Kramer's girlfriend on Seinfeld - as Edgar's wife Beatrice; I don't know why, but I've always adored the way she calls her husband "Egger".

As one expects of a big-budget sci-fi presentation, MIB doesn't skimp on the quality special effects, and they give the film a nice sheen that helps make it more entertaining. Actually, even without the solid effects, the visual quality of MIB serves the product better than in most Sonnenfeld movies just because it so aptly suits the comic book tone of the material. The slick stylization creates a smooth image which helps this film immensely; as it moves at a nicely-kinetic pace, the active visuals keep us stimulated and involved.

But as WWW proved, all the effects and style in the world won't save a film if it has no heart, and the nice human relationship between Jones and Smith is what ultimately makes Men In Black a winner. I didn't think much of MIB when I first saw it theatrically, but it's grown on me over the years, and I now find it to offer a wholly entertaining experience.

The DVD:

Men In Black appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though the picture isn't quite flawless, it seems very strong nonetheless.

Sharpness generally looks clear and well-defined, with only a few wider shots that display some mild softness. Moiré effects and jagged edges cause no problems, and I noticed only mild artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. The print showed a little grain at times, and I also noticed very minor instances of speckles and a little grit, but for the most part, the movie seemed clean.

Colors looked accurate and well-saturated, with no concerns related to noise or bleeding. I felt the hues could have appeared a bit more bold and daring for this kind of film, but I had no complaints about them. Black levels are deep and dark, and shadow detail generally appears appropriately dense but not overly opaque. However, some scenes - particularly during the first half of the film - showed slightly excessive heaviness in the shadows. For example the "illegal aliens" segment looks just a little too thick for my liking. Nonetheless, MIB presents a very satisfying image as a whole.

Even better is the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The soundfield favors the front channels in that those three speakers display the most distinct and well-oriented audio. The music shows terrific stereo separation, and effects are placed accurately in the spectrum; when appropriate, sound pans smoothly from channel to channel as well, and the front speakers offer a very active presentation. The rears seem a bit skimpy on discrete, "split-surround" information but they make for involved partners nonetheless, as they create a terrific and three-dimensional image. The ship crash toward the end of the film really shows off this track at its best.

Audio quality also seems very strong. Although some dialogue clearly seemed dubbed, the majority of it appears well-integrated, and the speech always sounds natural and distinct, with no concerns related to intelligibility. Effects comes across extremely accurately and clearly; they also display some fine low end and can really add a powerful element to the mix. Danny Elfman's score seems crisp and bright, and it also offers nice bass that gives the track some sweet "oomph". I recall not liking the 5.1 mix on my old LD of MIB, but I'm not sure why; logically it should be the same as this track, and it works extremely well.

Men In Black packs in a few nice supplemental features, and it starts with a cool video commentary from director Sonnenfeld and star Tommy Lee Jones. Columbia-Tristar offered their first video commentary on Ghostbusters, and I believe their only other attempt at one came on Muppets From Space. In both cases, I thought it was a cute idea but of little value.

For the most part, that sentiment remains true, but the MIB track makes better use of the technology than its predecessors. A video commentary presents silhouettes of the participants at the bottom of the screen, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style. This track adds a new component: Sonnenfeld uses a telestrator which lets him "draw" on the screen. That's the part of the piece that makes it more fun than the others; Sonnenfeld circles items to highlight them and also writes some comments like "CGI" on top of such-created effects. He starts slowly, but the telestrator activity picks up nicely about halfway through the film. I'm still not convinced that video commentaries are anything more than a gimmick, but this one helps sell the format.

The content of their remarks helps as well; of the three video commentaries, this one offers the most lively and entertaining conversation. Sonnenfeld dominates and provides the most data. Actually, Jones may ask as many questions as he answers, but the two have a nice rapport and they create a fun dynamic that would have been absent otherwise. That last statement isn't just speculation; I listened to Sonnenfeld's solo commentary on the MIB LD and found it to be one of the worst I'd ever heard. (This track appears on the MIB limited edition; when I receive it, I'll screen Sonnenfeld's commentary again and decide if I still think it's as bad as I recall.)

Two different sections cover the DVD's other extras. First up is "Creating MIB". This department includes the majority of the features. We find "Metamorphosis of MIB", a 23-minute and 10-second documentary about the film. It's quite a solid piece which combines cast and crew interviews with film clips and a very strong selection of shots from the production of the movie. As is typical of this sort of piece, special effects receive the greatest attention, but a broad range of topics are discussed. I particularly enjoyed the presentation of some scenes as originally written; a few segments were changed in post-production through dubbing, and the documentary shows them as first conceived. The program also covers other alterations made from the script, and it offers a brief but satisfying look at the movie.

Five "Deleted/Extended Scenes" appear. There should be a greater emphasis on "extended", as most of the segments fit that description. The fourth clip is actually just an alternate version of an existing scene, and the fifth shows one piece without digital effects added. The snippets run from 35 to 65 seconds with a total time of four minutes and 15 seconds. Although none of the clips are terribly fascinating, they merit a look.

"Tunnel Scene Deconstruction" lets you utilize the poor neglected "angle" button on your remote. After a 60 second intro from Sonnenfeld, we can check out the "tunnel scene" in five different renditions: storyboards; bluescreen shoot; bluescreen composite; lighting and animation; and final cut. Each of these lasts 90 seconds, and they can be viewed with or without technical commentary. Note that only one 90 second commentary track exists, so if you select it, the piece will play over and over again. One nice touch: the different clips loop to the next if you don't change them, which means that you can watch the whole sequence of segments in order without having to reselect them each time.

The "Art and Animation" subsection provides still more alternate-angle options. "Character Animation Studies" provides a 50 second introduction from Sonnenfeld and offers three different very short looks at character creation; each snippet lasts between six and 12 seconds and features four different stages ("preliminary", "adding skin and texture", "animation and lighting", and "final character composited into scene"). As with the "tunnel scene" area, these will loop through the available angles without intervention.

"Storyboard Comparisons" features this form of presentation for three different scenes. Storyboards take up the top half of the screen while the finished film fills the bottom segment. Each of the three snippets lasts between 85 and 120 seconds with a total of five minutes and 15 seconds. Additional storyboards are found in their own domain; we get five scenes that display between 11 and 63 boards for a grand total of 195 frames of material. I'm not a huge fan of storyboards, but these are presented well and offer some mildly interesting information.

Boohoogles of additional stillframe data appears in both the "Conceptual Art" and in the "Production Photo Gallery". The former creates nine different subsections with between 11 and 157 (!) frames apiece for a total of 476 shots. The emphasis is on drawings of alien characters and other fantastic elements of the film, but we also get some good photos, especially of the stages of make-up gone through by D'Onofrio. The "PPG" includes three different realms which offer between 42 and 88 shots each; the total comes to 181 pictures. We get a nice mix of effects preparation plus images of the cast on the set. These sections provided a nice look at the intricate work done on the film; it's great to see the detail and artistry put into material that may be barely visible on-screen.

That finally completes the "Creating MIB area" - next up is "Meet the MIB". This area is less ambitious and features the DVD's more ordinary elements. The "original featurette" falls into the category of glorified trailer. (I need a new name for those - maybe I'll call them "glorlers".) The six-minute, 35-second program shows a mix of film clips, interview snippets, and some shots from the set. The latter are mildly interesting but the whole thing's too brief to go anywhere. This is clearly a promotional puff piece.

Will Smith's sharp video for the title song appears, and we find a few trailers in an area called "The MIB Recommend". That location contains both the teaser and the theatrical trailer for MIB itself plus clips for fellow Smith film Bad Boys and an ad for the 1999 video release of Ghostbusters.

We get "Talent Files" for five of the actors, Sonnenfeld, and five other crew members. Just like most CTS DVDs, these are extremely brief and largely devoid of any useful information. The DVD also includes a terrific eight-page booklet that's one of the best I've seen. It includes some details about the DVD's features but also tosses in other fun features, like an "identity release form for new agents". We even get a special note from Sonnenfeld about the film and the DVD. Most DVD booklets are just token items, but this one makes for a very nice addition to the whole package.

Finally, this DVD contains DVD-ROM materials. These include: "MIB Training Center: MIB Weapons Overview; Non-Lethal MIB Devices; MIB Game. Resident Alien Tracking. 3-D Exploration of MIB Headquarters. Direct Links to,"

When I first wrote my review, I didn't get the chance to try out these pieces but I thought they sounded cool. Unfortunately, the reality differs from that impression. Easily the most interesting component was the "Resident Alien Tracking". It shows you icons for a few different critters; if you click on them, you discover a little more information about them. It only takes about three minutes to digest all the data, but it was fun while it lasted.

The same cannot be said for the other parts. The "MIB Game" is a complete waste of time. It puts you into the part of the movie where the MIB applicants had to decide which "targets" to shoot. Here, however, it's more basic; shoot the scary monsters, don't shoot the MIB. The graphics are fairly terrible, and the fun level extremely low.

"Non-Lethal MIB Devices" is cute for about 20 to 30 seconds but that's it. This part shows us some different toys like the "Spectral Analyzer" and lets you play with them. Unfortunately, although the program implies additional attempts will yield different responses, it appears that one size fits all. For example, you can test specimens to your heart's delight, but I never got an analysis other than "alien - not good". Cute concept, weak execution.

The same goes for the "Weapons Overview", which works along similar lines as the prior bit. Finally, the "3-D Exploration" just lets you look about a small, poorly-depicted corner of the headquarters; I lasted about 30 seconds with that dud before I called it quits. The weblinks may provide some additional goodies, but since they're readily available to all with Internet connections, I don't regard them as special. (Actually, all of these pieces appear on the "MIB" website, so even those without DVD-ROM capabilities can suffer through them just like I did!)

This package is only one of three Men In Black DVDs available. Another includes identical supplements but offers DTS 5.1 sound instead of Dolby Digital audio; it also retails for $29.95. A "limited edition" 2-DVD set exists as well. That one present the same materials found on the regular DVDs but also provides a number of other extras, such as an additional audio commentary and a variety of other exclusives, and it lists for $39.95.

Men In Black isn't a great movie but it's a fine "popcorn flick" that offers a lot of wit and excitement through its 98 minutes. The DVD provides a very good picture plus terrific sound and some solid extras. Men In Black would make a fine addition to your DVD collection - now you just have to narrow down which version to buy. For those with DTS capabilities, that copy is the one to get; the sound isn't much better, but it does present improvements. The LE is best left for only the most-obsessive supplement fans (like me); its additions won't be worth the extra money for most. If you can't play DTS tracks, this single-disc DD version is probably best for you.

Support DVD Movie Guide, visit our sponsors.

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top