The most important movie of 1997 was not Titanic; it was Men in Black. MiB grossed less than half of what James Cameron’s flick made (although nearly $600,000 is still plenty of money). It won exactly zero Academy Awards — or any film accolades, for that matter. The film was not responsible for launching any of its cast members into superstardom, and it certainly possess no iconic scene of a nude portrait in progress — despite how badly the public was clamoring to see a naked Tommy Lee Jones grace the silver screen.
And yet, 19 years later, Men in Black has maintained a bigger influence on our lives than an overwrought piece of historical fiction directed by a megalomaniacal director — because it’s a movie about the future, or at the very least, a version of what our future might be.
The existence of extraterrestrials has been pondered endlessly since heliocentric theory was accepted as fact by the world’s scientists. Once the globe understand that the Earth was not at the center of the universe, people became more open to the idea that life — even intelligent life — could have evolved on other planets. And of course, the notion that life might exist elsewhere also meant those beings could possess some of the more gruesome qualities that humans do.
Namely, that they might be hostile.
So the 20th century was filled with stories and films depicting aliens invading us puny Earthlings, thereby forcing us to band together and fight off oppressors from across the galaxy. Although movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. (1982) demonstrated a more positive version of what a chance meeting with aliens might look like, the ‘90s saw a push for much more grim views of extraterrestrials visiting the third rock from the sun. Independence Day (1996) gave us the destructions of Earth’s major cities. The X-Files was smack in the middle of stoking ideas about government conspiracies, alien abductions, and an alien invasion that substituted lasers and guns for viruses and clandestine operations. Mars Attacks! was hilarious but also demented, showcasing an alien force composed of equal parts technological intelligence and id.
Men in Black changed all of that. It flipped the script of a half-century’s worth of stories about governmental secrecy, and presented a world where aliens were pretty much as dumb, simple, and happy-go-lucky as most human beings. Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) do spend a bit of their time firing guns and chasing down baddie extraterrestrials, but for the most part, they are playing the insanely dull role of having to just talk to people (or rather, aliens disguised as people) and help them with their problems.
Why are they so good at their jobs? Simple: they’re good at communicating with others. For Agent K and (to some extent) Agent J, a world with aliens is actually really mundane. They’re just people with more arms, ugly faces, and hotter tempers.
Men in Black posits the idea that maybe a scenario in which humans learn they aren’t alone is actually just as boring a universe as it is right now. And paradoxically, this is actually as crazy as the idea that aliens would come to this planet to wage war and conquer our species — because how the hell could lifeforms who have mastered interstellar travel be so consumed with, well, consumption?
But that’s exactly what makes Men in Black so brilliant. The film’s dry sense of humor demonstrates that, perhaps, if aliens ever do show up at our doorsteps, we shouldn’t heed hysterical notions that they’ll take over our world – nor should we consider that revelation as a foundational shift in our ideas about humanity. Instead, we should reaction to aliens the way we do most scientific findings: “hey, this is some pretty neat shit, and I can’t wait for our lives to be transformed by it, but for now I’m gonna get on with sharing cat gifs with all my buddies!”
The scientists who spend their days looking for aliens have still not found anything. To make your life’s work the search of something that has never before experienced any success must be existentially daunting. Men in Black highlights that a self-effacing approach to this absurd task at hand is exactly what allows you to pursue a difficult passion without becoming obsessively consumed by it.
As space travel and exploration moves faster, and allows us to peer off into far away worlds, the idea that we might one day meet extraterrestrials is feeling closer than ever before. We should look at Men in Black as a lesson that if and when that day arrives, let’s not lose our shit. Be like Agent K and just remember that everything and everyone is still pretty bad — and that the best thing we can do is to focus on our jobs, take care of the little things, and let the big things work themselves out.