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Digital Media FX Review of Men In Black 2
by Noell Wolfgram Evans, feature writer for Digital Media FX Magazine

In 'Men in Black II', Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones reprise their roles from the 1997 film 'Men in Black'. In that first film, they had to save the planet from a marauding alien and in this next installment they save the planet from a…marauding alien. The similarity in the plot isn't the only problem with this picture.

The name 'Men in Black' refers to the members of a super-secret Government organization. Always wearing black suits, their sole purpose is to keep in check the alien civilizations that have decided to call Earth home. This is one of those 'double entendre' film titles though as it also refers to the stars of the film, its Director, Executive Producer and others who plan to spend quite a lot of time in the bank book black thanks to the impending box-office bonanza of this film. 'Men in Black II' feels like it was made for money, rather than to entertain or further the adventures of two likeable characters. Sequels are this day and age, a seemingly necessary evil but they can be created in a way that furthers their predecessors. This is not the case here.

As written by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro, 'Men in Black II' feels like a cobbled 'What about doing this' exercise. Scenes and actions don't really progress as much as they just sort of happen. In a film like this there is a definite suspension of disbelief but there is also a logicalness that you'd like to see happen within these parameters. Unfortunately in the film, things happen for what feels like no reason and characters slip in and out of character just for the benefit of what is purported to be a joke. This all adds up to a story that just really doesn't feel like it goes anywhere.

Even the usually sure had of Director Barry Sonnenfeld can't save the material from falling flat. Jokes just drop from an actors mouth to the ground in a silent smirk thud while the larger set pieces occur with a technical admiration but really no heart or soul. No passion feels as if it was invested into the making of the film and as an audience member, I have to wonder why, if the creators didn't really care, I should.

'Men in Black II' is above all else a science fiction film and generally the two most memorable features of sci-fi are the creatures and the music that they move to.

The music for the film was written by Danny Elfman and while it has some interesting touches, it never really draws me into a scene the way that strong movie music should. Elfman is definitely capable of providing music that can often rise above the material, it's just in this instance the work feels more like an Elfman knock-off rather than the real thing. Still even that is better than what can be found in most movies today.

Of course what is a science fiction film without aliens. In this film, there are two types of aliens, those created the old fashioned way with masks and mirrors and those created using CGI.

The 'traditional' aliens were created by Oscar winner Rick Baker and his team at Cinovation studios and they are exactly what you would expect, which is part of the problem. While all of the creatures are convincing, minus the Ballchinian (whose name is exactly what it implies), there really isn't anything new to see. It's almost as if Baker has done such a solidly perfect job for so many years, that he eliminated the 'wow' factor from his own work.

The CGI creatures (along with various other effects) were created by a number of visual effects houses including ILM, Sony Imageworks, Tippett Studio, Illusion Arts and Rhythm & Hues (who also had a hand in this summers 'Scooby Doo') under the guidance of Visual Effects Supervisor Bryan McBrien. These effects are very hit or miss and it would be interesting to see the exact 'who did what' breakdown. The alien creatures, such as Serleena (played by Lara Flynn Boyle), are effectively rendered. They work completely well in their environments and the animation is clean, but not to the point of looking too computerized. Particularly effective was the spaceship work, which is now something that's old hat to ILM. The scenes of ships flying through the sky, particularly in the title sequence and in the end chase, had an amazing realness to them. It was not just their movement and integration into the live action, but it was the 'side' items such as the ships exhaust that gave these scenes an exciting realism.

While many of the effects houses do their work with proprietary software, it is known that Rhythm & Hues utilized Houdini 3D software from Side Effects Software. Houdini is ideal for lighting effects, custom scripting, motion-on-motion compositing and photo-realistic rendering. It's an effective animation tool as it helped to add some layers of depth and realism to a number of the effects in the film. And for a film like this to work, there has to be some level of realism that an audience can connect with.

What's interesting is that while the latest effects were hit head on, some of the effects that have been in movies for years looked as if there were no advances in them since the heyday of Capra. Particularly some of the blue screen work was rather suspect to say the least. At the beginning of the film, Will Smith is riding a large worm named Jeffery through the New York City subway system. As Smith bounces and rolls through his ride, you can practically see the blue screen behind him and the mechanical bull that he is sitting on. There is a flatness in these scenes that render them ineffective. The other effects issue came up whenever anyone got in a car. As the characters drove from one point to the next, you could feel the wheels turning the scenery in the windows behind them. Not only did the city scenes appear to be going by on a completely different plane, they appeared to go by at a completely different speed. It reminded me of the old movies set in a train where the same tree would pass the window 57 times.

Men in Black Tid-bits

The films are based on the 'Men in Black' comic series produced by Malibu Comics and created by Lowell Cunningham.

Chris O'Donnell was originally scheduled to play Agent J but left the role shortly after original director Les Mayfield departed the film.

The original film was so popular that it spawned an animated series. In 1997 the WB began airing "Men in Black: The Series".

Perhaps the most popular Men in Black spin-off can be found at Universal Studios in Florida. 'Men in Black: Alien Attack' is an interactive dark-ride that invites viewers to travel along city streets, fighting aliens at every turn. The ride opened in 2000.

Oddly enough, this film does not live or die on the effects work, the main attraction here is Smith and Jones and they are the true weak links in the film. The problem doesn't lie in their performances; they do exactly what they are given to do. It's just that they aren't really given anything interesting to do. The film opens with Smith, 'J', as a bit of a renegade within the Men in Black organization. At the end of the first film, Jones' 'K' had retired and he starts this installment still retired and working in the Post Office with no memory of his previous alien fighting life.

As J and K travel down these divergent tracks, Smith and Jones show some originality and life but soon Jones is given his memory back and suddenly everything reverts into stereotypes: Jones as the gruff veteran and Smith as the scared newcomer. This dynamic worked in the first film because that's who these characters were but with five years between then and now, we expect to see some sort of growth, especially considering the direction of the character arcs in the first third of the film. It's almost as if you are watching two completely different sets of characters in this film and it just doesn't work.

If there is to be a third film of this series, I think the producers could re-inject some life into the premise by teaming up Frank the Dog (whose singing brings the movie to a stop) and David Cross' Newton, a video owner who's just a little to into 'conspiracies'.

'Men in Black II' is filled with a number of effective pieces such as these. It's just too bad that there aren't enough of them to make a solidly entertaining film.

Out of a scale of 1 to 10, 'Men in Black II' earns a 5.

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