Back in Black

Shooting Stars: Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones fight off another alien invasion in Men in Black II.Photo: Photograph by Melinda Sue Gordon

Like most other sequels, Men in Black II is something of a knockoff, but then again, the original installment was pretty much a knockoff, too. I don’t mean that in a bad way. The hang-loose grodiness of these films has its charms, and the Ray-Banned team of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, at its best, is good vaudeville. There isn’t much of a plot – something to do with saving the planet. Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle) is the fanged monstrosity who alights in Central Park and disguises herself as a Victoria’s Secret model; her dim-witted two-headed accomplice, played by Johnny Knoxville of MTV’s Jackass series, could have used a few more heads. (I was hoping he’d have a big scene with Robot Squid, but it was not to be.) Once again, alien-makeup-effects supervisor Rick Baker delivers some of the gloppiest creatures ever to grace a comedy, and part of the pleasure in this new film is revisiting old favorites: Tony Shalhoub reprises his role as the alien pawnshop owner whose head, when severed, keeps regenerating into the same slobberer. And you’ll be happy to know that this time, the Worm Guys have their own bachelor pad, complete with shag carpeting and hot tub. (It makes sense that they would be retro-sixties types; those smoothies were always wormy.)

Barry Sonnenfeld, who also directed Men in Black, doesn’t bother much about pacing or continuity. He’s in the same laggard mode he’s been in for his last couple of films, Big Trouble and Wild Wild West, except that here the creature special effects save him. He may feel like he doesn’t have to do a whole lot more than set Rick Baker loose – and he may be right. I thought Men in Black was a notch too garish for what was essentially a goofy kid’s entertainment, and sometimes that’s also true here. But in the intervening five years, creature effects in Hollywood movies have gotten so much more repulsive that the monsters on display in the sequel seem almost decorous. It’s the humans who have become more alienlike, especially Tommy Lee Jones. In the last film, as Agent Kay, he “neuralized” – erased – his own memory in order to live a normal life. He begins the new film as a postmaster in Truro sternly lecturing customers on how to properly wrap packages. His infernal deadpan is the epitome of the government functionary. As for his co-laborers, they are a testament to the film’s most resonant bit of wisdom: Just about everybody who works in a post office is an alien.

Set in the year 2054, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report looks clammy and bleached-out. The oppressiveness, of course, is intentional, but is it necessary? High-concept science-fiction escapades often try to impose new ways of seeing, but Spielberg seems intent on blistering our optic nerves. Like A.I., Minority Report is a movie in furious conflict with itself. Hope is pitted, rather unsuccessfully, against dystopia – or is it dyspepsia? The result is one of the glummest and most forbidding thrillers ever.

Tom Cruise plays John Anderton, who runs the Justice Department’s Precrime unit, which acts on evidence provided by three human “Pre-cogs” who float in a liquid suspension chamber and can see visions of future murders. The images they transmit are displayed in haphazard fragments on a giant screen before which Anderton stands like a maestro, sorting out the pictures with sweeping waves of his arms. The garish, fractured visuals may cause some in the audience to experience déjà vu: Can it be that the Pre-cogs are channeling the credit sequence from Seven?

The Precrime cops, tipped by the trio, swoop down and arrest potential murderers, who are contained in a comatose state in long pneumatic tubes while their misdeeds are played out before their eyes. The moral dilemma is that none of the convicted is actually guilty of anything in the present. But because the Pre-cogs are supposed to be infallible, and because the murder rate in Washington, D.C., for the past six years has dropped to zero, the public is enthusiastic, and there is a political initiative pending to make Precrime go national. Then comes the twist: Anderton is implicated in the murder, within 36 hours, of a man he doesn’t even know. Believing himself innocent and set up by his enemies, he goes on the lam. Either he is a murderer-to-be or the Pre-cogs are wrong – which would call into question everything Anderton stands for as a crime fighter.

There are some extraordinary sequences in Minority Report, and they are almost always the ones in which Spielberg lets loose his genius for graphic movement. In one scene, Anderton jumps across lanes of magnetic-levitation cars that speed both horizontally and vertically through the automated cityscape. In the film’s best set piece, he submerges himself in a bathtub while mechanical spiders try to identify him by scanning his retina. (The action is so astonishingly deft that the pop of a single air bubble caps the scene.) The futurist vision of a consumer society in Minority Report – which was written by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen and very loosely based on a longish and dullish 1956 Philip K. Dick story – is alarmingly plausible. By scanning our eyes, companies will track our whereabouts and personalize the hard sell as never before. Malls will be lined with talking billboards on a first-name basis with us. (This is the rare movie where the plethora of product placements actually serves a legitimate dramatic function.) And yet what’s alarming to us may not be quite so scary to Spielberg the corporate-honcho visionary, who simply presents this stuff as a fact of (future) life. His attitude is a wary bemusement.

What really spooks him, as in A.I., is that it may no longer be possible to be truly human in such a cyberfuture. Anderton, in addition to his Precrime problems, is also aggrieved by the unsolved kidnapping six years ago of his son. He compulsively plays back holographic home movies of his boy and has a drug habit. All this is meant to humanize Anderton for us, but Tom Cruise doesn’t really have much inner life as an actor, and so the effect is muddled. Anderton is supposed to be running away from himself, from his demons, but that’s not what comes across. He’s running to get away. Cruise has become such a movie-star icon that we’re supposed to gasp in awe whenever he gets down and dirty and messes with his iconography. In what amounted to a ghastly piece of reverse narcissism in Vanilla Sky, he spent half the movie sporting a surgically distended face. (It’s as if he were saying, “Look how ugly I make myself and still you watch me.”) In Minority Report, he’s such a dynamo that he converts even the process of grieving into a form of aerobics. Cruise carries the movie, but I was relieved to turn to some of the other players, including Colin Farrell as Anderton’s nemesis, and Samantha Morton as the most gifted of the Pre-cogs, for more evocative human shadings.

Spielberg is still in his Kubrick mode in Minority Report, which is to say that, even more than in A.I., he has split himself off from the verve and emotional sympathy that characterize his best films. I respect his desire to challenge himself and go deeper and darker. It’s just that most of what’s dark about Minority Report is basically futuro film noir, and what’s “deep” about it are the standard sci-fi tropes about the individual vs. society and what’s real and what isn’t, as well as the usual quasi-religious overtones about playing God. Ultimately, the film turns into a soporific anthem for the power to choose one’s future, followed by a quick fadeout of family togetherness. Although he can’t quite get himself to do it, Spielberg clearly wants to drop the sentimentality from his repertoire: That anthem strikes a hollow chord, and the family idealizations are one-note. Minority Report is, among other things, Spielberg’s attempt to extirpate once and for all his inner E.T. Like Cruise, he desires to deface his own image, which is perhaps why this new movie specializes in shots of severed eyeballs – it’s practically a motif. The most visually dynamic director of his generation wants to know what it’s like to fly blind. That’s what most repels him – and attracts him. He’s virtuosic enough to keep Minority Report aloft, but he’s not soaring.

As much as I like the inventiveness and throwaway humor of computer-animated movies, I would hate to see computers take over the field completely. Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, which is animated in the traditional way, with watercolor backgrounds, is lovely, and funny, too. It owes a great deal to Japanese anime, but there’s also a “Looney Tunes” friskiness to it that’s distinctively homegrown. It’s about a little Hawaiian girl and the yowling intergalactic creature she adopts. They’re twin misbehavers, and they bond through their love of Elvis Presley favorites. Fortunately, “Blue Hawaii” is not one of them… . Notorious C.H.O. is a live filmed performance of Margaret Cho doing her stand-up act in Seattle. She sometimes falls into the same trap that Lenny Bruce fell into, playing the taboo-breaking emancipator, but for the most part she’s blessedly bawdy.

Men in Black II
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld; starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.
Minority Report
Directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Tom Cruise.

Back in Black