Men in Black: Criticism of the Military

When I was a kid, I received a Playstation 2 for one of my birthdays. This thing was a beast for my childhood years, with it being able to play awesome new games, but more importantly it introduced me to the world of DVD's. My first ever movie on DVD was the 1997 sci-fi comedy, Men in Black starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.

Now, I need to explain why I'm writing this post. I was recently watching the movie again for the bazillionth time when something occurred to me during one of the earlier scenes; something I never noticed when I was a kid. It's the scene when Will Smith's character, Edwards, goes to the MiB headquarters to take the various tests to become an agent.

As you can see in this scene, Edwards is put against government soldiers in a test of "motor skills, concentration and stamina". Upon first glance, it's clear that he is acting a bit "goofier" than the others before and during the test, especially when he grabs the table and drags it towards him. The soldiers just look at him in disapproval. Let's look at the next scene:

Here, this is the same sort of deal. The candidates are being tested on their abilities during an intense situation. While the soldiers pick up their weapons and begin shooting at anything that looks alien, Edwards hesitates briefly and instead shoots a little girl. It appears that he has failed these tests due to his behaviour, but we soon find out this is not the case when he is recruited. As a kid, I definitely saw Edwards as a very goofy guy, but as an adult I found a very different tone to these scenes. Let's analyse.

The first test was never really about what was written on paper. Look at the soldiers, they are struggling to write in those weird egg-shaped chairs. One guy even pierces the paper and tries to erase it. Edwards is the only one to think "you know what, that table over there looks useful. I'll get that." And even when he does that, the soldiers look at him like he's nuts. So really, the test was about common sense.

The second test is where things get interesting. The soldiers are trained to shoot anything that looks dangerous. But Edwards is a New York cop, and he knows that just because something looks foreign, weird or stereotypical doesn't make them a danger. He also knows to look for things that are out-of-the-ordinary, such as little Tiffany with her books on quantum physics. He hesitates, assesses the threat and doesn't view every alien as a menace, which is a skill that he will have learned through commonplace social interactions during his time as a cop, and something that the soldiers will not have had experience with. It's exactly what the MiB are looking for in a new agent, and becomes much clearer as the movie goes on to show that the majority of aliens use a human disguise.

Both of these tests show Edwards' skills to think outside the box, doubt assumption and take risks. Later on, Zed isn't so sure about recruiting Edwards, but at no point does he say "the kid's an idiot" or "he's a smartass", instead he simply declares he has a problem with authority due to the way he reacted to Zed's statements. This scene is also a subtle dig at the U.S. Military, who just do exactly what they expected to be presented with. Zed even remarks: "Gentlemen, you're everything we've come to expect from years of government training." - immediately after the scene they shoot anything that looks hostile. During those few scenes, Edwards was the smartest candidate in that room.

In a world of military fetishism in Hollywood, it was enjoyable for a film like Men in Black to not be afraid of military criticism in a way that was elusive and also really funny. I stand by my belief that the first film is a timeless classic of the 90's, whereas the sequels don't quite hit the right spot.

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