Thursday, 12 September 2013

Hollywood's first Men in Black were its most authentic... sorry, Will Smith

By Robbie Graham

1984 saw the release of The Brother from Another Planet – a low-budget, independent social commentary piece from director John Sayles. In the movie, a UFO crashes near Ellis Island Immigration Centre and its human-looking, black skinned occupant emerges dazed and confused into the strange and unwelcoming landscape of ‘80s New York City – just another lost soul trying to find his way in the world.
We soon learn that The Brother has ESP abilities and, by touching any given object, he can ‘hear’ its history. He also has healing powers like so many other screen aliens of the 1980s. But The Brother from Another Planet is perhaps most notable for being the first film ever to feature the Men in Black of UFO lore. While a number of UFO movies in previous decades had featured besuited government spooks investigating saucer sightings, it was not until The Brother from Another Planet that the Men in Black were depicted precisely as described in UFO literature dating back to the late-1940s. In numerous accounts over the decades, MIBs have been described as being threatening in their intent and almost ‘alien’ in their actions and appearance, often speaking and moving robotically and appearing distinctly out of place in any Earthly environment.
Enter the MIBs: David Strathairn and John Sayles in
The Brother from Another Planet (1984)
InThe Brother from Another Planet, the MIBs (played by John Sayles and David Strathairn) are gaunt, pale-faced figures clad entirely in black whose behaviour is threatening, robotic, and bizarre; and with good reason: they’re aliens – bounty hunters in search of The Brother. In the film’s closing credits they are even credited as “Men in Black.”
Sayles wrote his film in the early 1980s after having worked on the script for Spielberg’s aborted alien horror movie Night Skies, elements of which would ultimately be used in the Spielberg productions E.T. The Extraterrestrial(1982), Poltergeist (1982), and Gremlins (1984). Evidently, Sayles had at some point familiarized himself with the details of MIB lore, likely during his research for Night Skies, which itself was directly inspired by the 1953 Kelly-Hopkinsville Incident – one of the most famous cases of alleged alien contact in UFO literature.

In The Brother from Another Planet, Sayles paid close attention to the bizarre physical motion of his MIBs. In order to convey their otherworldliness, the director filmed their entrance and exit scenes entirely in reverse and with the camera upside down. The effect is subtle, but creepy. The MIBs make their entrance a counter reading 0:35:27 in the video below...

Thirteen years after The Brother from Another Planet opened in theatres, the “Men in Black” term would explode into the very heart of pop culture with the release of a certain 1997 Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones vehicle. The line between documented UFOlogical fact and speculative pop-cultural fiction had always been blurry, but it disappeared in spectacular fashion with the release of the hugely successful Men in Black, which was executive produced by Steven Spielberg.
While Sayles’ 1984 movie accurately depicted MIBs as being imposing and otherworldly, Spielberg’s 1997 production (based on the comic book by Lowell Cunningham) re-spun MIB-lore in favour of the Men in Black themselves and of government secrecy surrounding the UFO phenomenon. It was a message encapsulated by Will Smith’s Grammy Award-winning title rap for the movie’s soundtrack:
he good guys dress in black, remember that,

Just in case we ever face to face and make contact...
We’re your first, last and only line of defense
Against the worst scum of the universe
So don’t fear us, cheer us
If you ever get near us don’t jeer us
We’re fearless...
Let me tell you this in closin'
I know we might seem imposin'
But trust me, if we ever show in your section
Believe me, it's for your own protection
Cuz we see things that you need not see
And we be places that you need not be
So go with your life, forget that Roswell crap
Show love to the black suit, cuz
That's the Men in
That's the Men in...
And, well, you know the rest.
In the minds of the many unfamiliar with UFOlogy, Men in Black would now and forever be associated exclusively with a movie and a song of the same name –with science fiction cinema (and Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones) rather than reported historical encounters. Moreover, MIBs went from being sinister witness-harassers to heroic “galaxy-defenders.” Such is the power of entertainment. But for a faithful big screen rendering of the Men in Black –one of UFOlogy’s most enduring enigmas – give Smith and Jones a miss. Sayles and Strathairn are where it’s at.