Twenty years ago, Barry Sonnenfeld gave the world Men in Black, a science fiction comedy perhaps best remembered for its music video, featuring Will Smith dancing alongside a computer-animated space alien. But what I remember most fondly is a low-stakes scene with no special effects or pop songs. Tucked into the first act, the moment is brief, subtle, and to this day, I find it unrivaled in terms of charm and efficiency.
Some setup: Men in Black begins with NYPD officer James Darrell Edwards III (Will Smith) keeping pace with a mysteriously speedy perp. The feat is noticed by a mysterious group of men in black (suits), and Edwards is given an opportunity to join their ranks, alongside some of the nation’s best military.
But first, he needs to pass an audition. The sequence, particularly the 2.5-minute quiz sequence, tells us everything we need to know about Edwards as a character, while also endearing us to him.
Edwards enters the meeting late, walking into a large interrogation room sporting boots, jeans, and a truly 1990s red jacket. When a smug fellow applicant tries to impress the recruiter (Zed, played by Rip Torn), Edwards mocks the recruit for hyping a job he — and everybody else in the room — knows nothing about.
Edwards is the perfect candidate for an unimaginable job
Then comes the written exam. All of the applicants, sitting in egg shell chairs, are asked to fill out a paper form. Their pencils break and stab through the paper sheets, and the men contort themselves to create hard surfaces with their folded legs. Edwards does something different: he stands, walks over to the large steel table in the center of the room, and drags it to his chair with a ear-splitting screech.
Yes, Edwards is the classic movie cop that does things his own way. But what’s special — and what we see for ourselves — is his way makes the most sense. He’s not intimidated or hobbled by meaningless conventions.
Men in Black’s script is lean but strong, particularly when it comes to characterization. This trial continues with Edwards on a firing range. Other candidates shoot alien targets, Edwards fires a single bullet in the head of a little girl. His explanation:
“Eight-year-old white girl. Middle of the ghetto. Bunch of monsters. This time of night. With quantum physics books. She’s about to start some shit. She’s about eight years old, those books are way too advanced for her. If you ask me, I’d say she’s up to something.”
Where most sci-fi blockbusters and superhero films rely on a call to action driven by coincidence or a personal mission — “A goon killed my parents / grandpa / spouse, and now I will patrol the streets / planet / galaxy in the name of good” — Men in Black shows Edwards isn’t a reluctant or destined hero so much as he’s just a dude who’s perfect for this very particular job.
And what’s special about this epiphany — and what special effects-heavy blockbusters of the present could borrow — is that it happens in a boring office with props a high school theater could afford. Edwards is the perfect fit for an intergalactic police force, and the audience learns that without a single CGI trick — not even a dancing alien.