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Apocalypse du jour
June 1, 2012 - Rick Chatenever
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in this space about getting unstuck in time and winding up back in the '60s.
Well, what do you know? It's happened again.
It wasn't my fault this time. Instead, it was "Men in Black III," which transports Will Smith back to 1969 to save his partner, but, more importantly, to save the world.
Saving the world has been the subtext of the weekly sci-fi thrillers coming our way this summer. Last week the action took place uncomfortably close to home - on Oahu - when "Battleship" reenacted Pearl Harbor. The Japanese were on our side this time, in the ugly face of a bigger, badder enemy: ALIENS!
"Battleship" tanked at the box office, possibly because the script made no sense. None whatsoever. It called for getting the rusty old battleship Missouri out of mothballs and into action manned by a bunch of gray-haired, wobbly old coots who had been in her crew the first time to ward off the aliens. Obviously, they didn't have a chance against virtually every superhero in the Marvel Comics archives, gathered together in the box-office record-setter "The Avengers."
Coincidentally, "The Avengers" are fighting aliens, too.
Uh, is anybody else bothered by this trend?
"Apocalypse Now" is so dated. Now it's Apocalypse du jour.
Not to worry, assures Jill Tarter of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, Calif. "The aliens of science fiction say more about us than they do about themselves," says this astronomer who inspired the role played by Jodi Foster in 1997's "Contact."
"We should look at movies like 'Men in Black III' and 'Battleship' as great entertainment and metaphors for our own fears, but we should not consider them harbingers of alien visitation," she says.
Actually, that's not what was bothering me. The implications of Armageddon are pretty disturbing, whether you're thinking globally or locally. What's with our eagerness to trot out a new, comic-book version of it each week?
My nephew Evan who watched "Battleship" with me, was untroubled by my concerns. In his 14 years, he has already seen the world destroyed so many time on screens of every shape and size, he's a more detached and discerning reviewer of the art form. It's all about how special were the special effects? How gnarly are the monsters? How realistic was the sacking of Tokyo?
He's oblivious to misgivings of some of his elders about the power of careless power of media to desensitize us - especially the young among us - to the real consequence of violence. Now those worries sound like weak cheeps of canaries the moment before the huge methane fireball roars through the coal mine.
That was my mindset heading into "Men in Black." It turns out, there was nothing to worry about. What started as a clever concept in the first "MIB"- a secret agency of guys in Blues Brothers wardrobes protecting us from the aliens among us - has aged well.
Under Barry Sonnenfeld's direction, the franchise hasn't lost any of its wisecracking attitude or intricate plotting in the face of its hideous adversaries. But in the decade since the last "Men in Black," the writing has managed to catch up with the special effects and actually get soulful.
Sending Will Smith time traveling back to 1969 gives the writers fertile soil for sending up cultural icons and milestones, from Andy Warhol and the Cape Canaveral moon launch to residual racist attitudes. (They weren't nearly so funny the first time around.) These jokes go right over the heads of the youngest audience members, but they still laugh along.
Like "The Avengers" that it dethroned at the box office, "Men in Black's" strength isn't its special effects, but its actors. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are reliably iconic in the lead roles, and Emma Thompson co-stars to add to the Oscar count in the credits. But it falls to Josh Brolin to give the film's finest performance, basically channeling a 40-year-younger version of Tommy Lee Jones.
For all the time-twisting convolutions in the plot and the state-of-the art efforts from the makeup and special-effects departments, the most lasting impression of this sci-fi fantasy were the very real sniffles filling the theater at the film's climax.
Nice to know there's still room for us humans among the visitors from elsewhere.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com
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