August 29, 2000

Men In Black (1997)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

98 mins. · PG-13
16x9 · 1.85:1

Format
DVD

Audio
E
French

Subtitles
English, French, Spanish

Extras
Visual Commentary Track, Documentary, Featurette, Animation Studies, Storyboard Comparison, Music Video, Trailers and more

Starring
Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio, Linda Fiorentino, Rip Torn

Review by
Guido Henkel


Rating



(1997)

Since the inception of DVD there was one film that was most anticipated. It was initially rumored to become one of the early DVD releases, but soon disappeared form all schedules and release plans.
Fast forward three years! The DVD version of "Men In Black" is finally here! In a full-blown special edition no less, which is supposedly one of the most ambitious projects Columbia TriStar Home Video has ever tackled. Given the success and popularity of the movie, and the subject matter this actually sounds like the perfect marriage, so let’s sit back and take the ride.

In a world where aliens are done away with as a figment of people’s imagination there is no room for a government force that polices alien trafficking to and from Earth. But what if there really are aliens? What if there is a lively visitation of alien life forms from other planets and they’re just so well disguised that we don’t even know about them? That is what the men in back are there for, members of a government agency that take their name from the fact that the dress only in black suits and white shirts. They keep an eye on all visitors from outer space and make sure that they behave within agreed upon parameters, so to say. In case any of the aliens is detected by civilians, the men in black immediately take over the scene and use a special device to wipe out all memories in the witnesses minds. Zzzzaapp!

But the men in black are getting old and they need fresh blood, so they decide to recruit new agents. The first one to join the ranks is Jay (Will Smith) who has been recruited by Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones). Fascinated by his newly earned knowledge about alien life forms, Agent Jay is excited about the prospect of his new job, but he forgot that not all aliens are good and friendly. While he still goes through his first steps in his training, an illegal alien has made it to Earth and it becomes Jay’s and Kay’s mission to isolate and destroy the alien before it can wreak havoc on the planet and cause the destruction of mankind.

"Men In Black" is a fascinating and hilarious spectacle full of gags and special effects. The story is wonderfully told, creating a rather convincing setup that this agency could actually exist - whether the aliens exist or not is up for every to decide for himself. From the first moments the film races along at full throttle and lever lets go. The furious pace of the movie hardly gives viewers the chance to breathe until its final frames. From the whimsical opening - perfectly supported by Danny Elfman’s score - all the way to the furious and fiery finale of the movie, "Men In Black" is a non-stop thrill-ride.

Filled with characters of all sorts, ranging from stern to outrageously funny, and a menagerie of aliens, nothing in the movie is what it first seems. Whether it is the French Connection-style witness interrogation tactics of Kay, the tunnel scene with Elvis, or the opening with Mikey, the illegal alien, the movie is stringing up one memorable moment after another. Will Smith plays the street smart cop Jay dead-on, but it is ultimately Tommy Lee Jones who steals the show with his understated sarcasm and dry delivery of the most hilarious lines. Combined with the film’s eye-popping special effects, director Barry Sonnenfeld manages to create a movie in which you completely suspend your disbelief and simply enjoy what is happening in front of your eyes!

"Men In Black" is presented in a 16x9 enhanced widescreen version on this DVD that brings you the movie in its original .185:1 aspect ratio. The transfer itself is entirely devoid of film artifacts of any sort and without any blemishes. Absolutely clean, the transfer is also highly detailed bringing the movie to staggering life on this DVD. The colors are well balanced and powerfully render even the most subtle hues and nuances of the film. Whether it is the cold and natural looking shots inside the headquarter, the harsh artificially lit morgue scenes, the night time shots of the Mikey scene or the powerful tinges of the alien creatures themselves, the color reproduction of the disc is absolutely meticulous. Fleshtones are naturally rendered throughout, giving the film a very authentic look, matching, if not exceeding, the film’s theatrical presentation. Blacks are very deep in the transfer, and solid. However, they never lose definition or show signs of dot crawl or pixel break up. Bold and strong, and with very good contrast, the image of this transfer is easily among the best in the field. However, there are some compression artifacts evident in the transfer, especially noticeable during scenes of high motion. As soon as large portions of the screen are moving, which implicitly increases the necessary data-throughput, slight pixelation is evident in the presentation. I never found the effect distracting while watching the film, but upon close examination of the image, it became evident.

The disc reviewed features a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital audio track. A version with a DTS track is also available separately but was not available to us at the time of this writing. The Dolby Digital track is engaging and very active with very good spatial integration. Being a modern action film, the movie makes effective use of the discrete surround channels and features some phenomenally impressive surround effects. It is one of those tracks that creates an entirely enveloping sound field, placing the listener in the heart of a maelstrom of music, sounds and noises. With its wide frequency response the track sounds very natural, especially when compared to the disc’s Dolby Surround mix which has an audible over-emphasis on the high end of the sonic spectrum. The bass extension is very good and the LFE channel is engaged very frequently to create a powerful performance. Dialogues are well integrated and always understandable.
Especially Danny Elfman’s score benefits from the great dynamic range of the 5.1 channel mix on this disc. With various mood changes and carefully orchestrated sections the track has very wide integration and it is noticeable in many scenes how the dynamics of the track never drown out the music, even in the most delicate, or the most abrasive situations.

Columbia TriStar Home Video has always been pushing the envelope a little when it came to the presentation of commentary tracks on their DVDs, and successfully added valuable features that make such commentaries more enjoyable and more informative at times. Apart from the silhouette feature, which was first introduced by the studio with the release of "Ghostbusters", Columbia TriStar is now taking its own technology another step further, allowing on-screen diagrams. Like a light pen, the commentators can mark certain areas of the screen to draw attention to certain parts of the image. While it is a great feature that is used nicely in "Men In Black," I am sure it can still be expanded upon. It is used rather infrequently on this disc and given the gray color of the on-screen marking, it is sometimes easy to overlook. More than once I found myself wondering what certain lines were on the screen, until I realized that it was such a marking. With a different color and a more aggressive use of the technology I think it can become one of the strongest features to supplement commentary tracks in the future.

The commentary track that is on the disc features director Barry Sonnenfeld and actor Tommy Lee Jones. They are a jolly bunch and a lot of fun to listen to. Taking pot shots at each other, the commentary is more on the entertaining side however rather than on the highly detailed technical side, although a number of detailed production secrets are revealed over the course of the commentary. Tommy Lee Jones acts almost as a host, constantly throwing in tidbits and questions that he and Sonnenfeld elaborate on from then onward, creating some marvelously funny moments. Whether it’s their thoughts about aliens in general, or the set-up of specific effects shots, they always manage to strike the perfect balance to make this a very accessible and entertaining commentary.

The next step you take into the specials on this disc will most likely keep you occupied for a very long time. First there as a new documentary called "Metamorphosis of Men In Black," a look at the production of the movie. With many interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, this documentary covers many different aspects of the production and most importantly the intentions of the filmmakers when they picked up the project to bring it to the screen. Unfortunately the audio quality of the various segments and interviews varies quite a bit, making the presentation a bit uneven. Still, it is a very interesting featurette, running 20 minutes that offers some very informative and valuable details about the movie.

Then there is a 7-minute long standard featurette, but as with many such featurettes, unfortunately the majority of it is actually made up of footage from the film itself with the occasional interview segment woven in. It is clearly a promotional featurette that makes sure people get excited about what to expect, rather than a look behind the scenes to give viewers a better understanding of the production.

Columbia TriStar has also once again added two very interesting features on the disc that use multiple angles to see different stages of completion of the same segment. The tunnel scene is one of them. Running as a continuous loop this 2-minute scene can be viewed in different stages by using your player’s angle button. The first angle contains the original storyboards, while the second angle contains the background and blue-screen footage, as well as early previsualization shots of segments that would later be created in the computer entirely. The third angle reveals composite shots of the background with the blue screen footage composited on top, while the third angle features a rough version of the complete footage with the computer generated images included. The fifth angle finally features the final scene as it appears in the movie. The segment can be watched with either the original audio track or an explanatory commentary.

A character animation study works pretty much the same way, using four different angles to dissect some of the effects shots in which computer generated aliens inhabit the screen. Especially for viewers not so familiar with the creation of computer generated effects, these two segments will be mind-boggling and exciting.

You will also find five alternate and extended scenes from the movie on this disc, and they are just that. Insignificantly longer than the according scenes in the movie most of them could be taken directly from the movie. Still for completeness’ sake it is always nice to see such alternate material.

Will Smith’s "Men In Black" music video can also be found on the release. It is a very attractive video that is presented in its entirety here, including the lengthy opening and dance scene with Mikey, the alien. You will also find the movie’s teaser, the theatrical trailer as well as trailers for other movies on the disc, as well as cast and crew biographies.

The disc also contains storyboard comparisons of three selected scenes. Here you will see the original storyboard of the movie in the upper left corner of the screen and the final result from the movie in the lower right corner running at the same time. Each comparison is about 90 seconds long and due to the fact that both visuals are on the screen at the same time it is very easy to see how the editing of the film can significantly heighten the impact of a scene while staying true to the original design and ideas. The art section rounded out with storyboards from selected scenes of the movie as well as a gallery of creatures in various design stages. An entirely separate gallery is dedicate to photos from the production, featuring set pictures with the cast and crew, images from the creation of the effects and the miniature models, and the make up effects.

As you can tell, "Men In Black" is stuffed with extras, which will make many fans of the movie very happy. With a good video presentation and a wealth of rich and informative features, the DVD is certainly a keeper. Fans of the movie we forced to wait for this release for a very long time, but the wait has paid off. "Men In Black" is a grandiose release that finally gives you the chance to watch the film at home in all its funny glory, so pull out the shades, pump up the volume and enjoy! You’re in for a treat!



Direct comparison of the Dolby Digital version of Men In Black with the DTS version:
After reviewing the Dolby Digital version of "Men In Black" earlier, I decided to also give the DTS Version that is separately a check-up to see how both versions compare. The differences are much more obvious than I had expected, but they are not limited to the audio presentation, as one would expect.

The video presentation of "Men In Black" on the DTS version is noticeably different than on the Dolby Digital release. Although both version show signs of compression artifacts in the form of pixelation and pixel-break-up, they appear clearly more pronounced on the DTS version at first look. However, the differences go even further. A direct comparison of screens from both version reveal that the coloring of certain scenes is slightly different. Where the Dolby Digital version creates a very natural looking background, the DTS version at times adds a very light yellow tint to the scene. Upon even closer examination of the images, it becomes evident that the DTS version is significantly softer, and loses image detail when compared to the Dolby Digital version. All these signs indicate that more compression has been applied to the video stream in order to make room for the additional space required for the DTS audio track. Although the DTS DVD uses up over 300 MB more space on the disc, this is not enough for the storage requirements of the DTS track and the additional DTS trailer found on the disc.

The next step takes us to a comparative listening of the tracks, and once again striking differences are noticeable - this time in favor of the DTS release. Although the Dolby Digital version creates a powerful and highly engaging sound field, the DTS version is adding another layer of transparency to the audio. With refined spatial integration it is easier to locate sound sources directionally in the mix, and the clarity of the track also seems to be a tad above that of the Dolby Digital track. With its powerful bass extension and the perfect reproduction of the various timbres of the instruments in Danny Elfman’s orchestration, the DTS track is audible more dynamic and refined.

So which version should you buy? In this case it’s not only the question whether you prefer DTS over Dolby Digital audio. In the case of "Men In Black" the decision comes down to what is more important to you personally. Sadly the video has suffered a bit from the audio improvement, and as such the decision you will ultimately have to make is, do I want the better video, or the better audio presentation of the feature? Unfortunately you can’t have both in this case, but please let me also point out that the differences in both the video and the audio presentation are only evident in a direct comparison. I do not think anyone would be able to discern the versions without direct reference.


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