What is so hard about continuing the adventures of a secret government organization tasked with policing alien activity on planet Earth? The first Men in Black is a wry buddy-cop adventure that celebrates and lampoons its genre in the span of a single breath. Director Barry Sonnenfeld relishes in cartoon absurdity, matching a winking script with the contradictory charisma of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.
The film was a smash, ushering in a wave of like-minded comic book adaptations, and demanded a no-brainer franchise complete with a Saturday morning cartoon, action figures, video games, and several sequels. Unfortunately, none of the follow-up films could match the energy of the first, and even the reboot containing the indisputable dazzle of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson fails to deliver the goods. Our own Luke Hicks rejected the film as “an expensive and disappointing dad joke.” Ouch, but he’s not wrong.
Anyone looking to pursue the pleasure of Men in Black should simply avoid the sequels altogether and jump back in time to another franchise with a complicated relationship to UFOs and little green men. Airing on television a year before the Sonnenfeld film hit the big screens, “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’” is the 20th episode of the third season of The X-Files and absolutely masters the same loving celebration of science fiction spiced with adult cynicism.
Stepping away from the usual grim investigations of the monster-of-the-week format, director Rob Bowman and writer Darin Morgan savagely mock the genre they’re working within and, in the process, find re-invigoration. Rather than alienating (pun intended) their audience, “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space'” clearly lets its viewers in on the joke and offers them the opportunity to go dumpster-diving into pop culture, collecting the myriad of references thrown their way.
The cold open of the episode ignites with a close-up shot that should be familiar to any casual Star Wars fan (i.e., every person on the planet): the underbelly of a Star Destroyer blocking a field of stars. However, the imperial vessel is quickly revealed to be the bottom of a bucket attached to a telephone lineman’s truck. Right away, Bowman and Morgan are nudging and winking. This episode will feature no crying over Agent Mulder’s abducted sister. Let’s have fun.
From there we meet a pair of teenagers driving home from a date when their car is frozen under a beam of light — not the first time nor the last this set-up was used in the series. They see a UFO in the sky, and a couple of Greys snatch them from their seats. The blinding light from their ship removes all shadow from their extraterrestrial frames, and their biology appears to be 100% rubber. As they drag the two kids to their spacecraft, another ship appears in the sky, this one firing a more sinister laser of red light and projecting a gangly, cyclopean creature upon the street. The first Grey asks in the most human of tongues, “Jack, what is that thing?” His teen-napping partner exclaims, “How the hell should I know?” Cut to Mark Snow‘s iconic theme song.
After the opening credits, we meet Agent Scully (Gillian Anderson) in the infamous basement of the FBI building in Washington DC. She has succumbed to the interview process of noted novelist Jose Chung (Charles Nelson Reilly, whose natural state is a reliable Truman Capote impersonation) and is attempting to convey the odd investigation with as little embarrassment as possible. Scully need not worry, Chung puts no stock in hokum and is only looking to make a buck from the creation of a new subgenre: “the nonfiction science fiction.” In Cold Blood by way of Whitley Strieber.
Every scene outside The X-Files basement should be treated with as much reverence as Rashomon… Well, maybe even less than that. How about: with as much reverence as its grotesque-yet-compelling Western remake, The Outlaw. Most of the scenes in “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space'” represent a different character’s point of view, and most of those belong to unreliable kooks desperate for human recognition.
There is the lineman (William Lucking) from the first shot who witnessed the standoff between the Greys and the Cyclops and detailed the account in a manifesto connecting outer space to inner space. We suffer through the Dungeons & Dragons geek (Allan Zinyk) who stumbled upon the corpse of one Grey in the woods and was allowed to videotape its autopsy, only to discover a zipper separating costume from flesh. Finally, there is Mulder (David Duchovny) revealing Air Force conspiracies and backdoor deals with spacemen for their lightspeed engines. Aliens-shmalyins, those Greys were fellow G-Men. Or not?
Each tale is portrayed as if the camera is raising its eyebrow. The X-Files is B.S. nonsense, but nothing is going to get us to tear down our bedroom “I Want To Believe” posters. Sure, we will never cop to the validity of Men In Black wearing the faces of Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek, or teenage visions of cigarette smoking aliens, but we will proudly fall for the art of the story. Jose Chung weaves a damn fine narrative, and its believability pales to its compelling artistry. Scully losing herself to his publication in the final moments of the episode despite her logical disgust captures this truth perfectly.
We want to laugh at the nutters of this world, but the idea that aliens might wear a few of their skins would make a lot of sense as well. It’s baloney, and we need it. “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space'” jabs in all the right places for a Men In Black fan probing for a repeat. You don’t need to have watched a single X-Files episode to appreciate what’s going on; this hour-long stands alone. Feel free to treasure it as a lark, but if you’re hungry for a deep dive, there are as many excitable nods to Ray Harryhausen, Steven Spielberg, and Rod Serling, as there are in Sonnenfeld’s film.