Wisecracks From
Way Out
A CultureMap®
by Dario Sulzman
Published on 7/10/13

Following the breakout success of 1996’s Independence Day, sci-fi spectacles invaded the American cinematic atmosphere like hovering alien motherships, and Will Smith emerged as a surefire box-office draw, making star turns in such gadget-geared fare as Men in Black and Wild Wild West. Meanwhile, outright romps such as Starship Troopers turned the tables on the genre. “Wisecracks From Way Out” looks at six movies that appeal to the fanatic as well as the smart aleck.

Cowboys & Aliens  (Jon Favreau (dir.) | film | 2011)
to  Men in Black  (Barry Sonnenfeld (dir.) | film | 1997)

Cowboys & Aliens and Men in Black are both based on graphic novels: While Men in Black, written by Lowell Cunningham, satirizes modern-day America’s uneasy relationship with foreigners, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s Cowboys & Aliens is a dramatic alien-invasion thriller set against a 19th-century Western backdrop. The aliens in Men in Black are colorful and mostly benign (a parody of the American immigrant community), while those in Cowboys & Aliens are pure evil, terrorizing an innocent frontier town with abductions and killings. Both story lines tackle questions of alliance in a diverse society. How can we tell the difference between aliens who are our friends and aliens who are our enemies? In Cowboys & Aliens, groups of historically opposed people—sheriffs and outlaws; cowboys and Indians, an outdated dichotomy the film’s title plays on—are forced to band together to defend themselves against a more powerful invading alien force. In Men in Black, a similar confusion emerges from the aliens on earth disguising themselves as humans (and in some cases, dogs). Many are peaceful, others slightly corrupt, and several are decidedly malevolent. Yet they all conceal their true identity in order to blend in and not appear to be from “way out.”

Cowboys & Aliens  (Jon Favreau (dir.) | film | 2011)
to  Wild Wild West  (Barry Sonnenfeld (dir.) | film | 1999)

Wild Wild West may lack the extraterrestrial thrill of Cowboys & Aliens, but these genre-bending Westerns contrast anachronistic frontier gunplay with an array of fantastical sci-fi technology. In both films futuristic devices attach themselves to certain characters whether they like it or not. Wild Wild West’s evil Dr. Arliss Loveless fits his enemies with magnetic collars that attract lethal flying metal disks. In Cowboys & Aliens, Jake Lonergan wakes up to find a strange metal device locked to his wrist (it turns out to be not a shackle but a powerful laser-shooting weapon). And the antagonists in both films assert their dominance by piloting technologically advanced vehicles invulnerable to “primitive” 19th-century attacks. While the invaders from Cowboys & Aliens descend from the sky in futuristic spacecraft, Loveless drives an enormous mechanical spider that shoots nitroglycerin.

But unlike Cowboys & Aliens, which, despite an outrageous premise, is a drama-thriller, Wild Wild West is filled with Will Smith’s smart-alecky one-liners and other farcical elements, such as Smith’s James T. West infiltrating Loveless’s ship by disguising himself as a belly dancer in an attempt to seduce the doctor.

Wild Wild West  (Barry Sonnenfeld (dir.) | film | 1999)
to  Men in Black  (Barry Sonnenfeld (dir.) | film | 1997)

Men in Black, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and starring Will Smith, grossed more than half a billion dollars and received excellent reviews. Two years later Warner Bros. wanted to produce another way-out wisecracker, Wild Wild West, again starring Smith and directed by Sonnenfeld. But Wild Wild West was almost universally trashed by movie reviewers and won five Razzies (awards given to the worst films of the year).

As Sonnenfeld admits, “You never want two funny guys in your comedy.” In Men in Black, Tommy Lee Jones’s dry monotone functions as an effective straight man for the antic Smith. In Wild Wild West, however, Kevin Kline’s wacky performance as Artemus Gordon forces Smith into a straight-man role—for which he is not particularly suited. The film’s larger failure seems to be a classic Hollywood story: Producers at Warner Bros., particularly the now infamous Jon Peters, demanded constant changes to the script until it became virtually incoherent. When Smith appears in drag in order to seduce Dr. Loveless, “the movie really falls apart,” according to Sonnenfeld. Wild Wild West has since become a cautionary tale for how not to blend wisecracking with the way-out.

Men in Black  (Barry Sonnenfeld (dir.) | film | 1997)
to  Independence Day  (Roland Emmerich (dir.) | film | 1996)

Without Independence Day, it’s unlikely Men in Black would have gotten made. Drawing on 1950s alien-invasion films and 1970s disaster films, Independence Day features aliens wreaking widespread global destruction on earth before they are finally defeated by a heroic president (Bill Pullman), a wisecracking military captain (Will Smith) and a nebbishy computer expert (Jeff Goldblum). Breaking numerous box-office records (it remains one of the highest-grossing films of all time), Independence Day renewed interest in science fiction on the part of Hollywood executives, who soon produced disaster films such as Armageddon (1998), as well as the sci-fi comedy Men in Black.

Although their depictions of aliens are radically different, Independence Day and Men in Black both deploy pop-history conspiracy theories, such as those centered around Area 51 in Roswell, New Mexico. In order to create real-world shock value, both films use cultural landmarks as dramatic props. Independence Day famously obliterates the White House by way of a massive laser beam. In Men in Black, agents J and K struggle to prevent an alien from taking off from the 1964 New York World’s Fair—the observation towers, of course, secretly house a spacecraft.

Independence Day  (Roland Emmerich (dir.) | film | 1996)
to  Starship Troopers  (Paul Verhoeven (dir.) | film | 1997)

Film reviewer Damian Cannon criticized Independence Day for its “gung ho American jingoism [in which] a racially sensitive mix of stock (American) characters saves the day while foreign stereotypes apathetically wait for instructions.” One of the film’s promotional slogans—“We’ve always believed we weren’t alone. On July 4th we’ll wish we were”—seems especially xenophobic. Just before the movie’s final battle, President Whitmore states that the entire world will come to see that day (July 4, natch) as its independence day. The BBC called this particular scene the “most jaw-droppingly pompous soliloquy ever delivered in a mainstream Hollywood movie.”

Starship Troopers, released just a year after Independence Day, was criticized for promoting quasi-fascist militarism. The aliens in Independence Day invade earth, but in Starship Troopers the “good” human civilization invades an intergalactic bug empire on its home planet. Starship Troopers ironically depicts a human society so juiced for military confrontation and gratuitous violence that the conflict verges on the absurd. Although the tone in Starship Troopers has confused reviewers, director Paul Verhoeven describes the film as “playing with fascism or fascist imagery to point out certain aspects of American society.”

Independence Day  (Roland Emmerich (dir.) | film | 1996)
to  Earth Girls Are Easy  (Julien Temple (dir.) | film | 1988)

In Independence Day the aliens’ purpose (by the standards of the genre) is fairly conventional—annihilation of the human race in order to consume earth’s resources. But the film tweaks expectations by keeping the aliens hovering in the sky for the entire first hour. While computer whiz David (Jeff Goldblum) susses out the aliens’ devious machinations, the rest of the world greets their presence with confusion, obliviousness and even joy. An early laser destroys a skyscraper and its rooftop revelers, who are misguidedly celebrating the skyborne visitors.

In Earth Girls Are Easy there’s another party scene, but the only killing done by aliens Wiploc (Jim Carrey) and Zeebo (Damon Wayans) is on the dance floor. The audience soon learns why Carrey and Wayans, obviously wearing campy monster costumes, are coming to earth: They want to meet women. These aliens are meant to satirize the ostentatious fashion trends and romantic conventions of the 1980s, but in an ironic twist, the alien Mac (Goldblum again) acts far more humanely than Geena Davis’s sleazy earthling fiancé. (Goldblum and Davis were real-life spouses at the time.) Whether alien or human, Goldblum has become a go-to voice of reason in a world gone insane.