When Men in Black hit theaters on July 2nd, 1997, it was already fast becoming a phenomenon. It had a star-studded cast, including a freshly minted superstar in Will Smith. It had a hit song that briefly managed to overtake pop music. Now, 20 years later, it’s easy to take for granted how massive the movie was at the time — and how well it holds up. That’s not bad for a movie based on an obscure 1990 comic miniseries from a nigh-forgotten publisher.
The truth is, Men in Black works because it’s a sharply plotted and hilarious sci-fi film. So much of that comes from the script. Smith and the dry-as-a-bone Tommy Lee Jones have some of the best comedic back-and-forths in any movie. Smith plays — in a break from his charismatic and in-control film persona at the time — the bewildered comic foil to Jones’ world-weary agent who’s seen the weirdest things imaginable. But the film couldn’t have come together without some great, original creature effects for the aliens at its center.
Mark Setrakian, a roboticist and designer who’s worked on movies and TV shows like Pacific Rim and Stranger Things, was instrumental in getting the practical alien effects ready for the shoot. Working with Industrial Light and Magic, he helped bring so many of the creatures on set to life, even voicing an alien in a pivotal scene. Without him, Men in Black probably wouldn’t have been the same.
I had the chance to speak with Setrakian this week about his work, practical effects in the age of CGI, and Men in Black’s legacy.