Distributed by Columbia Pictures Industries, Men In Black was released in theaters July 2, 1997, grossing over half a billion dollars with a $90 million budget. 20 years later, the fourth installment of the franchise, Men In Black: International, was released by Sony Pictures Entertainment on June 14, 2019, grossing just over $250 million with a $110 million budget.
While, the world-building of the entire franchise, could (and most likely will be) explored on this blog, this article will be focusing only on the most recent film, as it takes place separately from the first three films and has a different creative team. I have a general review of the film and story on my Letterboxd.
The wold design of this film is obviously based largely off of the original Men In Black trilogy. However, this group of creatives, lead by production designer Charles Wood and director F. Gary Gray, expanded the MIB world with an international focus. While MIB3 explored the past of the MIB organization, International had the unique opportunity to show how the organization has grown, as well as highlighting the differences between divisions throughout the world.
In this new installment, we see very little of the original New York office. The only recognizable places we revisit are the iconic fan entrance, and O's office. Even in the elevator scene, the camera is quick to hold our focus only on a small corner of the NY headquarters, never showing us the past set or what their current interpretation would be. I suspect this exclusion is mostly a time and budget decision--rather than a story telling one. While it does save the grand HQ reveal for the London office, where this story is based, Molly spent her whole life searching for MIB and--as an audience member--it was slightly underwhelming to not have a grander "wow" moment when she finally got in.
We do encounter some new places in NY, including the room where Molly is held for interrogation (which transforms for her suit up), and the train to the London offices. Both of these new locations are incredibly detailed and set up for a larger-than-life organization that Molly continues to experience.
The interrogation room is sleek with a retro-futurism feel, clearly drawing inspiration from the MIB architecture of the original trilogy. Some of the details, such as the circular ceiling and glowing baseboards, were pulled directly from the first MIB film. Inspired by the hallway K and J talk in during J's training.
These scenes parallel each other both thematically and visually. Every detail of this room is intentional. The door to enter the interrogation room slips back into the wall, disappearing when not in use, to keep these clean lines and seamless feel. The two-way mirror in this space is incredibly practical, and I think a well used addition to the set design. It invokes a clear image of a police interrogation (similar to the room K and J first met in). It also serves as a functional tool for the camera have a clear view of both agent O and Molly at the same time. I do think adding this piece into the space could have worked against the design, possibly being grounded in reality a bit too much, but the creative team was able to successfully incorporate this idea seamlessly, and paired with the all white room, deliver us an interrogation room that is more in line with Startrek than Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It also is a great example of how a production designer coming into an established world can still implement their own vision while drawing parallels to the world the audience knows and expects. Now, I do not think that the space was fully utilized in terms of camera angles and movement, but that is a common theme throughout this film for me.
The train that transports our newest provisional agent, M, to the London office, is what I consider to be one of the production design elements of this film that most deserves to be highlighted. While it starts as a normal subway car, once the doors close, it transforms into a futuristic first class shuttle that speeds to another country in the blink of an eye. The transformation happens in 2 steps. One: an old-school practical looking transformation. There is a collapsing of the seats and the car juts itself out at the sides. While this is still obviously a VFX moment in the film, it is done in a way that realistically looks like something that could be engineered with the technology we currently have. It seems futuristic but in a retro and practical way. It is incredibly reminiscent of the style of the original trilogy. This is purposeful.
Then, the second step of the transformation begins. The stage is set, now it's time to show off. The car ripples into a futuristic scene with an almost nanotechnology effect, similar to Tony Stark's Avengers Infinity War suit up (also production designed by Charles Wood). The style still is in-line with the sleek and rounded futurism, but it now has European influence and a more distinct visual style than what we have seen so far. This scene feels like Charles Wood saying "okay, I showed New York the way it was done before... now look at what I can bring to MIB when I have free rein". He is quite literally taking the viewer on a journey from what we expect to see of MIB, to what it now can be. The New York MIB is engineered with an established way or working. This subway car shows the thought process of taking the MIB that we know and building upon it, transforming it, and reinventing it for the London scene. While the design itself is cool, the concept of taking the audience along and easing them into a new design style is in incredibly smart and a well used tactic.
Finally, we get to the London MIB office. This is the home base for our main storyline. We again see this sleek beautiful futuristic look that MIB is known for. This set presented the opportunity for the creative team to show off and cement a new visual style for the MIB franchise. The early concept art for this set is some of my favorite.
Artists: Jonathan Opgenhaffen, Francesco Corvino, Martin Macrae, Sam Rowan
The London office is about what I would expect of a new MIB headquarters interpretation. Its sleek, tall, and very sci-fi. Production designer, Wood, said that his perspective when approaching this design was the idea "that International [has existed] in many cities around the world, and maybe even started a century ago" (Greenblatt). Therefore, the design is attempting to invoke feelings of established history within the world. While MIB in New York was canonically established in the 60s, elsewhere in the world, it is possible that MIB has a much longer history. It is fitting that countries with histories much longer and established than the US, also have a longer MIB history as well. The detailing and styles of the early concepts for the London offices invoke such a different feeling from the original series, I think it could have been a good transition into a new branch of the series.
While, the final version that ended up on screen is fitting, after seeing the early concepts, I feel it was whittled down to a very simplified concept. It does feel like an international airport- which is the intention-but most of the heavy lifting of the visuals is done through the holograms. There are really great elements of this set, such as the giant red ball that is T's office (that we later spend time in). It is unique and draws the eyes. The tall windows and slate beams make the space feel like it extends into space. However, the detailing, history, and personality that the initial concepts had, are not innately present in this iteration of the design. This is a sci-fi movie and this is what sci-fi sets look like, but we've seen that. If MIB is going to be revamped in a location with exponentially more history than NY, it needs not only a new story perspective but a new feeling too. A feeling that comes from the visual look of the film. A feeling that cannot be portrayed by playing into already-well-established visual styles. Wood says that he wanted to stay away from expected English architecture, but the locations are a part of the story, and I don't see the location reflected in this aspect of the story. I absolutely love the idea of creating a sci-fi headquarters in building that had been there for a century, full of decades worth of detailing and history. A space filled and modified with the greatest alien technologies. Retro-futurism on a completely new, international, level.
Green screen/VFX moment in MIB international created DNGE and Territory Studios.
Green screens also played a large part in the creation of this world. According to lead VFX vender, DNEG, the London HQ office was a "fairly complete physical set, at least at ground level. From 5m up, it needed substantial digital extensions – hallways, ceilings, fantastic machinery and so on" (Hurst). Some sets, such as O's and High T's offices and the London st fight scene, were sets that were built in part and relied on green screens to fill out the rest of the world. Especially in a film like MIB, where there are other-worldly experiences and the environment doesn't act with realistic limitations, green screens are an incredibly useful tool to ensure the most control possible when telling the story.
Green screen moments in MIB international.
I do think green screens can sometimes become a crutch used too often in films now, but I don't necessarily believe that is the case here. From my research, physical sets and practical sites were used for filming as often as possible. Producer Laurie Macdonald, who has been a part of all four for MIB films, even says "we've now built the entrance to MIB four times" (Filmisnowextra). This is innately a film that needs to use VFX and while there are some moments where it's clear that it's being used, the real skill is using it to enhance the world in subtle ways that the audience wouldn't even notice isn't practical. The Hive street fight in London for example, the art team recreated a street section of Ludgate Hill in studio. This allows for the battle to take place and transition from on-site to in studio filming seamlessly, while giving the VFX team full control over the world.
Motion Capture moments in MIB international executed by DNGE.
Many areas of visual effects were utilized in this film. From motion capture, to green screens, to animation. The VFX of this film was done by a few different groups focusing on these specific aspects. While DNEG was the films leading VFX vender, focusing on motion capture (see images above) and world building, all of the holograms was outsourced to Territory Studios, and the animation graphics were created in house at Sony Pictures Imageworks (see images below). One of my favorite additions to the MIB world that was achieved through VFX, was the cloaking wall to keep the public from seeing aliens/other-world destruction. I think it is an incredibly brilliant idea and when I saw it executed on screen it immediately fit into the world and I thought "man I cant believe MIB hadn't started using this sooner". THAT is how you know something is a really great world-design choice.
Animated moments in MIB international created by Sony Pictures Imageworks.
A large undertaking was creating the Eiffel Tower and a new secret section of it that serves as a former alien landing spot. The "secret section" was built practically on a stage and filmed. Then Imageworks used the base plates to build the final Hive character into, as well as fitting the section into the greater Eiffel Tower. This is one of the largest scenes in the film. Being that it is the climax of the story, it does make sense. The two other scenes that come to mind as large VFX scenes (and just large scenes in general), are the fight scenes with the twin aliens in the London street (which we've already touched on), and the confrontation of the same characters on the edge of an island-where the rocks fall away before High T intervenes. The twin alien characters were just larger than life to begin with, so any scene that involved them was automatically larger than life as well.
When filming, there wasn't much of a concept for the Twins. It was very much a "figure it out in post" moment. DGNE was told by production that they "wanted to visualize energy emerging from inside the characters in the form of nebulae, stars and galaxies, supernovas and so on"(CREDIT).
Without a solid idea of what effects would be added or how to accomplish that during production, DGNE weren't able to supervise production to ensure for the best plates possible. While they may not have been working under the most ideal of circumstances, they really did deliver a worthwhile character. The mood board and concept art done for this are quite beautiful.
The props within the MIB world have always been iconic--from the neutralizer, to the guns and gadgets, to the one-of-a-kind Boris the Animal motorcycle. This creative team took this precedent in stride as they imagined what new and innovative gadgets. WĒTĀ Workshop Design Studio was one of the leading character and prop concept designers. Specific items, such as the getaway alien motorbike that H and M drive through the Morocco market, were designed by production designer Charles Wood himself.
The hologram pen that many of the agents are seen using was actually designed by an in-house Sony prop maker. I do think that holograms become a bit of an obvious and boring choice in sci-fi these days, but this prop is the perfect blend of practical and sci-fi. Part of the MIB's goal is to remain unseen. So, gadgets that look like everyday items is essential as to not draw attention. This them continuous to aspects such as the car that is full of guns. H continues to pull more and more guns out of seemingly normal parts of his car. Both a funny gag and practical to the world of the film.
This film presented the unique restriction for the costumer designer, in that most of the principle characters are only ever seen wearing a black suit. Costumer designer Penny Rose teamed up with iconic mens fashion designer Paul Smith to create the MIB suits. Rose and Smith created beautiful custom suits that still reflect the characters while remaining in regulation. It's not just the suits themselves either, it's how each character wears them. Every aspect is a choice to express themselves within a very strict (and iconic) uniform. Rose also had to take into account many problem solving techniques when costuming this film. All suits had to be made from non-wrinkle material so fight scenes would be quickly forgiven by the fabric. Also, due to costars Thompson and Hemsworth's hight differences, Thompson needed to wear heels in order for more camera angles to consistently work. Women kicking ass in heels is cool but one of my biggest unrealistic pet peeves in film. Though, it is usually done for the male gaze, in this case, it was a conscious practical choice to solve a problem. And Rose was able to pair Thompson in chunk platform "work boots" that didn't feel over sexualized or impractical to the extreme.
Rose commented that the inspiration for costuming the background aliens was high fashion runway. I absolutely love this take of impractical art pieces becoming alien fashion. "For inspiration, Rose and her team first looked to early runways of the Antwerp [Six+1]". Rose continues that "they were the biggest influence because their catwalk clothes look like they belong to aliens," (Hoo).
This also calls back to MIB3 where J comments that nearly all models are alien. You can see this image above, showing the Antwerp 6's work in London 1988 (the year they cemented their name in fashion) compared to this alien person we see as M enter London.
One of my largest qualms with the costuming choices is the character of Riza. While I definitely see the high fashion runway influence, it looks like a cheap interpretation of a runway look. The wig, the pattern of the dress, it all looked inferior when placed in front of the beautiful backdrop of Castello Aragonese. With a castle built over 2000 years ago as a set, this character should have looked like a real-life greek goddess. However, the end result was actually something that took me out of the world of the film for those scenes.
While I don't necessarily feel that the character of Riza has a well executed character design, that is not the case for all characters. especially the more VFX heavy aliens. Character designs were done by a collection of groups including WĒTĀ Workshop Design Studio, DNEG, Aaron Sims Creative, MPC Design, Territory Studio, and more. Every group brings something different to the table.
Independent artist Brynn Metheney, for example, was tasked with helping to envision a variety of traveling alien characters for London headquarters.
Michael Kutsche, a Berlin-based character designer, created the look for Pawny that was then animated into the film. We've already touched on DNEG's character design for the Hive twins.
WĒTĀ Workshop took lead on alien characters like H's alien friend, Vangus.
According to the team at DNGE "as post production got underway, quite a few changes were made to the character designs – sometimes to make them work better in the story, or to fit more easily into on-screen animation in a live action sequence" (Hurst). However they ended up looking the way they do, this collective team of creatives presented a very diverse group of character designs which works well for a film that travels the world and is filled with characters from all reaches of the universe.
Speaking of traveling all over the world--a large part of the design of MIB International is the international. Most international scenes were filled on location. The saloon poker scene in the Reform Club. M arriving in London at Canary Wharf Station. A secret alien dance club in Old Billingsgate Fish Market. The market chase scene in Marrakech, Morocco. Being stranded in the Merzouga Desert. Visiting the 'Fortified Fortress of For Sure Death' aka Castello Aragonese of Ischia, Bay of Naples. All of these locations and more, supplemented with the built sets and green screen, create a fully built out and diverse world. All of these location choices added to the scenes they were a part of.
Another incredibly important aspect of the feeling of this film was the soundtrack. While, some sound moments crescendoed the grandeur of the moment allowing the audience to swell up with emotion, others felt out of left field. Specifically, the 'suit up' montage with a snap transition into eccentric music. Though, the use of the iconic MIB theme music both for the opening credits as well as during integral out-of-this-world moments in the film, did ground it back in reality.
Overall, while there are little moments of unique beauty, such as the typewriter room, the cab entrance to the club, the transforming subway car--they are not enough on their own. The world design that clearly had a lot of thought put into it, but the visual look of the film overall felt in line with action/comedy movie and not a multi-generational sci-fi. Charles Wood is an incredible production designer that has created some of the most intricate and beautiful world designs in some of the top grossing movies of all time. There is a lot that goes into what ends up on screen, and I do not have knowledge of the complexities he faced, nor how this design was landed upon. All I can do is critique what the final result was. However, I do so from a designer's perspective. A designer who has had to deal with last minute problems, changes, and general pushback on ideas.
There were some beautiful sets, locations, and action sequences created for this film, but I don't feel that all of its magnitude was translated via camera. While I can appreciate the thought of the designs, it is ultimately only what we see in the final version that ends up mattering. For such a grand world that was cultivated, it seemed to fall short on the big screen. This also has a lot to do with story, and the execution of areas outside of production design. Critics and box office numbers agree that MIB international does not hold up against the original trilogy-and 3 year later with no talk of a sequel (in a currently sequel-crazy Hollywood) its safe to say they did not meet their goals for this film. However, this feels more like a group of talented creatives who missed the mark a few times, as apposed to unqualified or uninspired individuals.
“The Antwerp 6 in 1988.” Fashion as Medium, http://fashionmedium.blogspot.com/2010/02/antwerp-6.html . Accessed 24 Oct. 2022.
Filmisnowextra. MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL | All Released Bonus Features [Blu-Ray/DVD 2019]. YouTube, YouTube, 29 Sept. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IZvBEIxJ80M. Accessed 24 Oct. 2022.
Gray, F. Gary, director. Men in Black: International. Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2019.
Greenblatt, Leah. “Exclusive: Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson Go Global in 'Men in Black: International' First Look.” EW.com, 10 Jan. 2019, https://ew.com/movies/2019/01/10/men-in-black-international-first-look-cover-story/.
Hoo, Fawnia Soo. “'Men in Black: International' Features Aliens Dressed in Martin Margiela- and Dries Van Noten-Inspired Costumes.” Fashionista, Fashionista, 14 June 2019, https://fashionista.com/2019/06/men-in-black-international-suit-costumes-outfits.
Hurst, Adriene. “DNEG Builds a Better Alien for 'Men in Black: International'.” Digital Media World, 2019, https://www.digitalmediaworld.tv/in-depth/2499-dneg-builds-a-better-alien-for-men-in-black-international.
Sonnenfeld, Barry, director. Men in Black. Columbia Pictures Industries, 1997.