Aliens, Gadgets, and Guns (Not So) Galore at ‘Men in Black 3’ Special Exhibit
The Museum of the Moving Image in New York City is deep in the throes of Men in Black 3 mania, and it’s reaching frenzied heights. Like a hungry space creature, it devours everything it touches, although being gobbled up by this Men in Black fever proves much more enjoyable than being consumed by said hypothetical galactic monster. (Perhaps that’s unfair. Without having ever personally experienced alien consumption, one cannot say with absolute certainty that there’s nothing perversely thrilling or surprisingly pleasant in it.)
To celebrate the franchise’s tertiary film installment, the N.Y. museum hosted an advance 3D screening. It procured legendary makeup artist Rick Baker to speak about the multitudes of kooky, creepy aliens he created for the movies. And now, somewhat less ephemerally, an exhibit titled Aliens, Gadgets, and Guns: Designing the World of Men in Black 3 has crash-landed amongst the museum’s permanent stock.
The exhibit, on loan from Columbia Pictures until September 23rd, gives off the appearance of insignificance. Plunked in the middle of the museum’s collections of costumes, make-up, scripts and the like, it’s easy to overlook. But despite taking up almost no space at all, it displays a range of objects sometimes vitally important in the movie, and sometimes just plain fun.
Most impressive are the aliens themselves. Glass cases contain various creatures that crawled their way out of Baker’s boundless imagination. When the creatures are especially large, the cases content themselves with displaying only the heads, or the heads and hands. At his talk on May 24th, Baker admitted to making 127 aliens for this film, not skimping on a single one. It’s a testament to Baker’s extraordinary attention to detail that many of the aliens displayed in the exhibit make only the briefest of appearances in the actual film. They were disguises worn by extras, never intended to receive intense attention from camera or audience. Still, Baker made them intricate from every angle. They’re fascinating to examine up close. One, with fanged teeth that spurt out of its mouth and eyes held up above the head by antennae, looks to be covered in the spiky shell of a coppery turtle. Another, with big bug-eyes and a bulbous brain covering most of its head, harkens back to retro alien designs. The throwback aesthetic was Baker’s way of playing into the third movie’s time-travel plot, when the movie catapults itself from present day into 1969, although he revealed at his talkback that the idea was a recycled one. Way back during pre-production for the first MIB movie, he went to director Barry Sonnenfeld and said, “Let’s make aliens like what you’ve seen before, but cooler.” Sonnenfeld quickly rejected the idea, but Baker held onto it for 14 years until it was finally accepted as inspired.
Just looking at the aliens is fun enough, but Baker’s achievements seem especially impressive when one watches a video on constant loop at the exhibit. It shows Baker in action, overseeing both general alien creation on set and the daily four-hour transformation required to turn actor Jermaine Clement into the film’s villain, Boris the Animal. As the time-lapse on the video kicks in, Clement morphs from goofy guy to menacing space biker. Dark disks obscure his eyes and his body is covered in interlocking skin, akin to the look of fingers laced together. A model for the bugs that live inside this interlocking skin, called “weasels,” is also on view at the exhibit. Though the weasels were ultimately computer generated, the model is uncanny. It gives off a luminescence, as if covered by a sheen of sweat, and looks like it could start attacking you without warning. The only problem with the aliens on display is that there are so few of them. Baker may have made 127, but the Museum of the Moving Image is showing fewer than ten.
The aliens comprise the make-up of half the exhibit. The other half concerns itself with props, overseen by Douglas Harlocker. Again, these range from the featured to the background. Some are necessary to the film’s plot. Go ahead and peer at the Neuralyzer that Agents K and J use to wipe the memories of civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s a 99.93 percent guarantee that it won’t activate while you’re staring into it. Columbia Pictures has also donated the sunglasses worn by lead actors Will Smith and Josh Brolin. You can be in the same room as something that spent a lot of time hugging the bridge of Will Smith’s nose! Attention overzealous Smith fans: This kind of opportunity does not come along every day. There’s also a wall full of big old guns used to liquidate aliens, plus a plot-driving pocket watch and a time-jumping machine.
Aside from the possibility that they’re covered in Will Smith sweat remnants, these objects don’t feel that spectacular. Mostly, they look like the sunglasses people wear on the street all the time, or the pocket-watch that the grumpy old man who lives down the block constantly consults to make you feel bad about getting the time from your iPhone. An odd sense of normality pervades them. One might expect that they’d appear extra-cool in our alien-less world. Instead, removed from their fantastical surroundings, they’ve somehow become ordinary.
More exciting is the opportunity to look at the set dressings that film audience members would never otherwise get a chance to examine. An alien passport gives a sense of the thought that goes into the world of the movie, as does an “Alien Processing Questionnaire” that asks for information like “Birth/Spawn/Hatch date” and “Have you ever been convicted of consuming human, human appendages, organs, or secretions?” Looking at these is like being let in on behind-the-scenes banter.
It’s probably worth making a special trip out to the Museum of the Moving Image for this exhibit only if you routinely find yourself stopping passersby to profess your love for the Men in Black movies, if you’re an amateur make-up artist hoping to emulate Rick Baker, or if you keep a Will Smith shrine hidden in your closet. The handiwork on display, especially in the alien make-up, is wonderful, but the exhibit is too small to consider for more than half an hour. However, if you’ve been meaning to check out the museum as a whole anyway, or if you’re in the neighborhood, by all means let this exhibit be the extra nudge you need.
“Aliens, Gadgets, and Guns: Designing the World of ‘Men in Black 3’” runs through September 23, 2012 at the Museum of the Moving Image located at 35th Avenue at 36th Street, Astoria, Queens. For more information visit www.movingimage.us or call (718)-777-6800.