Men in Black Blu-ray Review (D-BOX Added)

Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black is the biggest Blu-ray Disc release since Spider-Man for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Its mix of action and comedy has huge appeal to movie fans as well as family members of all ages. The arrival of Will Smith’s Hancock in just a few weeks will help raise Men in Black’s marketability even more.

I distinctly remember watching a brief behind-the-scenes sneak peek of Men in Black a year before its release on either E or Entertainment Tonight. The peek showed some of the practical on-set alien puppets in MIB headquarters and all I could do was laugh at how cartoonish they came across and scold Will for choosing a juvenile project.

This negative tune quickly hit an upbeat note with the teaser trailer featuring a giant flying saucer slamming into the ground. By the time I walked out of seeing Men in Black at the theater for the first time, I was an instant fan of agent Kay, Jay and all the crazy aliens they have to deal with on a daily basis.

Men in Black’s success begins and ends with its comedy despite the film’s revolutionary CGI effects in 1997. Will’s naturally comedic demeanor as a street smart cop coupled with Tommy Lee Jones’ no nonsense deadpan humor couldn’t have been more perfectly cast. Throw Vincent D’Onofrio into the mix as a body-snatched villain with serious skin adhesion issues and the physical comedy perfectly compliments the aural. Three-foot tall alien bugs and shiny chrome alien laser rifles merely seal the summer blockbuster deal.

The previous releases of Men in Black on DVD and Superbit DVD were blessed with above average transfers with little fault to be found. Many people already own these discs so the following question is naturally raised: Is this new 1080p transfer different enough to justify a double or even triple dip?

The answer is a resounding yes and a full endorsement for picking this up based on video alone, even if you already own *all* the previous DVD versions. The detail presented on this AVC MPEG-4 encode running between 20 and 30mbps is a dramatic step up from DVD, one even novice viewers could pick out. You’ll see nooks and crannies on the MIB weapons and aliens you never noticed before. Other areas benefit from 1080p as well including the extensive alien color palette that pops off the otherwise intentionally drab cinematography, nice deep dark blacks resulting from said cinematography, and a natural film-like quality that remains intact despite the increase in resolution.

Danny Elfman’s Men in Black score remains to this day one of my favorite movie pieces he’s created. It sounds great on DVD in lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, and even better on Blu-ray in lossless 5.1 Dolby TrueHD. The upgrade to lossless offers much deeper bass extension than Dolby Digital is capable of, while maintaining the great balance between clear, centralized voices, abundant action and Elfman’s score. Not to be left out are the surrounds which are frequented by Elfman’s score and effects regularly from the film’s opening sequence to its last.

D-BOX Motion Code
The D-BOX Motion Code for Men in Black on Blu-ray, available only via download from a D-BOX motion controller, wastes little time impacting the viewing experience with sustained choreographed movement through the entire “dragonfly” opening title sequence. A combination of airborne pitch/roll movements with the perfectly synchronized and intensified bass thumping of Elfman’s score as the dragonfly maneuvers through the dark desert is a unique D-BOX winning mix.

D-BOX’s impact throughout the rest of Men in Black is, for the most part, relegated to the handful of action sequences like the “squid birth” and final showdown with the “Bug.” There are some exceptions such as multiple trips up and down the MIB elevator, any scene involving Kay’s car and the aforementioned bass thumps in Elfman’s score, a great touch for Elfman fans. The unusually dialogue-heavy script for a sci-fi comedy presents D-BOX engineers fewer opportunities to insert Motion Code than a typical action flick offers.

The brief sequence in which Kay “flies” his POS Ford car through a tunnel is what I had earmarked for D-BOX excellence and it most certainly does not disappoint. The effect of being “launched” when Jay flips the red switch is one of the more impacting and engaging moments I’ve experienced with D-BOX yet.

Sometimes, the best critic is the unlikeliest. In this case that person was sitting to my right and couldn’t help but notice the huge grin I had on my face as Kay’s car rocketed upside-down through the tunnel. Glancing over and noticing the pitiful expression on my wife’s face, I rewound the scene and let her sit in the D-BOX enabled chair. Her reaction of “this chair really is a good idea” speaks volumes for the technology and its implementation in Men in Black.

Sony has put together a trio of Blu-ray Disc exclusives in 1008p HD for Men in Black that fall evenly into the good, the bad and the ugly categories.

Intergalactic Pursuit: The MIB Multi-Player Trivia Game (BD Exclusive) – To date, there has yet to be a BD-Live or BD-J anything I’ve even remotely had an interest in returning to. Now that studios have had more time to sink into research and development, some keeper applications are slowly to surface.

This multiplayer online or single player offline trivia game could easily be confused for an Xbox 360 Live Arcade for PS3 Playstation Network title. The online multiplayer portion features lobbies, the ability to host or create a tournament, matches for 2 to 8 players, and customizable questions in 5-question increments ranging from 5 to 25 — all designed within a slick HD interface. Once in a match, questions are mixed between simple text and identifying answers based on a short video clip.

Men in Black on Blu-ray is not available in stores at the time of this review so there were only four players showing online when I logged in. I played a couple matches and won both handily. The intensity would have ratcheted up several notches if the overall score was close heading into the final questions.

A surprise revealed by the questions is they aren’t all derived directly from Men in Black. Most are, but then you’ll run into something like “What year did Tommy Lee Jones receive his star on the walk of fame?” This question was no gimme with each of the four choices only one year apart.

This segment is by far the most I’ve written about a Blu-ray supplemental feature. That’s because this is the first one I’d genuinely make an effort to coordinate an online match with a buddy. My hat is off to Sony for setting a precedent for other studios to follow.

Ask Frank the Pug (BD Exclusive) – The aforementioned trivia game is great fun for the whole family. This exclusive, however, could only appeal to a younger crowd. Frank the talking alien pug stands atop of a hovering podium and insists you pick one of five categories for advice: career, health, everything else, money, and romance. You never really ask a question; instead, Frank dishes out a random and usually brief answer.

For example, one click on romance yielded “size totally matters. I should know.” Har har. Other times Frank will simply spit back “not gonna happen.” Why “it” is not going to happen is anyone’s guess, whatever “it” is. This is the kind of pointless BD-exclusive feature I abhor.

Alien Subtitles (BD Exclusive) ” Why Sony wasted time developing a seldom used unreadable subtitle is a head-scratcher if there ever was one. Turning on these subtitles makes alien letters appear only when aliens are speaking in their native tongue. Their appearance is so infrequent that I had to actually turn it on and off several times to ensure it was functioning properly.

With the exception of the Teaser and Theatrical Trailers presented in 1080p HD, the remaining supplemental features were ported over from the previously released deluxe edition DVD with no increased resolution and the pop-up menu disabled.

Telestrator Commentary with Director Barry Sonnenfeld and Tommy Lee Jones – The famous director/actor pair appear as a silhouette on the bottom of the screen and make snide remarks throughout the film while simultaneously drawing lines and pointing on the screen. It’s a novelty for the first few minutes but grows tiresome fast.

Technical Commentary with Director Barry Sonnenfeld, Rick Baker and the ILM Team – Rick and his team discuss everything you want to know about bringing aliens and high tech weaponry to life on the silver screen.

Extended and Alternate Scenes (4:21) – These really look awful in comparison to the 1080p feature, but serve as a great example on how much the feature benefits from high definition. There are five scenes total which offer absolutely nothing to the film other than a few extra lines of dialogue.

Metamorphosis of Men in Black (23:12) – Like the name implies, this explores how the film and the cast came to be via interview snippets from Sonnenfield, Smith, Jones and various filmmakers. It’s a good peek into the film’s genesis but not much else.

Original Featurette (6:38) – Spit-shined by the marketing department, this long infomercial is only for anyone who needs a pep rally before the feature.

The following five features are all contained within a small 1.33:1 window with viewing options taking up the rest of the screen. The 1080p screen graphics make these look “new,” until video starts to play in the small window which looks decidedly “old.”

Visual Effects Scene Deconstruction – View the storyboards, bluescreen shot, bluescreen composite, lighting & animation and final cut for the Tunnel and Edgar Bug Fight scene.

Character Animation Studies – Examine the multiple layers of effects required to create Mikey, Jeebs and Worm Guys.

Creatures: Concept to Completion – Explore the creation of creatures Edgar Bug, Jeebs, Mikey. Mr Gentle and Farmer Edgar.

Storyboard Comparisons – Compare Edgar becomes a bug, Saucer crashes in Queens, and birthing the baby alien.

Scene Editing Workshop – Select from three different angles for three scenes and piece them together: TheFarmhouse, Jay’s Tryout for the MIB, and The Morgue. An optional introduction is also available.

Rounding out the supplements is a fairly typical Photo Gallery and connection to BD-Live for additional content, which was not activated at the time of this review.

Sony has put together a robust package for Men in Black on Blu-ray Disc that achieves precisely what’s needed to become a hit. It offers the best audio/video presentation the film has ever seen on home video to entice high-def aficionados to double dip, on top of the first successful use of BD-Live with a multiplayer trivia game singles and families will equally enjoy spending an hour or two playing. Recycled standard definition extras or not, there’s no need to stare into a “flashy thing” after sitting down with the Men in Black in high definition.

– Dan Bradley

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