How Men in Black Changed the Entire Plot in Editing

In one of the more intriguing testaments to the power of post-production, the original Men in Black managed to change its entire plot in the editing room.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black
Photo: Sony Pictures

Last month marked the 25th anniversary of Men in Black, arguably one of the most influential science fiction films in blockbuster history. That release not only added a major genre franchise to the table—one which would continue to have success decades later—but it also showcased that sci-fi and buddy comedies could co-exist as one. It pushed the industry forward in regards to the marriage of visual and practical effects, and helped to boost a rising star in Will Smith. But that first movie could have gone down a very different path, one that might have seen it lose some of its shine. 

Not only was the first script for Men in Black wildly different, but changes were eventually made to remove a whole subplot from the final film. Watching it back, audiences would be forgiven for never noticing that anything was missing. But for those in the trenches of the production, the shape of the movie had shifted rather drastically, perhaps to the benefit of streamlining the blockbuster hit. But what was that story that fans never got to see, and was this change ultimately for the better? 

The Original Men in Black Plot 

The first iteration of Men in Black boasted an entirely different conflict at the heart of its story: an honest to goodness intergalactic war, which drove the narrative and was thus a crucial piece of the structure of the whole film. But to best describe what that original script was, it’s useful to turn to an interview that director Barry Sonnenfeld did with the blog Monster Legacy

“In the original script, two warring parties—the Baltians and the Arquillians—were fighting over this very small galaxy,” Sonnenfeld said. “And this third race—Edgar’s [Bug]  race—had come down to steal this galaxy to keep the war going between the Arquillians and the Baltians, because as long as the war continued the Bug race would be able to feast on the carnage of both parties.”

Ad – content continues below

It’s an interesting idea, and one that could have added a little more depth to proceedings. You may remember the plot of the final version of Men in Black, which saw the Bugs hunting a tiny galaxy that could be found on Orion’s Belt—Orion being a cat with a very fancy collar. However, the original version of the movie would have brought dimension, placing Earth in even more danger as we got caught between these battling factions. It’s also a war that the Men in Black would likely be woefully unprepared for, even before a third party of extremists attempted to spread gasoline and light a match.

But why were these major alien species’ functions changed in the movie, resulting in them becoming little more than a pair of fleeting cameos? What changed the minds of those behind the sci-fi story? 

A Test Screening 

Everything remained in place until an initial test screening. Footage had even been shot that continued to push this narrative, including the war that could put Earth itself in jeopardy. The alien species were fully developed for the production, and they were put to the test with a small audience via an early cut of the movie. VFX guru Eric Brevig spoke with VFXBlog about the result of that test screening. 

Said Brevig, “Well, what happened was the actual original storyline was significantly changed after the first audience test screening. Initially, the movie that we all shot had two warring alien planets that were alien races battling each other on opposite sides of Earth, and Earth was in the middle caught in the crossfire. There were two different names for the different races, and we never got to see them, but they were always being discussed in the Men in Black headquarters where there was a big egg shaped view screen that had all the information. There were diagrams trying to explain when one spaceship is over here, and one there, and here’s the Earth. It was just very complicated, and audiences couldn’t follow it.”

Despite the ambition, clearly, the idea wasn’t going to work. With plenty of moving pieces in place, audiences simply couldn’t keep up with the exposition dump. Too many new concepts and too many characters were being introduced at a rapid rate in Men in Black, and something had to be removed for it to all feel a little more streamlined. What’s more, it’s a little difficult to work out if the Baltians are also the villains here and whether the MIB would have to take action against them. That’s why the post-production crew had to step in to provide a lot more clarity.  

A Change in Editing

Once the film hit post-production, countless scenes were shifted or changed. There’s one specific example of this that you can still go back and find, demonstrating the genius way in which the editors thought on their feet. 

Ad – content continues below

In the finished film, the sequence involves two aliens sitting in a diner in a tense meeting; they are Gentle Rosenburg and an unnamed character portrayed by Carel Struycken, who is credited as an Arquillian (like Rosenburg). The pair are speaking in an extraterrestrial language, and English subtitles have been placed below. But the scene was never actually shot with the actors speaking in a fictional alien dialect. In fact, they were filmed speaking English!

In the original script, we saw these two same characters meet as ambassadors for separate, respective species. It’s clear that whatever they were speaking about was dubbed over and replaced in order to fit in with the rest of the movie that was taking shape. While we may never know what they said, there is evidence that the original script played into their murder at the hands of the Bug. Found dialogue from the first draft included mentions of the ambassadors. 

Regardless of how it was supposed to play out, it’s a brilliant use of the footage available to the editors, and if you look closely, you might be able to lip-read the first recorded dialogue.

The alien creatures involved in this conflict can also still actually be found in the film, suggesting that remnants of that original plot managed to survive. The Bugs, who wanted to benefit from the chaos and bloodshed of the war, continue to be the major antagonist of the film, largely in the form of Vincent D’onofrio’s farmer. 

The Arquillians also managed to make it into the final cut. While it might have been in a reduced role, these are the tiny aliens that used humanoid robotic suits in order to disguise themselves in plain sight. It is a dying Arquillian, Gentle Rosenburg, that gifts Agent K and J with the knowledge of how to find the galaxy that the Bugs are eventually hunting for. He even makes mention of preventing a war, a snippet of the narrative that never got going in the final cut. As previously mentioned the friend he meets with in the diner sequence is also an Arquillian in the film, although an editing error meant that an outdated line was left in the film. During the morgue sequence, the character’s unique skeletol structure is mentioned by the mortician Laurel (Linda Fiorentino). In theory, this would have made him a different species from Rosenburg. Of course when it was first filmed, he was supposed to be from a different planet altogether. 

The existence of the Baltians is a little harder to spot. Those who have paid attention to Men In Black will see evidence of an initial meeting between mankind and an alien species. Their look mimics the stereotypical extraterrestrial you often see in pop culture, with elongated limbs and stretched features. This is actually a Baltian and the only appearance of the species in the franchise.

Ad – content continues below

What Would Men In Black Be Like Without The Change? 

If Men in Black had never made that change, it’s fair to say that the entire movie would’ve played differently. Perhaps with another conflict to deal with, there would be less time for the sharp character interplay that fans got to enjoy instead. In fact, with an increased focus on these sci-fi battles and alien elements, perhaps the human component of K and J’s relationship would simply not have had the opportunity to develop as the true centerpiece of the film. 

There’s no way of telling how the franchise might have truly been impacted had the original script made the final cut. But if audiences were to be confused by the warring species then the success of the first film might have been more muted. That in turn could have derailed the future of the Men In Black series. 

But might the original have actually been better? Consider the additional motivations of all the characters involved, alongside the extended stakes for Earth. It might have made this an even more thrilling adventure. The hanging thread of Gentle Rosenburg’s mention of an upcoming war was never given the chance to properly resolve itself. But the loveable release that audiences received instead is demonstration enough that the changes were for the better. The only downside is that the state of the wider galaxy in Men in Black mythos continues to be unexplored. For better or worse, the involvement of Earth remains the franchise’s top priority.

Ultimately, test screenings can make all the difference. One watch-through of the original Men In Black changed everything. On its 25th anniversary, the film continues to hold up. While recent sequels might have ambitiously attempted too much, the original understood the power of simplicity and moving forward with humor and great pacing. That’s to its absolute strength and the, as-ever, underrated post-production team that made the crucial turnaround.