Even though its opening credits look and sound alarmingly like a Tim Burton movie, Men in Black stakes out some interesting turf in its first half-hour of exposition. Introducing Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), the film explicitly recasts E.T. (directed by MIB executive producer Steven Spielberg) as a parable of Mexican illegal immigration, and then unabashedly lampoons the widespread belief that the American government is hiding evidence of UFO visits. The Manhattan-centric film actually finds an interesting new place to stage a chase scene—the ramps of the Guggenheim Museum—and tweaks sensitive movie stars by explaining that those hated-in-Hollywood supermarket tabloids are “the hot sheets” that really know what’s happening in extraterrestrial circles.

Such knowing gags, however, simply serve as the setup to another summer movie in which good guys battle special effects. Like such previous Barry Sonnenfeld flicks as Get Shorty and The Addams Family movies, MIB has more wit than is usually required to get the Hollywood green light. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s sharp enough to keep the attention of most viewers over the age of 14.

Only 98 minutes long, MIB is not as overloaded as much Hollywood action-comedy-romance-FX fare. The essential problem is most likely an awkward fit between the original material—a dark Marvel comic created by Lowell Cunningham—and Sonnenfeld’s lighter sensibility. It was the director’s decision to concentrate in New York the action of Ed Solomon’s script, originally set in diverse locations. Sonnenfeld surely influenced the film’s off-off-Broadway sense of humor as well. But he didn’t prevent the script from conscripting TV-commercial slogans as punch lines, a trick so lame that Batman and Robin did it repeatedly. Nor did he finesse the near-inevitable letdown that comes when intergalactic confrontations are reduced to raygun blasts traded by stoic humans and latex rogues.

The movie’s premise is promising enough. It seems that there are approximately 1,500 extraterrestrials living on Earth at any given time, most of them benign and carefully monitored by a private agency headed by Zed (Rip Torn). (Glimpsed on video monitors, some of the aliens look suspiciously like well-known figures from entertainment and politics.) Untainted by any connection to Washington, the self-financed surveillance organization maintains its headquarters in one of the structures that hide the ventilation shafts for the Holland Tunnel; on the inside, the place has the look of a retro-futuristic airport. (The design was inspired by the work of Eero Saarinen, who designed Dulles.) The agents dress like JFK-era Secret Service agents, and must forsake any close personal relationships outside the organization. (This helpfully eliminates the neglected-girlfriend subplot that clutters most cop flicks.) Only the Men in Black can know that aliens walk among us; anyone else who discovers their existence must be memory-laundered by one of the agency’s “neuralyzers.”

Recruited by Agent K, former NYPD hotshot J (Will Smith) quickly finds himself tracking the path of a “bug,” a cockroach-like alien who’s taken the form of an upstate New York farmer, Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio). For reasons probably not worth contemplating, the bug steals a very significant bauble from an extraterrestrial aristocrat who’s living in Manhattan disguised as an eccentric shopkeeper; the theft precipitates a cosmic crisis, with the fate of the earth hanging in the customary balance.

Altogether too typically, J is hot to K’s cool, and the impulsive younger agent gets in trouble a few times. (To be fair, the Men in Black don’t seem to believe in training their new agents.) The team is helped by a medical examiner, Dr. Laurel Weaver (Linda Fiorentino), although K keeps neuralyzing her knowledge of the case. She ends up joining the agents for the final showdown with the bug at the 1964-65 World’s Fair grounds in Queens, a location that doesn’t prove nearly as funny as Sonnenfeld apparently thought it would.

Though vaguely liberal in its tolerance of aliens (human and otherwise), MIB stops well short of provocative social comment. (There are a few keen jabs, but most of the film’s mockery is directed at targets that are safely outmoded: The only politician who gets needled is one whose poll numbers have been low for several years.) After flaunting the adult subject of illegal immigration, the movie quickly retreats to territory befitting a preteen audience: Emulating the sort of gross-out material popular on the playground, the filmmakers cover the characters in alien vomit, intergalactic entrails, and scurrying cockroaches. Danny Elfman’s typically bombastic score may back down after the opening sequence, but ultimately MIB does indeed turn into a Tim Burton movie: Mars Attacks!.CP