When the first Men in Black movie came out in 1997, my dad and I built a homemade neuralizer for me to play with. We took a piece of hollow silver pipe, drilled a hole in one end near the top, secured a red light in it, then ran wires down the middle of the shaft to a button on the back. It didn’t actually wipe anyone’s memory, of course, but I didn’t care – I had my very own neuralizer, and it was awesome. I loved the first Men in Black movie. I had Will Smith’s theme song memorized (who am I kidding? I still do), and I was excited about the sequel when it came out a few years later. But the mediocrity of Men in Black 2 turned my devotion to the series into total apathy, and I haven’t bothered revisiting those movies since then. A lot of people my age had similar reactions.
Now it’s 15 years after the original and 10 years after the second movie, and director Barry Sonnenfeld and stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are back again for more alien action in Men in Black 3. Why? Because they can, I guess. There doesn’t really seem to be a great reason for this movie to exist, other than the genesis of it came from Will Smith and he’s powerful enough to make it happen. No one was clamoring for a sequel, especially after a pretty questionable second attempt. Against all odds, Men in Black 3 is not a terrible movie. But it feels like a movie that knows it barely has any reason to exist, cribbing a Back to the Future time travel story and providing just enough of a narrative to keep us interested.
The film starts with Boris The Animal (Jemaine Clement from “Flight of the Conchords”) breaking out of a high security prison. He’s got a chip on his shoulder, but not much beneath that – Agent K (Jones) shot his arm off 40 years prior and sent him to the maximum security facility, and Boris is out for revenge. He finds out a way to travel back in time and kills K, which is quite the shock to Agent J (Smith), who wanders into MIB headquarters the next day looking for his partner…but everyone tells him he died in 1969. Turns out K also installed a huge force field over Earth in 1969, but since he was killed by Boris, Boris’ race comes crashing down to Earth, destroying civilization. So in a Back to the Future-inspired plot device, J has to travel back one day further in 1969 so he can kill Boris before he kills Agent K. Once there, he accidentally meets up with the younger Agent K (Brolin) and eventually teams up with him in order to save the world.
If that sounds confusing, I assure you the film does a far better job of explaining it than I did. In fact, the time elements are so by-the-numbers that the movie feels like Time Travel for Dummies. Time travel movie junkies (myself included) love the complicated nature of crossing timelines and cause-and-effect paradoxes that often come up in these stories; here, everything is pretty easy and goes pretty much according to plan. There’s not a lot of time (heh) to spend thinking about the consequences of anyone’s actions, and even though the big reveal at the end (which I won’t give away) causes us to rethink what we know of the first two movies (specifically Agent K’s motivation in recruiting J), the movie doesn’t bother to address these points beyond surface level.
There’s also a guy named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), an alien who can see all possible events in all possible timelines simultaneously, that comes along to offer some exposition to the audience, but the film isn’t concerned with complicating things too much. It’s a simple, entertaining movie, and that’s about it. Sonnenfeld brings his familiar visual stamp, and the score is pretty much just the main instrumental theme played 400 times throughout the movie, so it all seems designed to make you go, “Oh yeah, I remember these movies!” There are some good setpieces and the 3D was surprisingly decent (but still ultimately unnecessary unless you love wasting money), and Smith is his usual wise-cracking self, back on screen after a five year absence.
But the real stars of this film aren’t Smith and Jones (the latter of which is only in the movie for about 20 minutes): Josh Brolin as a young K and Rick Baker’s makeup and creature effects are the main draws here. Brolin is really great, impersonating Tommy Lee Jones but also allowing us to see a side of this character we’ve never seen in an MiB movie before. He’s straight-faced but jovial, and we’re genuinely curious to find out what happens in this man’s life that turns him into the sourpuss we know from the other films. (Don’t worry, that question is answered.)
Baker’s work, on the other hand, is much more subtle. The seven time Oscar winner has designed over 100 new aliens for this movie, many of which only appear on screen for a few seconds, but he’s almost singlehandedly responsible for making the MiB Headquarters such an iconic location because of all the craziness going on in the background. His crowning achievement this go-around is Jemaine Clement’s Boris The Animal makeup, rendering the comedian almost unrecognizable. Unfortunately, all this makeup may have hindered Clement’s performance, as his Boris is completely devoid of everything I assumed they cast him for in the first place: wit, sarcasm, comic timing, etc.
There must be something in the air in Hollywood, because this is the second big-budget movie in two years to involve a story that takes place around the moon landing mission, the other being Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The back half of this movie, much of which takes place in Cape Canaveral, works pretty well from both story and character perspectives, especially considering that when filming began, the screenwriters had only finished the first act. (Word to the wise: this is not a good way to make movies, it just so happened that they got lucky this time.)
I’m still at a loss as to why the film exists, but I suppose it’s not a big leap when you realize a movie studio spent hundreds of millions of dollars to capitalize on nostalgia that no one really wanted in the first place. (Ahem, Battleship.) Men in Black 3 isn’t so bad that you’ll want to neuralize yourself, but you can borrow mine if you still want to try. Until next time…