It’s been 15 full years since Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black made enough money to certify itself as a short-lived cultural phenomenon. Video games, junior novelizations, an animated series, a plot-rehashing rap single by star Will Smith, and a lousy 2002 sequel followed suit, effectively exhausting the public’s apparent interest in the galaxy-defending exploits of a secret government agency tasked with patrolling (often with extreme prejudice) extraterrestrial activity on Earth.
Men in Black remains nimble, zippy blockbuster filmmaking. Buoyed along by the refined straight-man/stooge back and forth between Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and inventive effects by Rick Baker, the movie endears itself more to the school of post-Dante popcorn fare than the Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay blow-‘em-ups that would come to define the summer release slate. Coming in the late ‘90s, when The X-Files had helped bring tinfoil conspiracy theories into the mainstream, Men in Black essentially invested that show’s villains—the cigarette-smoking Syndicate and their black-suited enforcers—with a degree of all-in-a-day’s-work pathos. It was a film that delighted in its small details, in a space-age SuperBall wrecking havoc in the MIB’s subterranean office, in the way Vincent D’Onofrio’s insectoid villain wriggled inside his ill-fitting human flesh. Even its brilliant closing sequence—the camera pulling way back to reveal the whole Milky Way existing inside a marble being tossed around on a grand cosmic schoolyard—seemed to wink at the film being nothing more than a pleasant trifle.
Arriving without a tie-in Will Smith rap (Miami hip-hop impresario Pitbull’s soundtrack offering, “Back in Time,” is little consolation), Men in Black III is worlds away from the pleasures of the 1997 film. It feels, even when it’s at its best, more like an attempt to reenergize a franchise than rebottle the lightning that electrified the original. Smith and Jones reteam as agents J and K, charged with saving Earth from an intergalactic threat in the form of Jermaine Clement’s interstellar assassin Boris the Animal. Escaping from the Lunar-Max correctional facility (on the moon, natch), Boris gets his spiky hands on a time-traveling doohickey. His plan: to travel back in time to 1969 and kill the younger agent K, setting off a temporal chain reaction that will culminate in the destruction of Earth by Boris’s home species. The film’s plot: Send Agent J back to prevent this from happening.
Slinging Men in Black back to the late ‘60s allows the film’s self-consciously kitschy aesthetic to catch up with itself. All the sleek modern furnishings of MIB headquarters, like Baker’s creature designs, which seem lifted from the brightly colored covers of pulp sci-fi mags, fit right in (ditto the pre-Mad Men skinny ties). These films have always gotten undue mileage out of their playful winking at what real-world personages may be aliens (see Michael Jackson’s embarrassing cameo in the second one), but more of these jokes hit in the context defined by the tensions between the crewcut post-war American authority and the hippies and freaks, and by the space race that would ignite the general public’s interest in science fiction. In the film’s funniest scene, J and the young K (Josh Brolin) crash a party at New York’s Factory, where it’s revealed that Andy Warhol is an MIB plant (played, perfectly, by Bill Hader) tasked with tracking the comings and goings of all art-scene aliens from the inside. (“I’m so out of ideas I’ve started painting soup cans,” Hader’s agent moans, begging to be extracted from his post.)
Sparing a few jokes and nifty set pieces (J’s Wile E. Coyote-ish freefall back in time, as the present terraforms around him, shows how giddily novel the Men in Black films can be when they’re firing on all cylinders), the plotting here is dull, often enervating. J and K spend the bulk of the film playing catch-up with Boris, attempting to keep one step ahead as he eliminates a group of key E.T.s. His chief target, a fifth-dimensional creature named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), is likely the film’s best invention. A nerdy Borgesian caricature, the hyperactive Griffin can visualize all of history in an instant, processing the cause-and-effect forking paths of possibility like an autistic supercomputer. In him, Men in Black 3 briefly finds its footing as a film that uses time travel not merely as a premise-generator or justification for its retro aesthetic, but to foreground the passage of time, and its infinitude of interlocked butterfly effects, as a theme in itself. Still, while these flickers of modest insight may intermittently enliven the film, they’re not enough to salvage it from its own oppressive pointlessness.
“Anonymity is your name, silence your native tongue,” Rip Torn (playing MIB leader Zed, duly killed off for the third installment) says to Smith in the first movie, a quick joke calling attention both to Smith’s post-Fresh Prince rep as an urban loudmouth, and his above-the-title Hollywood superstar status. This time around, Smith actually is next to anonymous, rendered flat by a late career marked by thinly conceived remakes, saccharine actor-y fare, and cash-in sequels, which have offered diminishing returns on the actor’s certifiable movie-star status. Men in Black 3 feels like a caricature of itself, a riff on a riff. It’s a film of mediated impressions: Smith doing “Will Smith,” Stuhlbarg doing Robin Williams, Clement doing Tim Curry, Tommy Lee Jones doing “Tommy Lee Jones,” and Josh Brolin doing Tommy Lee Jones doing “Tommy Lee Jones.” It fails to redouble on the hallmarks of the franchise, visual wit traded for bigger ray guns and showier displays of extraterrestrial arterial goop. The flashes of honest-to-goodness delight that distinguish the original are replaced by a gaudy cynicism, never more so than in the film’s barely sly condescension toward the audience.
The bright, cartoon patina of Men in Black has never striven toward verisimilitude or anything. And all the memory-wiping containment sequences have always been a way of restoring a status quo of basic ignorance to a general public who couldn’t possibly handle the truth. But here the cartoonish quality dodders into out-and-out gawkiness. As the film blasts toward its climax, unfolding that fateful day on Cape Canaveral when Apollo 11 launched out of the atmosphere, Sonnenfeld cuts to images of “typical” American families decked out in bright period pastels, smiling dumbly into their TV sets. It’s a legitimate, capital-H historical moment, and one you’d think a film even superficially preoccupied with rocket ships and life beyond Earth would handle with a measured, dorky reverence. Instead, we’re burdened with images of rubbernecked Ugly Americans and even worse, with the idea that for their behind-the-scenes historical tinkering, all that the Men in Black are prevising is a kind of slack-jawed complacency. It’s a nasty, wholly unpleasant idea, but given that Men in Black 3 aspires to nothing more than adequacy in its ambitions to entertain, as if it were little more than a marquee placeholder title, it’s one that’s tough to argue with.