A relaxed, easygoing return to the Men in Black franchise after a decade-long absence, Men in Black 3 represents a pleasant-enough diversion but little more; while the special agent characters and the alien-infested world they live in are still engaging, one wishes the filmmakers had taken more care with the time travel-heavy plot, which isn’t nearly as inventive as it ought to be.
The aliens, many created by practical Rick Baker effects, are weird and varied and a big part of what makes these films appealing. Particularly notable here is the goggle-eyed lead villain, some briefly-glimpsed retro-1969 style creatures, a pretty funny blobfish gag, and a bowling ball-sized alien who works in the least appropriate venue (if he hopes to avoid humiliation). Watch carefully for Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, who are also identified as aliens.
While the leads – Will Smith as Agent Jay and Tommy Lee Jones as Agent Kay – are back in action, after such a long gap in between films, there are (expectedly, if disappointingly) no other returning cast members; most-missed is Rip Torn’s Agent Zed (his absence is explained by the death of the character between films, which may cause some to incorrectly assume the 81-year-old actor has passed away).
Replacing Torn is Emma Thompson as Agent O, who has little purpose other than plot functionality. Thankfully, the rest of the new supporting cast leaves a greater impression: particularly fun are Josh Brolin as the young Kay, whose vocal mimicry of Tommy Lee Jones is just about perfect, and Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), who provides a amusingly droll (if never all that threatening) villain.
At the outset, alien criminal Boris the Animal (Clement) breaks out of a maximum security lunar prison and swears vengeance on Kay, who arrested him and took his arm off 40 years ago. The breakout sequence, played mostly for laughs, involves an alien creature baked inside a cake; if you’re wondering how this breakout is so easy, why the prisoners are allowed visitors, who the guards are and why they have no specialized gear or weapons, or how a lunar prison goes unnoticed by the general population, you’re in the wrong movie.
Anyway, Boris conveniently heard about a time travel device while on the moon, and travels back to 1969 to kill Kay. This alters the present, of course, though Smith’s Agent Jay is still an Agent, and still has memories of Kay, for reasons of plot necessity.
I like how Boris and his alien race decide to invade (and presumably destroy) the Earth right now, waiting a good forty years but giving Jay just enough time to remember an alternate reality, realize Boris’ plan, locate a time travel device, and go back to 1969 and stop him.
Time travel inevitably becomes an unanswerable paradox in movies, but the best time travel films carefully sidestep the logic issues. I like how Men in Black 3 never bothers to explain the technicality of the time travel device (none of the characters seems to know exactly how it works), but otherwise it attempts to explain too much: all the reasoning behind how Jay has memory of Kay, why he travels back and what he plans to do, all draw attention to the fact that this doesn’t make a lick of sense.
During the film’s most head-scratching moment, the time travel doesn’t even remain internally consistent: Jay travels back a short time and seems to revert to that time’s version of himself, rather than creating a duplicate, which happens in the other time travel moments.
But don’t think too hard about it; the filmmakers (director Barry Sonnenfeld, who also made the first two installments, and writer Etan Cohen) apparently haven’t, either. Men in Black 3 works best as a comedy, though there is a surprising amount of on-screen violence, and some unexpected heart by the end.
Curiously, there’s no period music from the 1969 portions of the film (something that really helped Dark Shadows), though Danny Elfman’s familiar score helps to liven things up. And Back in Time, from Pitbull, samples Mickey and Sylvia’s Love is Strange over the closing credits.
Men in Black 3 is a step up from the previous film, and a notch below the original. Smith displays nothing new here, but after a 3.5 year absence following Seven Pounds, he shows that he’s still one of the most likable superstars around.
A great supporting cast (which also includes A Serious Man‘s Michael Stuhlbarg) helps, and Sonnenfeld, following his own 6-year absence from directing, shows that he can still expertly balance science fiction and dark(ish) comedy.
While MiB 3 isn’t perfect, we could use more lighthearted blockbusters like these as opposed to the crushing seriousness of a Snow White and the Huntsman.