It is somewhat fitting that the third big screen outing for the Men In Black should centre so heavily around time travel. For the only way to truly enjoy the spectacle of Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones taking on intergalactic foes for a (hopefully) trilogy closing instalment would be to jump in a Dolorean and journey back to the late 90’s. There, surrounded by fears of Y2K and Travis and Dido playing incessantly on Radio 1, in a time where Big Willie’s schtick of sayingthingsreallyfast more than made up for his questionable ties to Scientology, a time before he and his weirdly adult offspring planned world domination, you might be able to enjoy an incredibly forgettable hour and a half of tired jokes about large mobile phones and Viagra.
When Boris (The Animal) escapes from his prison on the moon he sets out to find and kill the man who put him there, Agent K. Not fancying a bit of 21st century revenge, Boris pops back to 1969 to ‘take care’ of a much younger and unsuspecting K. In the present day Agent J wakes to find he’s the only one who can remember K and quickly sets about trying to heal the temporal fracture by returning to the sixties himself, teaming up with a younger Agent K along the way.
In the full fifteen years that have passed since Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones first donned sunglasses and monotone attire, the world of the Blockbuster has changed considerably. Bryan Singer and Christopher Nolan reinvigorated the superhero flick, Peter Jackson journeyed to The Shire and back again and most recently Joss Whedon’s The Avengers reminded us that tentpole movies can mix fun with funny and mind-numbing explosions with genuinely likeable characters.
Barry Sonnenfeld, however, has chosen to slap away these changes rather than embrace them fully, leaving both the aesthetic and the tone so mid-to-late 90s. Thus MIB3 contains all the camera flips of before, the same slow wait for the punchline to hit and a similar mix of sentimentality and awe and wonder at the hugeness of the universe. It’s a brave move – trying to give the series a sense of continuity – but one that makes the age gap hopelessly apparent.
This old fashioned sensibility isn’t all bad. The familiar yet accomplished set design and respectable choice of puppets and prosthetics over pixels is certainly commendable. Sadly this reliance on old school charm leads to a jarring finale where CGI suddenly takes over with a vengeance, reminding those that have heard the rumours about a $350m plus price tag just where the cash has gone. Perversely, even with that astonishing figure in mind, there’s nothing remotely as spectacular as Loki’s army descending on New York or the siege of Hogwarts that lets you know you’re watching the pinnacle of what a studio backed effects team can do.
Of the new cast of Michael Stuhlbarg, Jemaine Clement and Josh Brolin nobody really lets the side down. Brolin’s Tommy impression, as promoted so heavily in the trailer, holds up for the lagging mid-section. Flight of the Conchord‘s Clement, in a role that on paper looks decidedly out of his comfort zone, pulls off a mean/stupid baddy even under a pile of make-up but can’t escape the fact that the villain of the first movie is painfully similar. Stuhlbarg, most famous for the Coen Brothers A Serious Man and Boardwalk Empire, is lumbered with a character that in the wring hands could have been cloying and annoying. Pro that he is, Stuhlbarg aces it. And Emma Thompson is given little more than a cameo as the replacement for Rip Torn’s Z, doing very well with what she’s given.
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A final point, CONTAINING SPOILERS while every film that features time-travel raises a few notable questions about changes in the space time continuum, if anybody can explain why Agent K is slightly less curmudgeonly in the climax please let us know. And also why didn’t Agent J die when Boris killed him before he time-travelled? And why not let the child J know his father died a hero instead of thinking he was just some loser father? And why didn’t…oh who really cares. Just look at the nice 3D effects instead.
Midway through Men In Black 3, Agent J laments that “A pre-requisite for a joke is that it has to be funny”. You can supply your own punchline to that one but even if you accept that the series was more about the fantastical adventure than the hearty laugh, MIB3 is still another nostalgic let down. MIB, RIP.