Time travel movies are so difficult to get right. If they’re taken too seriously, the plot tends to get bogged down by confusing and abstract theoretical concepts, which often times fail to fully explain how and why certain things could have happened. If they’re not taken seriously enough, the story can fall victim to the impulsive and preposterous whims of the filmmakers. Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black 3 tells a time travel story that successfully finds a healthy balance between science fiction and fantasy. Even with some gaps in logic – which is understandable given the fact that time is barely understood by scientists, let alone by filmmakers – it operates under a comprehensible and fairly plausible set of rules. All the while, it never loses sight of the fact that it was made solely for entertainment.
It has been fifteen years since the start of the franchise and ten years since the last film was released. Given that stretch of time, it’s only natural that Men in Black 3 would showcase new high-tech gadgets and more elaborate special effects, to say absolutely nothing of the fact that it’s presented in 3D. What’s unexpected is that fewer aliens are featured. But unexpected doesn’t necessarily mean unwelcome; what the film lacks in delightfully bizarre creature effects is made up for with a plot that’s fun, clever, and surprisingly character driven. We learn more about Agents J and K in this one film than we did in the first two combined. The reward is twofold; not only is the depth of character greater than it ever has been, the humor is also more plentiful and more meaningful. It’s always better to laugh with someone we’ve gotten to know, even if only to the smallest degree.
Since the events of Men in Black II, Rip Torn’s character, Agent Zed, has died. If you look at the holographic tablet at his memorial service, you’ll immediately notice that his birth year was 19XX. His successor is the stiffly British Agent O (Emma Thompson). The aging Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) has somehow managed to become even more humorless. Out of a combination of concern and annoyance, his MIB partner of fifteen years, Agent J (Will Smith), urges him to open up. “How did you end up this way?” he asks. “Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to,” K replies coldly. As this is being established, we learn that our moon is home to an intergalactic prison; after forty years of being locked away in shackles, a ruthless one-armed alien named Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) escapes, intent on taking his revenge against Agent K, the man who arrested him.
When the MIB become aware of Boris’ presence in New York, J discovers that, despite his status and pay grade, there are a number of classified files he’s not privy to, such as K’s confrontation with Boris at Cape Canaveral in July of 1969. One morning, he awakens with a splitting headache and a curious craving for chocolate milk. He goes to K’s apartment; not only is he not there, a woman and several children seem to have moved in. J goes to MIB headquarters, only to discover that the agents have never heard of anyone named K. The exception is O, who tells J that K died over forty years ago. O notices J’s need for chocolate milk and deduces that he has been affected by a rip in the space-time continuum. It seems that Boris has gotten hold of an illegal time travelling device, gone back into the past, and killed Agent K. J must now go back himself, not only to save K’s life but also to save Earth from an invasion that never should have taken place.
And so, armed with a black market time travel device, J jumps off of the Chrysler Building and into the past. It’s now July 15, 1969. Although the rules of time travel dictate that there be no personal contact or sharing of information, J teams up with a twenty-nine-year-old Agent K (Josh Brolin), who’s just as dedicated to his job but is far more agreeable to be around. Clearly, whatever made him to dour hasn’t happened yet. They join forces with an inter-dimensional being known as Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has the ability to see every possible future happening simultaneously. Childlike without being reduced to a mentally challenged stereotype, he’s quite possibly the best character of the entire Men in Black franchise.
The plot is actually more complex and engaging than my description is making it seem. There are certain scenes that are best viewed without the aid of my review, most notably when J and young K pay a visit to Andy Warhol at The Factory. Men in Black 3 is a fun and visually spectacular movie, the latter having more to do with art direction, set design, lighting, and CGI than with its use of 3D. However, the real high points of the movie are the scenes featuring Josh Brolin. He captures the vocal inflections and mannerisms of Tommy Lee Jones with astonishing accuracy. Watching him, I thought back to the year 2008 and wondered why he received an Oscar nomination for Milk rather than for W. You cannot convince me any living actor could have better and more thoroughly embodied the spirit of George W. Bush. His talent for mimicry is undervalued, I believe.
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