Gotta Change the Time Loop

Men in Black 3

In fairness to the movie, Men in Black II was a financial success. Not as big a success as Men in Black, and it did cost more to make, but end of the day it was a Blockbuster that made everyone involved a fair bit of money. From a fan perspective, though, it was not a great creative effort. It was mostly a riff on the first film with very few new ideas. It was not the sequel fans wanted, by a long shot.

That goes some way towards explaining why the third film took another ten years of development to come out. I'm sure the creatives involved (including Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones) fought making a third one unless there was a good reason to (more than, "here's more money"). Of course, in the interim Smiths blockbuster cred had fallen somewhat; he was still making successful movies, just not anywhere near as successful as his early run of world domination. As for Tommy Lee Jones, while he did return he has a reduced part this time around (for reasons obvious to the story). This was a complicated movie to get off the ground but, in the end, it was a successful one.

I actually mean that in both senses of the term. Creatively, this film feels as fresh and interesting as the first film. Featuring a time travel story that sends J back to the 1960s, the movie does more than simply riff on the same jokes as the first film. And audiences responded, showing up to the tune of $654.2 Mil at the Box Office. That was balanced by this being the most expensive of the Smith/Jones Men in Black films, costing upwards of $225 Mil to make. Still, as far as the studio, Sony Pictures, was concerned, this was a grand return to form for the franchise.

The film opens with a prison break. A real nasty alien, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), escapes from the MiB Moon-based prison, promising revenge on Agent K (the MiB agent that captured him and put him on the moon for 30 years in a specially build prison). Boris makes an attempt on K's life that night, but when he's thwarted by K (Jones) and Agent J (Smith), Boris takes a different tack. Remembering that one of the men he'd served with had invented a time travel device, Boris hits up the man's son, Jeffrey Price (Michael Chernus), and grabs one of the devices to go back and kill K before the agent could catch him (and stop Boris's initial plans for world domination).

The next day J wakes up feeling rather off (and suddenly craving chocolate milk). Arriving at work he finds that Agent K doesn't exist, that the man he's been serving with for 15 years seemingly died four decades earlier. Talking with Agent O (Emma Thompson), the two determine that something in the past has changed and the only one that knows it (due to time travel shenanigans) is J (one of the side effects being that craving for chocolate and dairy products). Realizing that the only way he can save K is to go back in time himself, J goes to Price and gets another device. He then falls back in time to track down Boris, only for the past's Agent K (Josh Brolin) to come in and interrupt J's manhunt. Suddenly J has to work with his own partner from a different time just to stop K's own death.

By moving the action from the present day (of 2012, when the film was made) to 1969 (for the Apollo Moon Landing), the film is able to inject some of that same energy from the first film into this three-quel. J is once again a fish out of water, having to adapt to a new time period even when he knows the ropes of be an MiB agent (something, of course, he has to prove to the younger K when they meet). This was apparently an idea for a sequel devised for this third film when the team was making the second movie, and it took a long time for the script to come into shape and work out all the timey-wimey time travel bits. I'm glad they took their time with this to get it right as this story, and the time period change that came with it, really does work.

I also liked the casting of Brolin for the younger K. It's pretty clear the actor studied the mannerisms of Jones's character as the younger actor does a solid job with the role in the past. He finds an easy rapport with Smith, allowing that actor to fall easily into his patter, keeping the tone of the film light and breezy. Frankly, if they had made a fourth film where J had to go back in time again to work with the younger K (or if K had come forward to the future to work with J and the older K), that would have been a fun way to keep the actor involved. He's great in the role.

With that said, the film isn't perfect. For starters, there's a whole subplot about Agent O (Emma Thompson in the present, Alice Eve in the past) that implies she's held back (in the 1960s) by institutional sexism. While she is the head of MiB in the present (after Zed is killed off-screen because actor Rip Torn was dealing with sexual harassment complaints), the film doesn't really do anything for her character in the past. Seeing her step up and take charge, maybe showing the boys of MiB back in the day she could be a field agent, would have done more for her character and give her real growth.

At the same time there's a love story between young O and young K that goes nowhere. "Agents don't fraternize," is the explanation, and yet... it would have been nice to get some resolution on this considering the solid chemistry between Eve and Brolin. But it also raises some weird issues across the whole of the MiB timeline. We're told, in the first film, that K is still pining away for the girl that got away back before he joined the agency. But then, in the second film, he was also in love with an alien princess? And here we're told he has a long standing, unrequited love for Agent O? That's a lot of love story baggage for one character, much of which is dismissed from one movie to the next as is narratively convenient. It's odd.

And the film does, more than once, take some narrative shortcuts with the time travel (despite the team taking ten years to get the story "right"). Although J's own timeline is wrapped up around K's (as is later shown in the film) it does seem weird that J somehow knows K exists in the alternate "K died" timeline, and we're never given a good explanation for how this happened. Later, we get a scene showing that K knew J's dad, and we have story to illustrate that... story that doesn't really make a ton of sense in the context of the first film, when J just knew K because he proved himself to be a good candidate for being an agent. The timelines, as much as the writers want them to work out, just don't fit neatly.

The biggest issue I had, though, was that K changes the timeline at the end of the film (and spoilers for a decade-plus-old movie). In the end, instead of capturing Boris and throwing him in a moon prison, K blows the alien away. Not only does this cause a paradox that can't easily be resolved -- how can Boris travel to the past to kill K, which seems like a fixed loop in time, if the original Boris dies in 1969? -- but it should also have other consequences for the timeline. The moon base was built to house Boris. No Boris, no moon prison, right? What other things would be changed because of this one kill? Clearly there's a butterfly effect in place now, one that the movie never even addresses. J travels back to the present, sees everything is as it was, and we all just shrug and move on. That doesn't entirely work for me.

So the story doesn't quite fit but, eh, maybe it doesn't need to. This is a fun and funny film that does what the second film couldn't: it give life back to the Men in Black franchise. It's a solid return to form that, sure, isn't quite as funny or as narratively right as the original film, but it's still a fun time all on its own. Had the franchise ended here I think we all would have been satisfied with this conclusion.

But it didn't. Then we had to suffer through Men in Black: International, which was a real tired rehash of the series. Thankfully it seems like we've all largely forgotten that reboot exists and we can rest comfortably with this original trilogy for the foreseeable future.