Filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld returns to the Men in Black films ten years after the second part and fifteen years after the original. As there hasn’t been any real sense of demand for this franchise to be continued, it does feel like an odd move. Then again, Sonnenfeld has had an odd career beginning notably as a cinematographer for Joel and Ethan Coen (not to be confused with Men in Black 3 co-writer Etan Coen) and then frequently emulating other directors. His Addams Family films (1991 and 1993) feel a little like Tim Burton works, Get Shorty (1995) seems in Quentin Tarantino mode and the Men in Black films are a bit like something Joe Dante might do. Ironically the film where a ‘Sonnenfeldesque’ visual style most shines through is Wild Wild West (1999), an attempt at Western era steampunk that is a complete mess.
Men in Black 3 returns to the fictional world from Lowell Cunningham’s comic book series, where secret agents monitor and cover-up alien activity on Earth. This instalment introduces a time travel plot, where Agent J (Will Smith) travels back to 1969 to stop an alien from assassinating his partner Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones in 2012 and Josh Brolin in 1969). The very casual changing-the-future-by-changing-the-past narrative evokes Back to the Future (1985); this time suggesting Robert Zemeckis is the director whom Sonnenfeld is taking his cues from. And sadly, like many of Sonnenfeld’s films, it doesn’t hold up to its influences. While flawed logic can be found in Back to the Future and other time travel film narratives, they still possess a suspension of disbelief and internal logic that suits the context of the film. The very confused idea of what aspects of time travel affects what recalls the convoluted Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (Jay Roach, 1999), but without the knowing winks to the audience. There is even one moment in Men in Black 3 when the time travel device is used to reset a moment, which completely breaks the logic of the film.
Nevertheless, there is still a lot to like and aspects of the time travel narrative do work well. A character who exists in the 5th dimension and therefore can simultaneously see multiple realities and timelines is used both comically and in moments of poignancy. The previously unresolved explanation of why K recruited J in the first place is also finally explained, providing the film with an unexpected note of sentimentality that works surprisingly well even if it is overly foreshadowed. That moment plus the chance to have Josh Brolin play a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones provide the best justification for why this sequel was made. On the other hand, the promise of using the idea to send an elite African American agent back to 1969 to comment on the history of America’s civil rights movement is not fulfilled apart from one middling early scene where Agent J encounters a pair of racist cops. Missed opportunities to provide any real substance in this film are frustrating.
Otherwise, Men in Black 3 is a series of okay gags and okay action sequences, with enough elements to make it moderately enjoyable. Completely against type, Jemaine Clement is a lot of fun as the villainous Boris the Animal and Michael Stuhlbarg is great as Griffin, the creature who lives in the 5th dimension. Emma Thompson as Agent O is mostly underused, although she does get one fun moment where she maintains a completely straight face while speaking in an absurd alien language. All the elements are there for this to be a great science-fiction/comedy, but it never truly engages. Annoyingly it continues the gag that all slightly unusual or creative people are actually aliens, which hints at an underlying conservatism. Perhaps if the film celebrated difference and strangeness more, rather than always presenting it as something to laugh at or arrest, then Men in Black 3 could live up to the potential that Sonnenfeld has always showed, but never quite delivered.