It’s been 22(!) years since the release of Men in Black, a stretch of time that encapsulates three sequel movies and an animated TV show, and throughout it all the original film has held up as the strongest installment of the franchise. This latest, Men in Black: International, does not come close to being the strongest in the series, but nor is it the weakest.
International continues with the secretive Men in Black organization, tasked with policing alien activity on Earth, but breaks from the prior stories of Agents J and K in order to introduce new characters and, after the first act, leaves the familiar location of New York City to explore new settings. After witnessing an alien encounter and avoiding having her memory erased, Molly (played as a child by Mandeiya Flory and as an adult by Tessa Thompson) spends her life secretly obsessed with the Men in Black, eventually tracking down and infiltrating their headquarters. There she is taken on by Agent O (Emma Thompson, reprising her role from Men in Black III) and assigned a new identity as Agent M. Agent O sends M to MiB’s London branch where she meets High T (Liam Neeson) and Agent H (Chris Hemsworth).
Surprise! Some aliens try to destroy Earth.
Arley: I feel like this movie has a target audience of 12-year-olds. No plot point makes sense, but that’s fine. It’s not a plot-driven movie. You’re supposed to be 12 years old and awed by the visuals and after the movie go repeat favorite lines with your friends.
Josh: Like those rambunctious youths who were in the theater with us? They seemed to be having fun.
Arley: Some teens might be too sophisticated for it, but 12-14 is the right age. Which reminds me of the Godzilla franchise. Godzilla started as a darker metaphor for nuclear technology and then they changed what Godzilla was — he started dancing, monsters started talking to each other, and they introduced Baby Godzilla, specifically to entertain the kids. The Men in Black franchise has the same feel. It started out with a darker edge to it which has become more about flash and silliness. Any specific aspect of this movie is going to fall apart under scrutiny — the technology, plot, etc. — it’s just meant to be fun, and if you go into it with that mentality, you’ll be better off for it.
Josh: I agree. When I was watching this one, I thought it felt like a watered-down version of the previous movies. There’s no bad guy walking around in an “Edgar suit.” The threat levels are not as present nor as ominous as they are in the first film. Was this even rated PG-13? It felt like a PG kids’ movie.
Arley: Didn’t you say you actually enjoyed MiB III because it was trying to do something different in the series?
Josh: Yeah, I liked that they messed with their own formula, tried a slightly tricky time-travel plot, brought in Josh Brolin to play a younger Tommy Lee Jones, and just took some risks. By comparison, I cannot remember a single thing about the second movie at all. [Even after re-reading the plot of MiB II for this review, I can’t remember any actual scenes from it.] It’s so forgettable. Maybe Men in Black is the inverse of the Star Trek movies: all the odd-numbered Star Trek movies are bad, and all the even-numbered Men in Black movies are bland.
Every plot point in International is obvious and, unlike the previous installments, there’s no great mystery driving the characters’ actions — the plot only exists to get them to several different locations because the movie has the word “international” in the title. Agent M briefly acquires a Macguffin, and some motivation, but then the audience learns what it is and who wants it fairly early in the story. The subsequent motivating “mystery” is then supposed to be, who is the mole within MiB? But even that is quite obvious fairly early on, from the moment High T says that the villainous aliens can take over anyone’s body.
Josh: For a movie with shapeshifters/bodysnatchers, a mole, and a secretive paranoid agency, it has very little intrigue or tension. I was expecting some spy games.
Men in Black: International is actually more reminiscent of a science fiction version of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (and sequel), being predicated on flashy images and showing off hordes of CGI creatures that show up without context and disappear again without consequence. But we found Men in Black to be a better vehicle than Fantastic Beasts for this type of visual-heavy entertainment because of its scifi basis. Besides the cool aliens, there’s also slick technology, exotic weapons, interdimensional portals, etc. The creatures did all look very good, especially the shapeshifting aliens (played by Laurent and Larry Bourgeois AKA Les Twins) in their nebulous forms.
Josh: I didn’t engage with Fantastic Beasts because that movie went, “Look at this magical creature,” and it wasn’t enough to make me care. But Men in Black is like, “Look at this crazy alien, and a spaceship!” and I’m like, “I like spaceships!”
Arley: I found myself trying to explain to myself how Les Twins’ powers worked. I was engaged in the implied ideas, even if I wasn’t engaged in the actual explicit plotline.
This movie’s most memorable moments only make sense in a context outside of the actual movie. For instance, during a club scene, the shapeshifting aliens start an extended dance number (a sequence bordering on non sequiter), which makes sense if one knows who Les Twins are in the real world, and Agent H’s straining to reach a hammer during a fight likewise if one has seen Hemsworth as Thor.
Chris Hemsworth is often a solid comedic actor, and is at his best when playing big and dumb. In International he doesn’t play quite big or dumb enough to sell the humor. Tessa Thompson, on the other hand, can do anything, apparently. Her performance here was completely different from Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok which was in turn completely different from her role in Sorry to Bother You. She had several great subtle moments, delivering a strong performance despite the weak script. Thompson transmitted to the audience what this character was thinking, what her motivations were, how she would act in a given situation, what she wanted, what her weaknesses were, all quickly and efficiently — sometimes with nothing more than a shift in expression.
Josh: I kinda wanted to see a more extended recruitment or training sequence with her? We got a glimpse of her competence from the CIA and FBI interviews, and I like that she ends up rejecting them because they’re not living up to her goals, but then she’s free climbing an island and I’m like, wait she’s a nerd. I don’t know what her physical abilities are. Even a montage of her training would have been enough but it was all off screen. I was also expecting more banter between Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth, but there’s hardly any, and most of the good lines and jokes were given away in the previews.
Arley: I found Hemsworth’s character trite and clichéd. His pathetic, washed-up character is played out and doesn’t fit the times. Like the only way he can get out of a bad situation is by sleeping with an alien.
Josh: I wonder if that’s on purpose, though. Like a James Kirk/James Bond kind of thing.
Arley: Not like Kirk. Kirk did it with swagger. He was on his game.
Josh: Oh, so more like a Riker.
It’s hard to view the plot with fresh eyes because so much humorous, self-aware scifi has come out since the first Men in Black movie: Rick and Morty, Archer, Galaxy Quest, Paul, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie, Adventure Time, Mystery Men, several of the Marvel movies, etc. There are visual gags here (tentacle lady) lifted straight from Futurama, and Hemsworth could have played the pathetic down to a Zap Brannigan level for better effect, because most of the jokes that International tries have already been done.
Arley: Whatever you think of Will Smith now, he’s very charming and hilarious in the first Men in Black.
Josh: And Tommy Lee Jones was the perfect foil to that.
Arley: Which is why Hemsworth had to be more of a comic relief in this one, because as much as I love Tessa Thompson and as good a job she did, no one was bringing that charm and swagger and comedy to this film. But I did like their relationship: if this movie was made 15 years ago, they would have kissed, and probably banged. When they spoke about sacrifice she would have tearfully given up her place for him. But she’s almost more like ace at the end and it’s just down to this look between them. Not a dynamic we normally see in movies.
Josh: There was a weird moment when she first set eyes on him… so was she attracted to him or not? But she’s clearly more interested in the workings of the universe than in human contact/the dude. And they did set it up pretty well from the beginning.
Arley: What was your favorite part of this movie?
Josh: I liked Les Twins in their alien form a lot. And Tessa Thompson before she joined MiB reminded me of the Lone Gunmen from The X-Files.
Arley: I loved how Les Twins looked! And their powers were so cool. There were some really great glimpses of aliens – I think, an alien on the escalator made of eyes or bubbles or something, for example. Kumail Nanjiani with the wisecracks, he got some awesome lines in. I kinda hope a lot of that was ad lib. It felt very off-the-cuff.
Josh: From the previews, I thought he was going to be more obnoxious, but that character was actually pretty endearing.
Arley: He was basically filling in elements that were absent because Will Smith isn’t in this movie. He does that same character/schtick in a lot of different movies, and it doesn’t always land, but it landed here and this movie desperately needed that punch up of humor.
Josh: There were a lot of fun little moments with the action, humor, and character development, but they just didn’t tie together very well. This felt like a weaker episode of a TV show. Like this week wasn’t too great but maybe next week will be good.
Arley: Like, stay tuned.
Josh: The agents haven’t been off-planet yet, so maybe the next one will be Men in Black: Intergalactic. I would watch that.
Directed by: F. Gary Gray
Written by: Matt Holloway & Art Marcum, based on characters by Lowell Cunningham
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rebecca Ferguson, Rafe Spall, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Kayvan Novak & Spencer Wilding
JOSH PEARCE, Assistant Editor, started working at Locus in 2016. He studied creative writing at SFSU and has sold short stories and poems to a variety of speculative fiction magazines. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he currently lives in the East Bay with his wife and son and spends way too much time on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
ARLEY SORG, Associate Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.
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