05/25/2012 03:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

ReThink Review: Men in Black 3 - Agents J & K Are Back, But Y?

It's been 15 years since the first Men In Black film debuted in 1997, beginning Will Smith's march to becoming the biggest star on the planet. Men In Black 2 received a critical drubbing, but it was still a hit at the box office, albeit a smaller one than the first film. Usually, a criticproof popcorn franchise with one of Hollywood's biggest stars would keep pumping out installments until the well of good will (and cash) was dry or, less commonly, when all of the story's arcs are completed and there's nothing left to say.

So why, ten years after an underperforming sequel, is there a Men In Black 3? Are there burning questions about agents J (Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) that were left unresolved? Is there an arch-nemesis still on the loose, or a magic object that hasn't yet been found? Or have diehard fans simply been demanding another chapter in the lives of their favorite alien-zapping, suit-wearing agents? As far as I can tell, it's none of these, but with a budget estimated to be north of $215 million, you'd expect the makers of Men In Black 3 must have a pretty good reason for making a movie that few people seemed to be asking for.

Watch my ReThink Review of Men In Black 3 below (transcript following)

In the Men In Black films, MIB agents use a device called a neuralyzer to erase and replace the memories of civilians who have witnessed the extra-terrestrials who are secretly living among us. For me, the neuralyzer is the perfect metaphor for how I feel after watching a Men In Black movie -- I have vague recollections of a lot of activity going on, but if you asked me what the story was about or for any specifics, I'd struggle to remember anything. It's as if I had watched a busy but underwhelming film, but after it ended, an agent with a neuralyzer erased our memories and replaced them with the belief that we had a great time and that both the ticket price and the MIB films' strangely overinflated budgets were somehow worth every penny.

I think the cause of this neuralyzer effect is that the MIB films move at a breakneck pace. Whether it's the chases, action scenes, exposition filled with technical jargon and weird alien names, or jokes and sight gags that seem piled on top of each other, everything in MIB movies happens fast, which may explain why all three movies are relatively short, with MIB 2 clocking in at just 88 minutes. But with so much being thrown at you and no time to really take it in, each moment is quickly blasted from your memory until the film ends and the men in black have, once again, saved the world.

Men In Black 3, which comes fourteen years after the first film, is much the same, but with some belated character development to supposedly reinvigorate the franchise. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones reprise their roles as Agents J & K, with Emma Thompson now playing their boss, Agent O. In a perplexing and pointless bit of casting, a heavily made up Jemaine Clement from the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords plays the totally unfunny Boris the Animal, who lost his arm and his freedom to Agent K. Boris busts out of a high-security moon prison and time travels back to 1969 when he was arrested, killing the young Agent K (played by Josh Brolin) and creating an alternate present where aliens take over the earth. So J goes back to 1969, where he, the young K, and an alien named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg) who can see parallel realities must prevent both past and present-day Borises from stopping young K's attempts to create an earth-sized force field that will eventually repel the alien invasion in the alternate present.

That's all pretty confusing, but since this is a Men In Black movie, you're technically not supposed to care. Though apparently the producers of MIB 3 cared enough to hire an all-star team of screenwriters to work on the script, which wasn't even finished when the movie started shooting and required major revisions throughout. And with an estimated budget north of $215 million dollars, you'd expect a pretty epic extravaganza, but like the other huge-budget MIB films, it feels like very little of that money made it to the screen, especially when you consider that The Avengers cost roughly the same as MIB 3 but is exponentially more impressive.

Smith's wiseguy shtick and cartoonish movement along with Jones' stony, unemotive curtness haven't changed since the first film, though Brolin does an entertaining Jones impression. But how K became so tight-lipped and who J's father is don't seem like questions that people needed answers to, and it feels strange to start exploring them now.

That's because despite its PG-13 rating and some unnecessary swearing, Men In Black 3, like the other MIB movies, seems mostly aimed at young kids, who are probably more interested in weird-looking aliens, gross-out humor, over-the-top action, and Smith's mugging antics than character backstory. MIB 3 faithfully delivers what fans want, but not in any way that feels fresh or inspired. As usual, the only real flashes of cleverness are the mentions of technology and celebrities that are actually of alien origin to show the hidden but profound contributions aliens have made to our society. But like everything else in this largely forgettable franchise, they're gone in a flash.

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