It seems as though it’s a rule that every time travel movie must include a sequence where someone dies/is killed, only for them to rewind their fate and change it thanks to their foreknowledge. Galaxy Quest did it, rather effectively I might add, and Source Code was basically putting this trope on overdrive, despite it fitting more into the alternate universe theory of things. It’s essentially a way of building drama instead of placing the characters in situations where the audience feels confident they will escapes since there are still 15 minutes left of the movie to go. The best advice I can give for this development is to make it a significant part of the story, and not just a convenient drama rouser like it is in Men In Black 3.
There are a lot of time travel hijinks going on in MIB3, which delves into the past our favorite stony-browed, deadpan senior Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) after a past foe, Boris the Animal (No, not the spider), breaks out of his maximum security cell and comes gunning for him by assassinating him in the past, much to the dismay of his partner, he of the snappy comebacks and penchant for getting covered in alien slime, Agent J (Will Smith). In order to save his partner and also stop an alien invasion of the planet (Is there ever any other mission the MIB have?) J must travel back to 1969 and save K’s past self (Here played by Josh Brolin doing a dead-on impression of Jones’ trademark no-nonsense stare)
Given that the last movie of the franchise came out ten years ago, one would expect that this one would take some time to re-introduce it’s characters and allow them to ease us back into their winning banter they have perfected. Strangely enough though, MIB3 is surprisingly anxious to return to it’s form of alien-hunting, and creepy creature effects, so much so that it’s a little hard at first to keep up with everything. It assumes that the viewers are rather up to date when it comes to how the leads interact with each other, and spends most of it’s time building on K’s past history and how he got to be so emotionally detached.
This does contrast well with K when we meet him in 1969, who is still stern and deadpan, but does crack a smile at a joke and adds a warmth that was only hinted at during previous films. After putting aside his doubts once J has arrived into the past (In a sequence that is not only a fairly clever depiction of time travel, but some of the only good uses of 3D I have seen to date) K and J play off each other nicely, though slightly awkwardly given their circumstances.
One of the problems with the movie’s narrative is how often it underutilizes the details of it’s setting for it’s jokes. Apart from a couple bits early on which rather bluntly establish how people in that time viewed J’s ethnic group, the only real good influence comes from Bill Hader as Andy Warhol, who gets some great yuks in as he lambasts the surrealist movement and points them in the direction of a timid 5th dimensional being (Michael Stuhlberg, evoking both wonder and innocence with his Fremen-like eyes) who carries the traditional mcguffin that will save the Earth. Underused is also Emma Thompson as a fellow Agent from K’s past who acts as both a love interest and red herring for him.
During all of this, J does the fish-out-of-his-own-time thing rather blandly, perhaps because he’s on a rescue mission and doesn’t have time to stop and sightsee. Culture clashes mainly come in the form of the outdated and primitive devices the 1969 MIB carry (K’s neurolyzer has to be hooked up to a grounder that makes that ancient dial-up sound) When it comes time for the final set piece, the film descends into the rote defeat the bad guy before the time runs out plot, which finishes soundly but rather dully given the finale’s of the past. A kind of descending action afterward seems to tie things together, but the elements of it appear almost out of nowhere, and make it feel tacked on and superfluous.
Special consideration though should be given to the villain of the film, Boris, who is appropriately creepy enough (His entrance is probably his best moment) and menacing enough to threaten, (He talks with a dignified accent, Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords giving him an air of a cultured psychopath, but his design seems to limit the physicality the actor can give to the villain and make him truly memorable) but really doesn’t get to have the same fun scenes as Laura Flynn Boyle or Edward the Bug did in previous films. He does look hilariously at home among the flower children of the 1960s where he sports a ZZ top beard and bandana.
The whole movie is sort of like the decade it’s trying to ape, confused and at war with itself. MIB always been best when it’s placing both of it’s stars in ridiculous and hilarious out of this world danger, while finding time to slip as many jokes about aliens living on Earth as possible. That New York is not so subtly home to extraterrestrials disguised as Chinese waiters or underwear models (And, I might add, there are no “tabloids as truth” references this time around) has been one of the elements that have given the series such value as a franchise, but they fail to achieve the same result when it shifts to the past, and herein lies the weak link. Rather than being a compelling new chapter in the trilogy, it’s more likely to make you want to go back and revisit the first two, whose originality and humor remain timeless, rather than stuck in time.