Men in Black 3 (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
2Jun/120

Men in Black 3 (2012)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

There's this musical sting that I'm sure you've never heard that pops into my head whenever a twinge of wistful nostalgia emanates from a film I'm watching. That music is from Mark Mothersbaugh's score to the 2000 film version of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (yes, I know), coming specifically from a scene where Bullwinkle makes the innocent observation that every town in America has changed from the last thirty years to look exactly the same.

The strings pulsate softly in that moment, where both Rocky and Bullwinkle realize for perhaps the first time that their America is gone, perhaps never to return. And since it was a kid's movie, no one paid much attention to how the film framed nostalgia and hope together, carefully towing the line to say that things may be different, but a good young heart is all that's needed to renew one's faith in the world.

But that sting by Mothersbaugh-- that series of melancholy musical notes plays with so much magic and so much sadness, that it's stayed in my head for over a decade since first watching that film.

Now, by no means is Men in Black 3 in the same category of quality as Rocky and Bullwinkle, but it strangely touches on many of the same themes with maybe even more of an overtly downer of a twist: as a species, for all of our great achievements, we'll never be consistently great.

Josh Brolin IS Tommy Lee Jones.

Speaking of nostalgia, though, here we are, fifteen years after the first Men in Black film with the third in the franchise, an elaborate exercise in historical revisionism that carefully plays with American perceptions both past and present. Starting in modern day, we find secret agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) continuing their work as the thin black line between aliens and the unsuspecting human race.

It's a sterile existence for J, whose life has become rote and unchallenging. He's now as good an agent as K, but finds himself stuck in a rut and still treated without respect in the agency because of his carefree attitude, which he jokingly takes out on his partner's impassable distance. K's usual steely cold demeanor, however, is disrupted when a rather nasty alien called Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement) escapes from prison and threatens to unravel a unsavory secret from their past. Luckily he does K a favor by traveling back in time to 1969 and murdering him, setting J up for a necessary time jump of his own.

In the past J teams up with a young Agent K (Josh Brolin), who's strangely warmer and more hospitable to the time unstuck J. While both must come to terms with their familiar (to J at least) differences in style, they must also hurry to save the world from one of those horrible alien fleets that was ordered to take out New York City this summer-- who are at least in good company as they do so.

The film thankfully ditches a great deal of expected fish-out-of-water humor and instead plays with the ideas that things haven't changed a lot since 1969-- they've only gotten smaller and sleeker, though whether that is an improvement or not is left wholly in the heads of the audience.

Will Smith IS Tommy Lee Jones.

The late 1960's of Men in Black 3 is an interesting hodgepodge of self depreciating commentary, though most of what the audience sees is colorful, gaudy fashion and an unwavering sense of optimistic homogeneity. Even the cops who show up and pull over J for suspiciously driving a car that a colored man of the 1960's shouldn't be able to afford get an odd sort of comeuppance-- they're right. J stole the car.

That scene isn't condoning racism (presumably), but functions to further underline the tentative boundary between the nostalgia its perpetrating and the conservative ideals the film is espousing.

(For more evidence of the film's conservative tone, look at the film's villain's apparel. In the 60's, he rides a motorcycle dressed identically to Dennis Hopper in 1969's Easy Rider, a motif that underscores the film's disdainful view of hippies, druggies, artists (Andy Warhol's (Bill Hader) art is jokingly revealed to be a sham) and other non-conformists.)

The film does finally bridge the gap between this nostalgic/conservative stance to more of a liberating optimism in its final moments, but before that is loaded with a sense of 'might makes right' and doomed impertinence, though it can't help but to do that with a wink and a nod-- but more on that in a minute.

Tommy Lee Jones IS... phoning this one in.

A great majority of the film's climax involves a showdown at the Apollo 11 launch. What's notable here is that we get to see the entire world enthused by the anticipation of the launch, including, incredibly, the Men in Black agency. A group of people who handle intergalactic extraterrestrials on a daily basis are still steeling themselves for something that they haven't seen yet-- humanity taking its first tentative steps into that realm of exploration. It's meant to point out how much of a humbling moment this is for mankind as a species no matter how inglorious it may have been to some, and it works.

If anything in the film is glorified, this moment is almost seen as too sacred to let the goofiness of the proceedings endanger. However, the momentousness of this event is shadowed by one that the film builds up to: the calcification of Agent K's emotional state into that of a distant hardass. This is the moment that the film betrays its conservatism and offers a hand of understanding.

Spoilers follow here, skip below the next picture to save yourself.

Playing this moment as a simultaneous occurrence to the Apollo launch, we see the film connect Agents J and K in a new way. Most of the film is centered on J being hellbent on understanding why K has gone from jovial to the stoic asshole he's known for so long, and the movie reveals that it comes from K witnessing the death of J's father shortly after the Apollo launch and being forced to memory wipe an incredibly young J in order to console the child.

So in spite of the film's nominally conservative tone, it's not about how great things used to be, but how there were always problems and even humanity's greatest moments have their minor tragedies in the shadows. These moments reveal that there's pain in the past of the main characters that we didn't know about, and them healing this pain is what they need to both rediscover the joy in their lives and come to grips with their places in the world. It brings together these two generations of characters (and possibly audiences) into a bittersweet reconciliation.

(In fact, the film notably ends with the destruction of the International Space Station played as a punchline. To destroy a symbol of national unity is a fairly dark joke, but an important one to the thematic idea that no time, even the antiseptic present, are things ever going to be perfect.)

Andy Warhol IS the butt of a joke.

The film has its problems, mostly stemming from the fact that it never feels particularly necessary; while it works as a maturation of the previous entry in the series (I've only seen the first film, and considering some reactions, I'm in no hurry to catch the second), it by no means redefines or greatly expands it. Smith and Jones don't get much screen time together, and neither can modulate to the material well enough to make it work as well as it could; Smith is playing Smith, Jones is playing Jones.

But outside of that, the film has enough that works to make it a treat. The way the alien designs shift from the slick look of the present to the more goofy 'obviously a person in a mask wearing a parka' look of the 60's is a great homage to the way practical visual effects have progressed. The banter is amusing, and while Boris is certainly menacing, he mostly works for what he is: an inevitable tragedy waiting to happen.

The best parts of Men in Black 3 are those looking at the generational gap and redefining it as an open door to understanding. We can be young and optimistic, but that will pass. It's only through love and friendship that all of the troubles in the world can be overcome. Those bitter notes from Mark Mothersbaugh that I remember so well play over this understanding, and the world seems a better place.

Oh, and the movie is pretty funny, too. I should probably mention that. It helps.

Posted by Danny

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