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MIB International

I’ve already said my piece quite a few times about the Men in Black franchise. In summary, this was my generation’s Ghostbusters: A legitimately great movie powered by a miraculous once-in-a-generation confluence of factors that never could be replicated, but that hasn’t stopped the filmmakers from trying and repeatedly failing. (Though both franchises had kickass cartoon adaptations that probably did more to expand their respective worlds and fanbases than any of the movies.)

Mercifully, the PTB apparently realized that the lead trio of Sonnenfeld/Jones/Smith had been long since played out, though the basic premise remains perfectly viable. Thus F. Gary Gray (the white-hot director who made his name on Straight Outta Compton before Fast and Furious picked him up) was brought on to take the franchise in a new direction. Even better, our two leads would now be played by Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth, who previously showed such a great working rapport in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame. And hell, why not open up this intergalactic premise to a setting greater than New York City?

On paper, MIB International had everything this franchise needed for a fresh start. All it needed was a better script.

Tessa Thompson plays a young woman whose family had a run-in with extraterrestrials when she was a child, and MIB missed her when they came through with the neuralyzer. Thus she spent twenty years training for every government agency in the nation and even hacking into the goddamn Hubble telescope until she could finally locate MIB headquarters in New York City. Thus the newly inducted Agent M arrives just in time for a possible crisis in London.

Liam Neeson plays High T (ha ha ha), head of MIB’s London branch and mentor to Agent H (Chris Hemsworth). The two of them gained instant fame throughout MIB when they went to Paris some time ago and singlehandedly fought off an invasion from a malicious race of shapeshifters called The Hive. To make a VERY long story short, The Hive have apparently returned to Earth. It’s not immediately clear what they’re up to, but their arrival immediately results in collateral damage and at least one alien royal dead, so it can’t be good.

The twist here is that because our antagonists are a race of shapeshifters, there’s no telling whom if anyone is trustworthy. There’s even a distinct possibility that MIB has been compromised, especially given that High T and H have both been acting strangely since Paris, and there’s also a bureaucratic asshole (C, played by Rafe Spall) causing headaches for everyone. In fact, pretty much the only one guaranteed to be on the level is the woman who just arrived, thus M has a chance to prove herself worthy.

The cast also features Kumail Nanjiani mouthing off in a flimsy comic relief role as the last survivor of a species wiped out by The Hive. Rebecca Ferguson makes a welcome appearance as an alien arms dealer, though I honestly wish she had done a more thorough job of chewing scenery — that at least might have been something memorable. Emma Thompson sleepwalks her way to another paycheck while also technically serving as a bridge to the previous trilogy. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Laurent and Larry Nicolas Bourgeois, a pair of identical twin dancers here making their imposing film debut as foot soldiers for The Hive.

Liam Neeson and Rafe Spall are both in awkward positions, as their characters can only work if they’re presented as possible traitors. Thus the filmmakers go out of their way to keep the characters ambiguous, with the end result that we don’t really learn much of anything constant about them until the film is practically over and it doesn’t work.

This brings me to a huge problem with the film: It’s way too convoluted for its own good. What we’ve really got here is a straightforward MacGuffin hunt buried beneath so many story threads winding all over the world, and the filmmakers tie themselves into knots trying to justify it all. This isn’t helped by the filmmakers’ efforts to keep the underlying espionage threat working, by way of so many hamfisted red herrings and revelations that leave a net positive in plot holes. Though the premise does mean a few action sequences in which MIB are presented as untrustworthy adversaries, quite a fascinating conceit if you think about it.

But here’s the big problem: It seems like with every new entry in the franchise, the filmmakers keep getting further away from the themes that made the original so iconic.

In the original film, Jay was freaking out because he wasn’t quite so jaded to all the freaky shit that the MIB deal with on a daily basis. Jay saw some freaky alien pile of sentient ooze, while Kay saw a tourist cranky over a layover. Jay hadn’t reached the point yet where an alien race threatens to blow up the planet, reacting with a shrug and a “Sucks, doesn’t it?” Kay himself at one point says “There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet.”

That attitude is noticeably missing from this movie. I get that the filmmakers have to sell the stakes and the enormity of scale, but that’s what we have the newbie for. With MIB (as with Ghostbusters), the whole franchise is built on approaching the fantastic with a mundane sensibility. That deadpan contrast is where the best comedy, satire, and world-building in this franchise comes from.

At least, that’s how the first movie worked. The sequels, not so much. In later entries, the filmmakers try to impart a sense of wonder in all the aliens and technology on display, but without that conflicting reaction. But that conflicting reaction is the whole point, so it doesn’t work and the movies suck.

Even worse, all the filmmakers’ attempts at wonder land with a wet thud because the effects are simply not up to par. The first movie had Grandmaster Rick Baker conjuring a seamless blend of practical and visual effects, while everything in this movie is clearly and painfully CGI. Thus we have VFX that somehow look even less convincing than the effects from twenty fuckmothering years ago! This premise can never work unless we see the aliens as living breathing creatures, and this movie only shows us cartoon characters. Pathetic.

Getting back to my earlier point, the MIB are supposed to be jaded because they understand just how tiny humanity is in the grand scheme of things. Everything that made the original movie work — from Jay’s development arc to the central MacGuffin to the villain’s massive inferiority complex — stems from the basic notion that the universe is so much bigger than anyone can understand. Even in spite of all our accomplishments and discoveries and everything we think we know, we don’t really have the first clue about what’s going on.

That’s a profound theme for blockbuster cinema, especially in how the first movie explored it with such subtlety and wit. And every subsequent movie has gotten further and further removed from that. Sure, M starts out with the ambition to know everything about how the universe works, but it never amounts to anything more than quarter-assed lip service to the basic theme. It’s every bit as hollow and disappointing as the rest of the climax.

Oh, and what of our two leads? Well, Tessa Thompson is a solid leading lady and Chris Hemsworth is clearly having a lot of fun, and I’m sure the both of them would’ve had solid chemistry if they could both agree on what movie they’re in. I understand that this is supposed to be a kind of “buddy cop” dynamic, but when Thompson is going for sincerity while Hemsworth is playing an over-the-top jackass, it doesn’t really work. Also, when the newbie is the one taking everything seriously and the seasoned veteran is the goofball, that leaves our newbie spinning her wheels for want of decent help.

On a final miscellaneous note, I have a protip for any aspiring writers out there. While I’m limited by spoilers, I think I can say with confidence that if you have a MacGuffin capable of instantly and easily solving the main conflict and removing all obstacles in a single shot… well, first of all, don’t do that. But if you really must, be sure to keep it away from the leads for as long as possible. Seriously, that should be common sense.

MIB International was clearly a product of too many cooks in the kitchen, not a one of whom sufficiently understood what made the original movie great to begin with. The script makes a convoluted mess out of a simple plot, and the actors are left floundering for want of anything consistent or remarkable about their characters. The aliens don’t work because the CGI is flat terrible, the action doesn’t work because the sequences are just plain uninspired, the comedy doesn’t work because the deadpan bureaucratic sensibility is never present, and the espionage thriller element doesn’t work because it never goes anywhere interesting.

Granted, there’s nothing so badly damaged that it couldn’t be fixed in later sequels. But at this point, why bother? If these producers still can’t get it right after everything they’ve tried, maybe the time has come to hang it up.

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