Recently there was a smart discussion on Twitter by Blindspotting producer Keith Calder, in which he talks about the term “audience fatigue” and how that’s mean to shift blame from studios (for making bad movies) on to audiences (for not turning up). If there’s one franchise on Earth that an audience could not possibly be fatigued of yet, it’s Men in Black, whose sequels are about as rare as total solar eclipses. Unlike total solar eclipses, it typically was alright to stare fully at them, without the help of any accessories (well, at least until MIB3, where the series finally jumped on the 3D bandwagon), but for the first time you might actually scar your retinas watching the latest installment and soft reboot, F. Gary Gray’s Men in Black: International. It’s a temporary effect, thank god, meaning that you will regain your sight after a certain period, but you’ll have no memory of the events of the film. Or maybe you’ve just been neuralized. Who knows? But the truth of the matter is that this movie is an utter waste of its talent — you get Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson together again and this is the result? — and a good chunk of Sony’s resources, and will probably succeed in causing that dreaded “audience fatigue” that Calder talked about.
Years ago (probably right around the time of the first MIB, actually), a young girl named Molly witnesses her parents being interviewed by two black-suited men outside their home about some weird thing that she doesn’t understand. She soon comes to get what they’re talking about, though, as a little alien creature reveals itself to be hiding in her stuffed animals. She helps it escape, and the experience sticks in her head. Now, let’s pause here: do you think that she’d be interested in finding out about alien life or potentially rescuing them from the organization that, you know, wiped her parents’ memories after they saw a cute alien? Nope! This is, I guess, what happens after E.T. leaves Elliott: Kid becomes a cop. For the next 20 years, Molly (Thompson) attempts to track down the MIB while acing the exams at the FBI and the CIA, before resorting to call center work in order to finance her search. And, fair enough, she does manage to track them down, and she infiltrates her headquarters, where she quickly impresses O (Emma Thompson, acting as the white gatekeeper of power here much like she does in Late Night, which also hits screens this weekend) and gets accepted into the service.
O soon transfers her over to London Branch, which apparently needs to be “cleaned up” in some way. Her boss, High T (Liam Neeson), is definitely not suspicious in any way, shape or form and doesn’t need to be worried about at all. For reasons that are never quite clear to us (aside from her potential attraction to him), Molly, now dubbed “M,” volunteers herself for field work with Agent H (Hemsworth), a rakish goofball who is basically the Captain Kirk of the Men in Black. He’s a three “Fs” kind of dude: He likes to fight, he loves his friends, and he loves to fuck, even it it means truly going where no man has gone before. He’s also a bit of a slacker who falls asleep at his desk, but his skill and talent is undeniable, and after all, he did save the world from the Hive, a nefarious alien race, a few years ago. The two are tasked to placate a drunken alien ambassador at a nightclub (that scene goes on forever and ever, as well), and, of course, the operation goes tits-up when the ambassador is assassinated outside of the club by two shape-shifters (French dance duo Les Twins) who can also control matter itself. It’ll be a race against the clock for H and M (oh god, I just got that) to stop the nefarious aliens from ending the world.
As you might have surmised, Thompson, who is a great comedic actress, is really given the short end of the stick here, as there’s little else to M beyond her hyper-competency in the field. She’s the kind of person who honestly and earnestly claims that they just “care too much” in a job interview, and, as such, her nascent arc — supposedly that she’s a “probationary” agent, even though it seems that she still has the same rights and restrictions as any other MIB member — feels perfunctory at best. Contrast this with Valkyrie’s arc in Thor: Ragnarok, where she goes from mercenary to eventual Asgardian hero, and you’ll find that it’s a decent explanation for why the normally fascinating Thompson is so lifeless here. There’s no character there, even though there’s a nugget of a good idea baked into the whole thing. It might have been interesting to watch a MIB fangirl get disillusioned by her experience as an alien immigration officer while being paired with a rakish loser, but the film is afraid to press any further than that, because it might alienate a potential section of the audience. Hemsworth fares somewhat better, given the meatier role by virtue of focus-grouping, and he’s got a few solid jokes as well as an easy-to-see but decent twist near the end of the film. Even then, it’s really hard to see a lot of his trademark charm in H: This is more Ghostbusters than Thor, even when a Star Trek (2009) level would have sufficed. That’s not that much more to ask, even!
Honestly, “lifeless” should really be the operative word here. In the original Men in Black, there was a tactical grossness to the world of the film. Aliens were, in fact, filled with goo, which covered our leads frequently, and the CGI take-over hadn’t totally happened yet, so there were a number of truly brilliant practical effects that were smartly paired with early CGI (I’m thinking of scenes like the one where J and the gang perform an “alien autopsy,” specifically). In International, the CGI work isn’t terrible, but it’s the kind of film where you can see the tennis balls in every scene, in the same way that made Ian McKellen cry when he did the Hobbit films in total isolation, with his cast-mates to be substituted in later through digital trickery.
A particularly bad effect is “Pawny,” a Kumail Nanjiani-voiced little warrior soldier who is designed to be this film’s cuddly sidekick. He’s often more annoying than not (though Nanjiani really does his best with what he’s given), but he’s weirdly ugly, despite being engineered to sell shit to the widest possible audience. But he often disappears from scene-to-scene, because animators either forgot to include him, or Gray forgot to shoot a pick-up where Thompson puts him in her pocket. There’ll be cutaways to him in scenes that you don’t even realize that he’s in, and it’s weird and disorienting. Yet Pawny’s irritating nature is mainly due to the film’s Apatowian approach to humor, in which riffing substitutes for solid, written jokes, and the entire film feels like it could be at least twenty minutes shorter if scenes didn’t awkwardly extend themselves in Gray’s desperate search for a punchline. The man directed Friday, after all: Why is it so try-hard here?
All of this is just so baffling, because you can see the decent film buried beneath all of the bland in Men in Black: International. It’s not like Gray and his writers don’t have some good ideas: There’s some fun business involving the Eiffel Tower and its Ellis Island-like history in the world of MIB, and there’s even some cleverness in one of the action sequences early on, in which H and M tear apart H’s car with each section containing its own cache of weapons (a hubcab is a drum magazine for a rifle that’s a headlight, etc.). But it’s just so long and devoid of personality that it becomes a chore to sit through, only delighting in its occasional callbacks to its much better predecessors — and yes, the plural is intentional, as both sequels are miles ahead of this one — that it just reminds you what you’re missing out on: wit, heart, thrills. You know, all the things that made this weird, slow-evolving franchise a beloved institution. But as it stands, you’ll forget Men in Black: International ever existed at all, only mere minutes after you’ve left the theater and you see the poster for some other franchise film. The conspiracy nuts out there may think that this might be by design, so that the entire series might be one day be left in the dust: After all, they’re still out there. Aren’t they?