“Men in Black International” neuralizes as usual, not a problematizer
“Men in Black International”
directed by F. Gary Gray
written by Art Marcum & Matt Holloway
based on the Malibu Comic by Lowell Cunningham
acted by Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois and Larry Bourgeois
rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for sci-fi action, some language and suggestive material
running time: 115 minutes
by Bill Stamets
“Men in Black International” is a workplace romance about attractive co-workers in cool black suits earning promotions. Everything else going on in the fourth “Men in Black” iteration fails a performance review. Most notable misappropriation of franchise resources: in the time of Trump, omitting topical allusions to alien immigration, the defining premise of this sci-fi comic action series from Columbia Pictures that’s based on a 1990 three-issue comic book series by Lowell Cunningham.
Agent M (Tessa Thompson) and Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) will prove their value to their employer while slowly falling a little bit in love. Their banter pits “logic” against “passion.” The one who read “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking at age six insists: “Physical attraction is nothing more than chemical reactions in your brain. Can’t trust them. They’re not real.” The other counters: “Isn’t the whole universe a chemical reaction? Pretty sure you can trust that. Feels pretty real.” Spoiler alert: there’s no kiss.
The twosome works for Agent High T (Liam Neeson), who works for Agent O (Emma Thompson). Men in Black (branded MiB) is “the best kept secret in the galaxy,” shares a secret-keeper in an earlier episode. This off-the-books bureau “licenses, monitors and polices alien activity on the planet earth.” Recruits are instructed: “You are no longer part of the system. You are above the system, over it, beyond it. We’re ‘them,’ we’re ‘they.’ We are the Men in Black.” Do not look for any deep state quips, though, in 2019 dialogue.
The original “Men in Black” in 1997 opens with a U.S. immigration border patrol pulling over a truckload of Mexicans– plus one alien in disguise who does not speak Spanish. Men in Black in a black sedan drive up. Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones)– a key character in three MiB films and now MIA– lets the human immigrants into the U.S., overriding border authorities. Then he blasts the non-terrestrial trespasser into goo.
A treat in those films– all directed by Barry Sonnenfeld– is the detailing of intergalactic travelers passing through MiB customs, New Yorkers mostly. Dossiers out celeb aliens among us: Newt Gingrich, Sylvester Stallone, Dennis Rodman, among others under MiB surveillance. This time we get blink-and-miss-it headshots of Elon Musk and Jussie Smollett, I think. In one film Michael Jackson plays himself as an alien applying for work at MiB through its alien affirmative action program.
The first three Men in Black films are scattershot-scripted by different screenwriters. Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (“Iron Man,” “Transformers: The Last Knight”) write “Men in Black International” without winning touches. The plot is like its precedents: a new agent helps save Earth amidst intergalactic alien-on-alien intrigue involving a planet-deleting super-weapon.
The titular internationalizing leads to off-putting lines like the film’s very first, delivered by a Londoner at the Eiffel Tower: “God do I hate Paris.” That city was the site of “the first alien migration.” Other locations are ill-served. Director F. Gary Gray is derivative in rote chases through Marrakech markets. The old-fashioned Orientalism on view is worse than passé.
Except for Agent M, key characters– earthly or alien– are not who he, she or it appear to be. Bogus hints attempt to augment a plot about a MiB mole colluding with enemy aliens acquiring armaments. A long-running schtick throughout the series is how resourcefully aliens disguise themselves to pass for humans.
Apropos of appearances, the signature suits worn by the men and women in black are stellar, thanks to design collaborators Penny Rose and Paul Smith. The same cannot be said for the fetishy display arrays of silly silvery ray guns.
Other series motifs are twins. This time it’s literally Les Twins, French brothers Laurent and Larry Bourgeois. Their agenda– incroyable!– is not what it appears, until one throwaway line in the last reel clarifies things. And once more characters repeat inane mantras: “Trust your gut” and “Always remember, the universe has a way of leading you to where you’re supposed to be a place at the moment you’re supposed to be there.”
Wrongheaded as it is to fault a film for not being what it is not, I can wish “Men in Black International” entertained the nerve to make light– or dark– of border security and travel bans in a fictional U.S. welcoming “intergalactic refugees, a zone for creatures without a planet.”
Despite a progressive-sounding premise, there’s xenophobic profiling too. “Protecting the earth from the scum of the universe” is the agency motto endorsed by all four films. The Blu-ray of the third MiB film includes a first-person shooter game as an extra: “How good are you at spotting an alien? Step into the practice range and take out all the alien scum. Hitting alien targets score points and earns medals– just make sure you don’t hit any fellow agents or friends.”
Men in Black is an uber-deep agency with no Congressional oversight that routinely erases memories of civilians who happen to witness its agents exiling, detaining or executing aliens. That erasing is done with a neuralyzer, a gift from “some friends out of town.” This alien tech lets MiB agents implant cover stories in our minds to fill in zapped gaps. Fake news bypassing the internet. The Statue of Liberty’s torch is a mega-sized neuralyzer. Before using their pen-sized models, agents don special dark glasses that keep their own memory intact. At retirement, HR erases agents’ memories of their entire MiB careers.
A recurring scorn for protectees furnishes an opportunity for cynical diversion. The world cannot not take the truth, argues an agent in the first scene of the first film: “Damn, what a gullible breed.”
Unlike their Earth-saving counterparts in the Avengers, Transformers and X-Men comics-based film franchises, the Men in Black are yet to be problematized for their modus operandi. Transparency is neuralyzed.
©2019 Bill Stamets