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Men in Black 3 had a troubled production cycle. Filming shut down for several months. A rotating cast of screenwriters tried to fix a screenplay that was never quite finished. Will Smith started a minor war with Lower Manhattan, thanks to a trailer big enough to qualify as a sovereign state. All the bad press prepared you for a travesty: a mess like John Carter, or an overlong wreck like Waterworld, or an exercise in tonal incoherence like Jonah Hex. But for the most part, Men in Black 3 does not show any signs of being a runaway production. It’s bright. It’s colorful. Will Smith’s riffs have a decent hit-to-miss ratio. Josh Brolin is brilliant as a younger, less morose Tommy Lee Jones. The jokes about the 1960s aren’t new — Austin Powers got there over a decade ago. But Men in Black 3 was never an ambitious movie, unless you consider “Be better than Men in Black 2” a genuine ambition. This is a well-oiled studio concoction; whatever went wrong with the production has been sandpapered down by a million visual effects engineers.
At least, until the last fifteen minutes, which might be the most sustained stretch of nonsense ever to appear in a movie that cost more than $200 million. (Spoilers from here.)
Now, it’s almost unfair to pick on the film’s time travel logic. The only time travel plot line that makes sense is Robert A. Heinlein’s “All You Zombies,” and that story is nightmarish and twisted and does not feature audience-pleasing jokes about historical figures. You could critique the ending of Back to the Future — Matthew Belinkie at OverthinkingIt.com wrote a hilarious analysis of the sad fate of Marty McFly. But the BttF ending works on an emotional level. And even if it doesn’t, you’re talking about a movie where the mechanism for time travel is a sports car. The problem with Men in Black 3‘s ending is that it combines everything illogical about time travel into one insane sequence.
Let’s map this out. Throughout the movie, we’ve been told that Agent K wasn’t always an angry old sourpuss. He used to be a smirkier sourpuss, with a British love interest. That all changed at Cape Canaveral. So we’re prepared for something momentous and terrible to happen at Cape Canaveral — the site of the Apollo 11 lunar rocket launch.
In the past, Agent K arrives at the rocket launch with Agent J and Griffin, an omniscient character who can see all possible timelines at once. They are taken captive by the military and brought in front of an angry, nameless African-American Colonel.
He tells the gang, “I am not going to let you get to that rocket!” Griffin puts his hand on the colonel’s heart, and they are surrounded by magic blue plot energy. The colonel announces: “I am going to let you get to that rocket!” He doesn’t use his authority to delay the launch, presumably because he wants to watch a spectacular race-against-the-clock action sequence.
Cut to: A race-against-the-clock action sequence! Up on top of the rocket tower, the agents are attacked by the film’s two villains. Confusingly, the two villains are actually the same person, Boris the Animal, at different stages of his life. Let’s call them Young Boris and Old Boris.
K fights Young Boris, and there is a lot of jumping and hanging. Exciting stuff. Very clear. But J fights Old Boris. This is where things get confusing:
1. J runs towards Boris. Boris shoots his little hand daggers at J in a very specific pattern, causing what look like fatal blows.
2. J tackles Boris off of the launch tower. He activates his time-jumping watch, and the two men jump back in time exactly 20 seconds.
3. Boris does not appear to notice that he just time-traveled. He fires his little hand knives at J, in the exact same pattern as before. But J does remember the previous present that he just time traveled from (nosebleed!). So J dodges the hand daggers, and pushes Old Boris to his doom.
There is no part of this sequence that makes sense. Why don’t J’s wounds travel with him? Why doesn’t Boris remember time-traveling? Why aren’t there two different versions of J and Boris in the past that they time travel to? Why doesn’t Jay travel back in time 15 minutes and say, “Hey, Nameless Colonel! Why don’t you delay the launch? Rocket launches get delayed all the time, and this delay will save the planet.”?
The producers of Men in Black 3 paid some of the most talented screenwriters in Hollywood to come up with this complicated time-travel twist. I have helpfully graphed the time travel mechanics involved here:
After the action sequence ends, Young Agent K and the Nameless Colonel walk away from the rocket launch together, while Agent J watches from afar. Young Boris reappears and kills the Colonel, and then Young Agent K shoots Young Boris. Sad. But then this happens:
1. J turns around. He notices a truck parked out on the beach. A young boy emerges from the truck. He is the colonel’s son. He says, “Where is my daddy?” His father’s corpse, keep in mind, is about three feet away. Since there is no driver in the truck, we are left with the conclusion that this preadolescent child is blind, but he somehow drove the truck out to the beach.
2. The little kid shows Agent K his father’s watch…which is the same watch Agent J has been holding the whole movie. Twist! This is Young Agent J!
3. Agent K tells the little kid some nice, vague things about his father. Then he erases his memory. Then he tells him some more nice, vague things about his father.
4. They walk off into the sunset, leaving the boy’s father to decompose on the beach.
Now, in terms of time travel, this is somewhat less crazy than the Double-Reverse-Boris gambit. And as long as you don’t think about it for longer than two seconds, it’s even a little moving. Cute kid! Dead dad! Josh Brolin not being scary!
But in terms of the overall character arc established for Agent J and Agent K over the course of three movies, this is an out-of-nowhere non sequitur posing as the emotional centerpiece of the movie. It would be like revealing at the end of Lethal Weapon 4 that Riggs and Murtaugh went to the same high school, and Murtaugh was a senior when Riggs was a freshman, and one time Murtaugh went to freshman formal and said, “I’m getting too old for this s—.”
Movies don’t need to make sense. Blockbuster movies tend to make no sense on purpose. (Remember: The biggest movie of the summer so far involves space skeletons attacking Manhattan via black hole.) But Men in Black 3 doesn’t end with flimsy logic. It ends with anti-logic. It feels like the natural endpoint for contemporary blockbuster filmmaking. Only a group of very smart people working very hard could come up with something so silly.
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