The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Men in Black III

Written by Martin Zeller-Jacques.

Photo from the article Summer has arrived, and as usual it has been heralded by its traditional trappings: torrential rain, Wimbledon, and complaints that that the cinema is full of nothing but sequels, remakes and franchise movies. Starting with the franchise-uniting uber-sequel Avengers: Assemble, the summer of 2012 has also so far seen Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) prequel, Prometheus, and promises the continuation of Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga, The Dark Knight Rises, reboots of the Spiderman and Bourne series, and a remake of the high-concept sci-fi thriller Total Recall still to come. For those of us who are counting, has declared this ‘the seventh consecutive Year of the Sequel’. The industrial logic underlying the reign of the sequel is well-established. Sequels (along with adaptations, remakes, reboots, et al.) provide a proven commodity and a built-in fan base, both of which steady the uncertain ship of big-budget movie production and settle the nerves of studio execs.

The complaints come when movies like these seem to crowd out other types of filmmaking. Producer Martin Katz (Hotel Rwanda [2004]) offers a typical summation of the problem in an interview with CBC News, opining that, ‘It’s more difficult than ever to break through, and certainly in the summertime. The room for movies that are described as dramas has collapsed almost entirely.’ This seems a slightly odd complaint coming from the man behind this year’s independent drama Cosmopolis, a film which was trailed almost as heavily as the big studio releases of the summer. Like many accounts of the relationship between independent filmmaking and Hollywood, this one is predicated upon a calculated naïveté that deliberately ignores the close connections between the two sectors. John Berra has called such perspectives ‘oppositional fantasies’, and argues that they help to create cultural value around ‘independent’ film - even when it is financed by ‘independent’ divisions of major studios - by positioning it as something other than ‘Hollywood’.

The notion that the predominance of sequels, reboots and remakes is something imposed upon the public by heartless marketing executives comes from a similar school of oppositional fantasy. It ignores the fact that audiences are not only content, but eager to line up for big-screen imaginings (and re-imaginings) of their favourite stories. In all their crass, commercial exploitativeness, the major studios have acknowledged something in their audience which the independent provocateurs have not: nostalgia.

Nostalgia has been at the heart of the Summer Blockbuster season for as long as the category has existed. Spielberg and Lucas, the two men who are credited with (or blamed for) starting the trend with Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), were pegged as incurable nostalgics by Pauline Kael almost as soon as they started: ‘The whole collapsing industry is being inspired by old Saturday-afternoon serials,’ she wrote. ‘If Lucas… weren’t hooked on the crap of his childhood - if he brought his resources to bear on some projects with human beings in them - there’s no imagining the result. (There might be miracles.)’

For those of us who grew up considering Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) among the greatest miracles wrought by god or man, however, nostalgia is simply an inextricable part of the movie-going experience. Introduced young to films which worked on our excitable, sugar-laced nervous systems like roller-coasters of the imagination, a part of us still retains that desire to be thrilled in the presence of the familiar, and amazed in the ways we know we love, over and over again. We may grow more sophisticated and our tastes may develop, but part of us retains the love of exciting juvenilia, and this is what the ever-increasing trend towards sequelization, reboots and remakes serves.

The role of nostalgia is at its most apparent in those films whose franchises appear to be moribund and yet still have the power to draw audiences to the cinema. There have been the remakes of vintage television phenomena (Charlie’s Angels (2000), Starsky and Hutch [2004], 21 Jump Street [2012], Dark Shadows [2012]), the antiquated kids’ cartoons given an unexpected big-screen outing (The Flintstones [1994], Scooby-Doo [2002], Yogi Bear [2010], Top Cat [2012]), and the franchises whose returns had diminished into nothingness but still somehow merited a revival (Batman [1989], Spiderman [2002], The Karate Kid [2010]). At times it is hard to shake a sense that such movies are about monetizing a dormant license rather than responding to any deeply felt need on the part of an audience. The exceptions largely come from the third group, the franchises which started strong but crumbled under their own increasing absurdity.

For such franchises, there is a real desire on the part of audiences who loved them to see justice done by these stories - a wistful fantasy about what the story would look like if it could be done ‘right’. On the occasions when it is, as it was with Batman Begins (2005) or the recent Karate Kid, there is a kind of generational pleasure associated with seeing the things we loved as children remade, especially when they are crafted with the same care and attention with which we viewed them. It is as if, instead of fading into self-parody and obscurity, these stories have managed to grow up with us. If we are very lucky, we may even have the pleasure of sharing these new interpretations with our own children, and introducing them into a shared world of narrative delights.

If my valorization of these films sounds excessive, it is only as a result of my desire to counter the usual assumption that reboots/remakes/sequels can only be merely crass attempts to cash in on the enthusiasms of gullible mouth-breathers who haven’t outgrown their own adolescence. Of course these films are commercial, but they also answer a genuine affection and desire on the part of audiences, and it is just as cynical to ignore this fact as it is to exploit it.

And that brings us to the critical reception which greeted Men in Black III, which has ranged from the excoriating to the dismissive, but which has almost uniformly viewed the film as some kind of cynical exercise in audience manipulation. The Guardian, for example, attributed the very existence of the film to ‘legal files and financial spreadsheets’. Meanwhile, The Village Voice was more overtly cynical, asserting that ‘The modern science of the franchise depends, though, on the public having a short memory, waiting for the moment when '02's "I paid $7 for that?" fades to indifference and then receptivity.’ Mark Kermode’s review on Radio 5 Live was the most thoroughly industrial reading of the film, making several references to its ‘contractual background’ before working up to a more complete and damning criticism: ‘It feels completely corporate. It doesn’t feel like it’s got any personality at all. It just feels like a mechanical machine of a movie… It feels like a franchise being dragged out and dusted off and waved around for financial benefit.’

Most of these reviews, even those which acknowledge some of the film’s charms, either ignore or refuse to see the nostalgic rewards of the film, and it often feels as if they do so precisely because they are predisposed to view Men in Black III as a commercial exercise rather than a creative endeavour in its own right. Of course, it is a commercial exercise, but it is not that alone, and to watch it and wilfully disengage from its nostalgic play is necessarily to preclude almost any chance of appreciation, because nostalgia is at the very heart of Men in Black III.

The time-travelling premise of the film, in which Will Smith’s Agent J travels back to the late Sixties in order to save his partner’s life from a vengeful nemesis, is the central trope through which the film enacts its engagement with the past. It allows room for the pleasurable revisiting of the tropes of the first film, but condenses these into a brief first act. We get the ‘greatest hits’ which we would expect, but they’re delivered quickly enough to tickle us with recognition, and they are gone before they pall.

Smith’s patter when wiping the memories of witnesses, for example, is kept brief, and is jokier than in previous instalments. As a giant, alien fish is carted away by an MIB clean-up crew, he explains to the assembled crowd: ‘Okay. You know how your kids won the goldfish in that little baggy at the school fair, and you didn't want that nasty thing in your house so you flushed it down the toilet? Well, this's what happened.’ His banter with K, too, works as a kind of shorthand which reminds us of the chemistry between the pair without belabouring it. In the preamble to a gunfight in a Chinese restaurant, J is all jittery apprehension and quick-fire patter while K exudes quiet, observant calm, just as in previous instalments. But when the fight erupts, they cover each other with a skill that bespeaks the trust earned throughout their fifteen year partnership.

These grace notes play to our nostalgia for the original film, but nostalgia also works at a deeper level in Men in Black III, one related to the wider cultural trend which has seen costume dramas like Mad Men and Downton Abbey carrying the day on the small screen at the same time that remakes and reboots are dominating the box-office. By placing its characters back in time, Men in Black III not only examines its own past, but casts an amused postmodern eye over 1960s culture. While it doesn’t bring any great satirical weight to the task (despite signposting issues of race, the film is stunningly naïve on the subject), it doesn’t necessarily have to, substituting instead wry amusement and nostalgic sight gags.

One of the strongest streams of humour in the film comes from the paraphernalia of vintage science fiction, in all of its clunky majesty. Once J jumps back in time, even the aliens seem to have made the jump with him, their design changing from the digitally animated monsters of the future to the face-paint and lame fabric of original Star Trek series. There are a number of other subtle design touches which are good for a titter: the presence of a secretarial pool, complete with miniskirts and kewpie-doll hairdos, in the MIB headquarters, for example. However, in the tradition of the first film’s ‘noisy cricket’ (J’s tiny, but overpowered pistol), the gadgets provide some of the best gags. From the oversized jetpacks to the alarmingly unstable monocycles, the retro-futuristic technology is almost never narratively important, but provides a neat excuse for a comic send-up of 60s sci-fi conventions which is pleasurable enough on its own.

Beyond these surface elements, however, Men in Black III’s nostalgic streak runs to the heart of the respect and affection that makes audiences overcome their reservations and turn out to see the latest reboots of their favourite film franchises. In its final act the relationship between K and J is revealed to have its basis in K having blamed himself for the death of J’s father, a narrative twist which adds something like the weight of tragedy to K’s self-effacing relationship with his younger partner. This revelation rewrites the emotional structure of the franchise, but it does so in a way which respects the central relationship between the two protagonists. Like any good reboot or reimagining, it allows its story to grow up with its audience, and amidst all of the throw-away gags and light comic touches, reveals something emotive and affecting. Whatever the film’s technical flaws or plot holes, it respects the relationship its audience had with the original, and by that token deserves consideration as more than just a commercial con.

This Alternate Take was published on June 22, 2012.

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