In the distant future, when they speak of us here in the past, it’ll be surprising if they miss our cinematic obsession with time travel. Too many movies to count bear testament to our flight from the present, from sublime stuff like The Terminator, Donny Darko, and Peggy Sue Got Married to ridiculous fun outings like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the more recent Star Trek reboot. But it isn’t just cheesy nostalgia-mongering that motivates Men in Black III. The premise, sending Will Smith back to 1969 to rescue both the Earth and his crusty but benign partner (Tommy Lee Jones), is mostly a flimsy device to bring Josh Brolin in as new sidekick while preserving Jones’s gruff spirit. But what’s truly great here is that the screenwriters trumped the cheap trick by using it also as tantalizing comic meditation on cause and effect, fate, and — best of all — the importance of eating pie.
Brolin’s performance, which is something akin to De Niro playing Brando playing Don Corleone, flavors the film with daffy bravado. But MIBIII also has considerable beauty on its own, derived from director Barry Sonnenfeld’s upbeat zing as a scenarist. Everything, except maybe the initial confrontation with Chinatown monsters, seems lit from above, as if Manhattan were in Southern California. And the best light gets saved for the 1969 sequences, which include Andy Warhol’s Factory, the Miracle Mets, and the moon launch, all of which Sonnenfeld exploits beautifully.
And, yes, there are aliens. Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) plays super-creepy, arachnid-constructed Boris The Animal (“It’s just Boris,” he keeps yelling). The film also stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin, an alien who operates in five dimensions simultaneously. He’s cursed and blessed to see all possible scenario ends but prefers to hang out in New York City for the miracles, which he calls “something you didn’t expect to happen”: much like this movie, the third in a silly comic franchise, which ended up being brilliant.