At this point, it should be crystal clear that originality is dead…or at best, kidnapped, abandoned at an undisclosed location, and left for dead. We have accepted that fate to a certain degree, because at least a decent swath of the IP-driven sequels and reboots that dominate multiplex screens and box-office charts understand what they are and know how to navigate success within their limited operational framework: use the same successful formula with elevated stakes and a few clever tweaks, tease what the next tweak will be, and then cash in. It sounds cynical because it is cynical, but within this new normal, there is a way to deliver sameness that’s still enjoyable.
Then there’s a movie like Men in Black: International, which is like an insult to the memory of originality. After all, the original 1997 Men in Black was an inventive outlier in the summer frame. Sure, it was based on a comic, but in cinematic terms, it was a quirky anomaly in the blockbuster sphere – it was skewed when most summer movies were straight arrows, it valued attitude over action, and its effects fused seamlessly with the oddity of its universe. Between then and now, there was a lackluster sequel and a sneaky-great third installment, but they both at least seemed to spring organically from the same well of invention. Men in Black: International is a lazy impersonation of the MIB ethos – in place of sly wit there are only hollow one-liners, and as a substitute for clever otherworldly plotting there is now an incomprehensible travelogue of uninspiring, loosely-connected CG-laden set pieces. As a sort-of sequel, the film seems either unwilling or expressly prohibited from tying itself too closely to the previous films and characters, and as a reboot this is a lifeless regurgitation of the first film’s premise headlined by a duo who should at least be able to glide through this mess with charisma to spare, but even charm is hard to come by in this movie.
The duo is Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, and I’d fully understand if your inclination upon seeing those two names is to ignore everything I write and go see the movie anyway. It would be an irresistible pairing even if we didn’t already have cinematic evidence that they play off one another perfectly; Thor: Ragnarok left no doubt in that regard. But if ever there was a glaring reminder that the material matters even in souped-up, IP-driven popcorn fare, the screenplay for Men in Black: International somehow obliterates the already-proven chemistry between these two wonderful actors. The degree to which they are rendered stilted and awkward from one scene to the next, both individually and together, is stupefying. Rather than being the film’s saving grace, they get sucked into the quagmire.
According to MIB: International’s logline, it’s about the hunt for a mole inside the MIB organization. That’s a gambit the movie seems to stumble upon almost by accident, after spinning its wheels on a series of witless vignettes that leave its stars stranded against green screen backdrops, interacting with CG creatures that serve at best tangential purpose to the eventual narrative. As for that narrative, this screenplay – by Matt Holloway and Art Marcum – is rife with clues for eventual twists that are glaringly obvious from the beginning, yet drawn into such a labyrinthine concoction of intergalactic nonsense that by the time we get to the Big Reveal, we knew what was coming and yet the film still has to explain everything.
A few years back, Sony gave the go-ahead on a potential MIB/21 Jump Street crossover film, and ideas were kicked around before the project eventually fell apart. That’s exactly the kind of beautifully ridiculous subversion of reboot culture that could work. Men in Black: International seems like the spare-parts plan-B pivot after the better idea fell through.