Hemsworth and Thompson are a good double act but not enough to save this sci fi comedy reboot.
Image: Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in Men in Black International. Credit: Sony.
Science fiction comedies are extremely tough to get right: 1997’s Men in Black made it look easy. In part that was thanks to the chemistry between stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, so it’s no surprise that this latest instalment – which largely functions as a reboot, with no real prior knowledge necessary – is built around the successful pairing of Tessa Thompson (Sorry to Bother You) and Chris Hemsworth (as previously seen in Thor: Ragnarok). But the first MiB’s success was also due to a smart sense of humour, and under the hand of director and sequel specialist F Gary Gray (The Fate of the Furious) that’s nowhere to be seen here.
Twenty years ago, a young girl named Molly saw her parents get brain-wiped by a couple of black-suited agents hunting down an alien. Today the all-grown-up Molly (Thompson) works a dead-end job and hunts for aliens on the side, trying to find a way into the secret agency she’s convinced has to exist out there somewhere. It’s no spoiler to reveal that she’s right, and she’s rapidly inducted into the Men in Black by their New York boss (Emma Thompson, returning from MiB 3). Her first mission as Agent M? Serve out her probationary period at the London office, where… nothing particularly exciting is happening.
Often a slow start is simply a film putting the pieces in place before the action begins. Here this somehow manages to slow down even further; while the very first scene in the film sees UK MiB chief High T (Liam Neeson) and roguish agent H (Hemsworth) fighting off an alien invasion at the Eiffel Tower, once M arrives in London the story grinds to a halt re-establishing H’s character (boozy, fun-loving, getting by on charm around the office) before a visiting alien arrives to party down and the story finally lurches into second gear.
The central idea of the Men in Black is the comedy concept of an Earth overrun with wacky aliens. Bizarrely, this film has next to no interest in that; instead, our duo is soon off to Africa in a plot that grinds through an endless series of globe-trotting scenes that, despite some halfway decent special effects, consistently fail to make any kind of impression. Dull aliens and generic dialogue are a big part of the problem here, while much of the (very limited) humor is left to a small alien sidekick named Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani). At one stage he actually says “now that’s what I’m talking about!”, which may be a punchline on an alien planet but sure isn’t one here.
At least Hemsworth is fun as a somewhat less driven version of James Bond, and Tessa Thompson’s eagerness bounces off him well. They’re a double act that works and it’d be great to see more of them working together… hopefully in a film that gives them something to do beyond a series of scenes whose only point is to lead to the next one. There’s the occasional hint of an emotional arc for both of them – T being a surrogate father for him, abandoning human connections for the cold scientific wonders of the universe for her – but the film clearly doesn’t really care about either so there’s no reason why you should.
The idea of ending a franchise with fuel still left in the tank is anathema to Hollywood; the only way to know for sure if a series is over is to push it well past the point of no return. With this film, Men in Black has reached that point. It may have its moments; it may even have an overall basic competence that keeps it watchable even as individual elements fail to fire. But there’s no reason to ever make another film in this series. There was barely a reason to make this one.
2.5 stars ★★☆
Men in Black: International
Director: F Gary Gray
USA, 2019, 1hr 54min
Release date: 13 June 2019