Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison.
In this special Threequel Weekquel Edition, I’ll be looking at the bizarre tendency of film franchises to feature time travel in the third installment, despite the original containing nothing of the sort. Is it a logical next step for each series, or just an attention-grabbing gimmick to draw audiences back in? Do the filmmakers even understand their own rules? And does introducing time travel help the franchise or hurt it?
Warning: As each film this week is part of a series, it’s going to get extra spoiler-y. You’ve been warned.
MEN IN BLACK 3 (2012)
PREVIOUSLY ON MEN IN BLACK: James Darrell Edwards III (Will Smith) is recruited by a secret government organization called the Men in Black that monitors alien activity on the planet Earth. Renamed Agent J and paired up with Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) to take down a giant extraterrestrial cockroach, he learns afterward that K was actually training him as a replacement. K retires, bad sequel, K comes back.
WHAT DOES TIME TRAVEL BRING TO THE TABLE? Since it’s a science fiction series, the concept of time manipulation is one that begged to be explored, especially in the shadow of intergalactic political– just kidding, Josh Brolin as K. Josh Brolin, Josh Brolin, a million times Josh Brolin.
There’s a cynical part of me that knows Tommy Lee Jones is getting up there in years and probably wouldn’t sell to a market that craves sexy young Sherlocks, Spocks, and Doctors. However, the completely charmed part of me just absolutely adores how much Brolin is K. And putting aside his performance, friggin’ aww… we get to see J saving his partner’s life in the ’60s and the journey makes him realize just how much he cares about the old bastard. It’s a damn nice arc, all thanks to time travel.
And now, an eye test.
You didn’t just see a screenshot of the Men in Black offices circa 1969. Nope, you ate a bad fish taco yesterday, had a weird dream where you were naked on the set of Mad Men that you couldn’t quite remember, then you went back to reading Cinema 52. In a couple days, you’re going to rent Men in Black 3, enjoy the amazing retro look of the ’60s MIB headquarters for yourself, then vote for Junior on our 2014 ballot.
DO THE FILMMAKERS EVEN UNDERSTAND TIME TRAVEL? Aww, now we come to the sucky part. I really liked this movie, except for the one thing that matters most to a time-geek like myself. If you’re going to crack open the space-time continuum, please… please care.
Take only pictures, leave only footprints, and don’t bang your mom.
The rules are all over the map before J even gets to break the time barrier, which involves throwing yourself at the ground and missing and is admittedly one of the freshest time travel sequences I’ve seen in a while. Apparently J is the only person who remembers K one morning, which, you know, makes even less sense than the already commonplace time traveler memory preservation in most movies. Now, because it’s a weird sci-fi comedy, they try to pull a Basil Exposition by deliberately never fully explaining everything, and what explanations we do get come from fat nerdy stoners, hippy dippy spiritualist types, or MIB staff who don’t have time to give you the full rundown because holy shit, aliens!
Alternately, holy shit, Adventure Time is on.
Fine. I can pretend to be okay with cutesy jokes like that. Tell me J remembers the old series of events because he’s going to time travel (???), or tell me that there’s a soft-spoken demigod alien (Michael Stuhlbarg) who can see all possible futures and that skill is somehow helpful (?????), or tell me that nobody will remember J once the timeline is restored (?????!??!fucking???). But dammit, you can’t violate the most basic time travel rules that you yourself established. In what should have been a major Fuck Yeah moment, J’s time-gizmo operates completely differently from how it did at the beginning, with no justification. It’s like if Marty’s climactic trip to 1985 in Back to the Future inexplicably got him stuck in a Groundhog Day loop in his own body.
Also, Biff is in the car. Also, there aren’t two cars now. Also, AAAUUUGH.
Again, this film is a lot of fun, but the sheer lack of shits allotted to time travel that makes sense, ie. time travel that adds tension or makes us care when characters do something smart, is enough to drop it down an entire letter grade. Or star. Or however you rank how much a movie doesn’t suck.
DOES TIME TRAVEL DESTROY THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE? The lack of time travel in the series up to this point is actually handled fairly well. J isn’t aware that such a technology exists, even though he’s a “Class 1 senior agent.” I assume this is either because it’s so dangerous that the MIB would rather act as though it were never discovered, or the writers have once again misunderstood mutable time travel and J is being protected from information on his own trip to 1969.
I really have to drop the temporal nerd rage, don’t I?
Z (Emma Thompson) explains that time travel was made illegal throughout the entire universe because of its devastating consequences, but they stupidly locked up the guy who invented the device next to Boris (Jemaine Clement), the Big Bad for this movie. So, if we look at time travel like a doomsday weapon, think of it as the MIB resorting to a nuke just this one time so they can stop a guy who has his own nuke and his army has the Earth surrounded.
Whoa, it’s the Divinations lady from that other time travel threequel.
Hey, it makes more sense than giving Hermione a nuke so she can double-stuff her class schedule.
It’s exponentially better than II and redeems the whole series, which is reason enough to watch it, because seriously, what the hell was II? The time travel is a catalyst for a ton of fun, but also a slew of headaches that no amount of chocolate milk can fix. Still, it’s a good adventure with lots of laughs for kids and adults, and the bromance between J and K is pretty refreshing amid all the dark dark action into darkness that movies are full of lately. Also, did I mention Josh Brolin?
Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.