The earth is about to be destroyed! And the devastation will be funny and entertaining to watch, at least by Hollywood standards.
In this winner-take-all battle, we’re pitting two satirical world-on-the-brink-of-destruction films against each other. The new release is Men in Black 3 (or Men in Black III, depending on whether you believe the official Sony Pictures site or IMDB), the latest offering in the popular string of sci-fi comedies. This installment features the franchise’s first time-travel plot, with our protagonist vaulting backwards by several decades in order to save his partner from being murdered and, consequently (of course) earth from being destroyed. Mars Attacks! also harkens to the past. It’s a wild, Tim Burton spoof of cheesy 1950s alien invasion movies, featuring a giant cast trying nearly in vain to defend our planet from interstellar bad guys.
This is a big one – the fate of our planet is in jeopardy, at least for the duration of this review. And even if both sets of Earthlings emerge victorious, only one can win this Smackdown.
The Lunar Max prison on the moon isn’t strong enough to hold master alien criminal Boris the Animal (Flight of the Conchords’ Jermaine Clement); he breaks free, and his first stop is our lovely blue planet. Mission One is to exterminate Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), the permanently taciturn and tight-lipped MIB operative who incarcerated him and, in the process, dismembered one of his arms. Boris figures out that the best way to kill K and regain his limb is to travel back to the summer of 1969 – the point in time when K caused the injury and the arrest.
Another bonus, as far as Boris is concerned, is that following the original incident, K activated an invisible shield around the earth, protecting it from a potential invasion from Boris’ comrades. So taking care of K would also negate the shield, making the planet vulnerable to an other-worldly takeover.
Our hero, Agent J (Will Smith, in full wiseass mode), gets wind that something’s amiss when he awakes one morning to discover that K has simply vanished – not only from his job, but from the memories of everyone who knows him. J soon puts the pieces together and ties this is to Boris’ return. So the only solution for J is to hop back to those fateful days of 1969 and take care of Boris before he can take care of K. J has no time to adjust to late 1960s society, as the clock starts ticking fast toward the demise of his partner-in-the-future (played as a young man by Josh Brolin). In the course of saving K’s younger version, J might even discover a deep secret tightly held by his partner.
We commonly see big-budget movies sourced from novels, comic books and even board games, so why not one based on a set of trading cards? That’s Mars Attacks!, a wacked-out sendup of 1950s alien apocalypse movies using the little green men from a 1962 deck of novelty cards. Those ETs, nasty little beasts with oversized brains and bulging eyes, arrive as per B-movie tradition in a fleet of flying saucers. The president (Jack Nicholson) excitedly proclaims the news to the nation, and he and several aides set up a meeting with the visitors.
That’s a bad idea. Thanks to a defective translation device, the aliens seemingly announce that they’ve come in peace. This is proven very wrong when the big brains start to kill everyone and everything in sight. The dopey president is convinced that this is the result of a misunderstanding, and continues to hope for an accord with the invaders.
Wrong again! When their ambassador is invited to speak to Congress, the Brains use the opportunity to exterminate everyone in that governing body. Egged on by this rousing success, the aliens launch a full-scale invasion and nearly manage to take out the president. It seems that nothing can save humanity… until an obscure Kansas teenager discovers an unusual but very effective weapon. It’s possible the earth won’t be laid to waste after all.
MIB 3 isn’t the best movie in the now-creaky franchise; that would be the original. Initially, the series’ brand of deadpan humor and sarcasm (thanks largely to the presence of Smith) blended well with the strong, simple premise of a secret agency policing the aliens that currently and potentially live among us. MIBs 1 and 2 were fresh, funny, and delivered plenty of entertainment. It’s hard to stretch that tone across more than two movies, which is possibly why the creators of 3 turn in a new direction or two with the time-travel element and the note of tragedy that creeps in toward the end of the film. It’s good they’re thinking differently, but these facets drain away some of the humor and much of the odd couple J-K banter that made the first two films so enjoyable to watch. As a result, this Men in Black feels more draggy than its predecessors. That really shouldn’t be the case with a film that features a one-armed alien and a time-traveling secret agent.
At least it doesn’t induce headaches like its opponent. Mars Attacks! is loud and manic, so much so that watching it produces the strong impulse to pop a few sedatives. It’s one of those movies that cranks up the soundtrack, blows stuff up, and has characters yell at each other a lot in a lunging attempt at entertainment. It’s not particularly funny or enjoyable to watch, just exhausting. And unlike any MIB, the central conceit of the movie is weak. A spoof of 1950s B-movie sci-fi doesn’t have much potential, considering that many genre offerings from the period verge on self-parody to begin with.
MIB also triumphs over Mars Attacks! where it shouldn’t – in style and tone. Even though its approach is getting past its sell-by date, the world it presents and the way it presents it remains unique. Tim Burton, so renowned for his oddball aesthetic, does little with his big-headed aliens, except to transfer them as faithfully as possible from their trading card roots. So that renowned Burton flourish goes missing, and since the director’s strength isn’t storytelling (cf., the disastrous Planet of the Apes remake, the pointless Dark Shadows remake, the tedious Alice in Wonderland remake, etc.), there isn’t much to fall back on. Men in Black 3’s approach might be worn and draggy by now, but at least it’s got a meatier story to unspool.
Men in Black is a franchise that has seen better days. The new entry in the series doesn’t match the sprightliness of its forbears. However, it’s still got traces of what made 1 and 2 good, so the end result is a “could do better, but not bad.” That’s enough to survive this Smackdown, as Mars Attacks! is a jumbled, unfunny mess that should have been left in the world of trading cards, where it at least had some potential. So, it may not match the dependability of its always-triumphant secret agents, but Men in Black 3 is the winner of this match.