“Men in Black 3”: the Casual, Relaxed Viewer’s “Prometheus”

I realize this summer’s careful studio negotiations of their blockbuster release schedule intended MIB3 to be the opening act for Prometheus, but I defied their release-order mandate and saw them in reverse order, four days apart. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.

I was a little surprised at the superficial similarities. Behold the flimsy case for their separated-at-birth pedigree:

* Hurray for sci-fi guns, vehicles, aliens, and slime! All given, of course. Getting the easy points out of the way first.

* Directors with impeccable art decoration and set design. Barry Sonnenfeld doesn’t have nearly the resumé that Ridley Scott has, but his settings likewise have nary a drab space. Always a treat, even when the characters inhabiting them are less than captivating.

* Farewell to former series regulars. Setting aside the Alien vs. Predator apocrypha, Prometheus marks the first Alien invasion without Sigourney Weaver — no unbilled surprise cameo, not even an Easter-egg hint of a Grandpa Ripley (unless I missed it, though I’m sure the Internet would’ve trumpeted it by now). Meanwhile in MIB3, we rejoin our old friends Jay and Kay as they attend the funeral of their former commanding officer Zee. Rip Torn is present only as a single large photo, thankfully not a souvenir mugshot from the various legal scuffles cited on his WikiPedia page. Also MIA from MIB, sadly, is our old pal Frank the Pug, except in two wall-sized tributes impossible to overlook. That’s just not good enough.

* Don’t call it a prequel. The past prologue of MIB3 is simple, simplified time travel as Jay absconds to July 1969 to save Kay’s life from retroactive elimination, but the movie keeps the Mad Men and hippies in the back seat. Since we’re back in time anyway, the movie graciously offers insight into Kay’s early days on the job, the tools and methods of the golden age of ET management, and Kay’s very different, much more gregarious relationships with his coworkers. Much insight is provided as to what turned Kay into a gruff old coot, and even the returning but underused Emma Thompson has a ’60s counterpart who’ll be most fortunate if she grows up to be anything like her. It’s not a direct prequel per se, but it’s a strong argument for the superiority of contained flashbacks over feature-length prequels as a secret-origin device.

Prometheus, on the other hand, avoided using the P-word in its publicity as much as possible, though they didn’t exactly sue the media or fans who refused to judge it as anything but. It’s obviously a predecessor in the same Alien timeline, no doubt, but any hardcore fans insisting on the complete origin of Alien‘s mysterious dead Space Jockey despite Scott’s modest pre-release protestations should’ve seen their own expectations deflate in the first reel. Alien took place on a heavenly body designated LV-426. Prometheus takes place on LV-223. BAM. DONE. End of Internet arguments. At best, Prometheus is now Alien Episode One: the Menacing Phantom. Moviegoers will have to wait with bated breath and years of message-board debates until they reveal how the xenomorph forefathers migrated from LV-223 to LV-426 in Alien Episode Two: Clone of the Attacks and Alien Episode Three: the Last Dangerous Visions. (Look, I couldn’t think of my own catchy title, and no one else was using it.)

* Haggard old man played by younger famous actor. Guy Pearce in several pounds of artificial wrinkles versus Josh Brolin as Tommy Lee Jones. Different angles, different results, both with accents not their own.

* The nonchalant black guy is only the second-most magnetic character. Michael Fassbender’s complicated android stole the Prometheus show, but Idris Elba’s just-a-pilot provided the only other relief from a cast of sourpusses. MIB3 isn’t nearly as grim, but Will Smith’s natural charm takes a back seat in several scenes to the hyper-verbal Michael Stuhlbarg (whom I last noticed and enjoyed in the Coen brothers’ Oscar-nominated A Serious Man) as a fifth-dimensional tourist who views multiple timelines simultaneously and hopes to see Earth live into the correct one. (The worst part of living with such a talent must be perceiving all of Schrödinger’s cats at once, then watching helplessly while half of them die.) Stuhlbarg’s jittery nattering upends the film and then grounds it solidly with one ecstatic monologue about synchronous miracles, delivered in a fever pitch rivaling Jim Dale’s narrator from the Sonnenfeld-produced Pushing Daisies. And I’m a big fan of anything that reminds me of Pushing Daisies.

* A spaceship takeoff is a major plot point. And another victory for subwoofers nationwide.

* There will be sacrifice. In each film, at least one person dies so that others might live. That’s a little deeper than anything I recall the first two MIBs attempting. For its achievements in the areas of depth and narrative competence, I’d go so far as to say that MIB3 is the series’ best entry to date.

Then again, with a decade between this and the first two, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve forgotten more about those than I think. I remember Lara Flynn Boyle not doing much, the giant subway worm thing, the Unisphere, Vincent D’Onofrio as a demented farmer bug alien, and our old pal Frank the Pug. Alas, poor Frank. What are the odds we’ll see you again in MIB4? Better or worse than the odds of seeing you in Alien Episode 2?

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