I’m starting to pick up on what I believe to be the ‘Sony Pictures Formula’ for rebooting a property. It’s on full display here in MIB International, but you can see hints of it in the still-Sony adjacent Spider-Man Far From Home, and interviews with Paul Feig post-Ghostbusters Answer The Call reveal that it would have been used for the sequel to that film as well.
The formula goes something like this – start with a Columbia Pictures IP that is generally defined by its connection to New York City. Take the action out of New York City, and instead use international locales to ‘shake things up’. Hire charismatic leads and put the onus on them to carry the film, as opposed to hiring a strong writer. Strong writers butt heads with executives and charming actors do what they’re told. And finally, the most important part of the formula is to have brand partners so you can outsource the advertisement of the film to Lexus, or Papa Johns, or even to the consumer electronics division of Sony that has a healthier balance sheet than the film production division.
Taking the Men in Black franchise international isn’t a bad idea on its own. It’s not like the skies are only open over America, and aliens would quickly take note if only one part of the planet had an intergalactic defense force. But it’s done on such a surface level here because it was clearly only thought of over executive lunch hour cocktails in Century City, and not the brainchild of a writer who really wanted to dive deeper into the MIB mythos.
London MIB is different because… it’s in London! Aliens in Marrakesh are… still aliens! Gustave Eiffel founded the Men In Black because he built the Eiffel Tower to open up portals to other worlds? Hey, that’s actually a cool idea. Too bad it’s just used as exposition to set up ‘The Hive’, a really boring body snatchers species that serve as a more boring version of the cockroach aliens from the original.
Tessa Thompson discovers aliens are real as a kid, and narrowly avoided being neuralized like her parents after her close encounter. This inspires her to become a hacker so she can get access to top secret space data to track down an alien in order to stalk the MIB back to their HQ and sneak in. That could have been a third of the movie, but they really wanted to get out of New York, so it happens in about ten minutes of screen time. She becomes Agent M, and her probationary assignment is to hightail over to London to investigate the bad feeling Head Agent O (Emma Thompson, the only returning human character from the original films) has about the London branch of the agency.
At this point, there’s about four main characters in the movie. Agent M, Chris Helmsworth’s drunken and sloppy Agent H, the uptight and proper Agent C (Rafe Spall) and High T (Liam Neeson), the leader of the London branch of MIB. Did I mention this is a conspiracy story? Have fun guessing which of these two characters is behind it all! Especially when they leave some large breadcrumbs leading towards the correct answer.
The funniest character is a little chess piece alien played by Kumali Nanjiani, because of course Kumali Nanjiani is the funniest person in whatever he’s in. Thompson and Hemsworth are still funny to watch, but the film gives them little room to do it. And at a certain point, Hemsworth’s riffing gets old, especially when characters repeatedly try to tell him something and he just jokes over it. Taika Waititi knew when to pull him back in Thor: Ragnarok, but F. Gary Gray doesn’t do as well reigning him in. Newsflash Sony Pictures: Improv isn’t a substitute for clever writing. When the funniest joke in the movie is when Chris Hemsworth picks up a hammer during a fight scene, you’re in trouble.
The original MIB film, while firmly entrenched in the popularity of everything 90s at the present time, wasn’t very flashy. It was moody, atmospheric, and much more thoughtful than we remember, thanks in part to the more memorable one-liners that Will Smith bounced off a stone-faced Tommy Lee Jones. While the sequels got flashier and the stories sillier, they continued to keep the mood and atmosphere that are the major hallmarks of director Barry Sonnenfeld’s filmography. Apart from the black suits, the modernist headquarters, and the Danny Elfman score, MIB International delivers very little of what made the series unique.
Even the main pitch of making MIB an international organization is weakly utilized. “What if we went to London?” but only for one exterior scene on a high street before we go to Marrakesh for a stock marketplace chase, and then an exotic island, and then the Eiffel Tower in Paris. There’s nothing particularly British about the way the London branch of MIB operates, other than accents and a token “Mind the gap.” Was Sony concerned about making MIB too close to 007’s MI6? Who knows, but that’s another potential take better than a Viewmaster Reel tour of the world but with aliens. MIB International takes what could be an interesting thought experiment and converts it into what this was really about – a cheap appeal to the foreign box office. I’m honestly shocked they didn’t spend the final third of the film in China, that’s the usual way this is done.
One thing towards the end that really drove home the Sony Formula theory was the final setpiece of the Eiffel Tower portal. The set is visually very similar to the ending of Ghostbusters Answer the Call, and at first, I just chalked it up to them probably redressing the set and making use of what they already had built. Nothing new, that’s show business.
But then a character falls into the portal, for another to jump in with some kind of rope, and rescue them, in a beat-for-beat recreation of the same moment from Ghostbusters Answer The Call. Is this the new ‘giant sky hole full of monsters’ moment for the next decade of dull blockbusters? I sure hope not.
Ultimately, this is a pretty weak style imitation of Men in Black that brings nothing to the table to advance the universe. Thompson and Hemsworth can’t charm the film into being good, no matter how much I like them. From the looks of the box office returns, I don’t think we’ll be seeing any more of the galaxy defenders, and this installment will quickly be neutralized from my memory.
MIB World Tour doesn’t do anything interesting with a literal world of opportunities