Men In Black 3

Men in Black 3 is actually pretty good. Considering the budget, the production problems, and the decade-long lapse between this movie and its immediately preceding – and memorably disappointing – prequel, some might call its quality miraculous. I wouldn’t. I put a different price tag on my miracles, but it is amazing this movie isn’t much, much worse than it is. Men in Black 3 is a lot of fun.

This is a time travel movie. As usual, there is a terrible alien desperate to destroy Earth, and Agents K and J are tasked with stopping it. Only this time the alien has decided that the key to its schemes is to go back in time to kill K before K can set in motion the chain of events that stops the alien 40 years ago, so J has to go back to stop the alien from stopping K from stopping the alien 40 years ago plus a day. That’s confusing, but don’t worry about it. While time travel never makes any sense if you think about it too much, it almost always makes for a compelling movie. MiB3 is no exception.

The movie gets off to a bit of rocky start. The first twenty minutes or so feel stripped of anything but what’s necessary to understand what happens in the past, and these important plot points are communicated in stark, explicit dialog. This would be distressing if the movie continued this way, but it doesn’t. As soon as Agent J jumps into 1969, he also jumps into a much better movie.

In 1969, the movie gets back to the series’ strengths as an odd-couple, buddy cop mystery movie replete with celebrity cameos, alien technology related sight gags, Will Smith’s charm, and Josh Brolin’s dead-perfect, dead-pan Tommy Lee Jones impersonation (an impersonation Tommy Lee Jones himself has been working on since at least 1993). In addition, Jermaine Clement as this movie’s truly disturbing villain and Michael Stuhlbarg as this movie’s quirky side-kick alien character are especially good.

MiB3 also feels like a Men in Black movie, something I think we can accredit to Barry Sonnenfeld, who helmed the first two movies and returned to this one (for a reduced paycheck). The Men in Black series has always excelled at visually and thematically contrasting the bigness of the universe with the seeming insignificance of humanity’s actions on earth. These movies are generally about how our conceptions of the importance of a person or thing is flawed – it’s not the big things that matter most often, but the small.

That idea is fleshed out in this movie in the forms of fate, possible futures, and miracles. The plot is built around the idea that an almost infinite number of happenings coalesce to make our present reality, and if just one small thing is changed, so is everything else, kind of like a cosmic butterfly effect. Miracles, the movie says, are just what we call it when all these seemingly random things come together just right to give us the outcome we most want. An “almost impossible but pleasurable conglomeration of coincidences” is an interesting definition of a miracle. By that definition, I suppose the fact that my bodily systems work, that our planet functions, and, indeed, that the universe exists and continues at all is a miracle.

That’s not the only definition of miracle at play in our world though. Famed film critic Roger Ebert, in one of his self-proclaimed favorite blog posts, posited that miracles are simply that which we lack the knowledge to logically explain, and given time and further intellectual development, all supposed “miracles” would be revealed as simply natural, scientifically provable phenomena. By that definition, there are no miracles, ulitmately. There is only a lack of sufficient information and/or too little ability to make sense of that information.

Then, of course, there is what is a more traditionally Christian definition of a miracle – God’s direct, paranormal, reality-altering influence on the world, like when seas part, fire comes down from heaven, water turns to wine, or the dead are raised back to life. God’s purposes in these miracles are manifold, but they’re almost always also to declare God’s glory (I’ll grant Mr. Ebert that). Then again, everything in existence reportedly declares God’s glory, so does that make everything a miracle? It certainly doesn’t do much to distinguish or definitively define what makes a happening miraculous.

I suspect the true definition of a miracle is some combination of MiB3, Roger Ebert, and traditional Christianity’s definitions of miracles. Miracles are all of the above, because God is present and at work in everything, in the coincidences, in the one day scientifically explainable phenomena, and in the Divinely influenced breaks in reality.

The common thread though between all three definitions of miracle is our inability to understand how what happened happened. Miracles are incomprehensible occurrences. Does that mean then, that one day, when we understand all things, we will lose the wonder of the miraculous? I don’t think so. I think that after “what’s happening happens,” to quote the character based on Andy Warhol in MiB3, and we understand all things, we’ll be more amazed at God’s presence and work in it all. I expect that then we’ll understand that the greatest miracle is how much God loves the world and how much God has done to make all things right.