Warning: This review contains mild spoilers for Men in Black: International. Don't make me neuralize you.
At one point in Men In Black: International, new trainee Agent M (Tessa Thompson) and her ersatz partner, senior Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) land head-first into the desert known as the Empty Quadrant. "God, I hate sand," she quips, brushing it off her clothes.
There is no way, in a post Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones world, that this line can be said earnestly. It's long become a meme, shared widely on the internet, shorthand for frustration, and bad dialogue. And yet.
Movie references are everywhere in MIB: International: In the alien gambling club that Agent H compares to Eyes Wide Shut; in the teary speech about romance that prompts M's alien side-kick, Pawny (voiced by Khumail Nanjiani) to ask if he's been dropped in "The Notebook 2;" in the literal death star that is at the heart of the plot; and in the wink-wink way H picks up a tiny hammer during the fight, a clear reference to Hemsworth's memorable turn as Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But though these moments do prompt laughs, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that their predominance is the result of MIB: International having nothing of its own to contribute.
The story begins in Paris, circa 2016. H and his mentor, High T (Liam Neeson, who is aggressively British — get it?!) are tasked with stopping the invasion of highly dangerous aliens known as The Hive. One year later, in New York, Molly (Thompson) becomes the first operative in Men In Black's history to simply walk into the building and ask for a job. As a child living in Brooklyn, she encountered an alien known as a Tarantian, and escaped neuralization (the flashy thing that makes you forget), leading her to spend the last 20 years searching for answers.
After a truly inspiring face-to-face with O (Emma Thompson, criminally underused), head of the New York office, Molly is hired on probation, dubbed M, and sent to London to help deal with a situation that's unfurling. She befriends H, who has clearly suffered some kind of bad boy breakdown in the years since he took down The Hive with, legend has it, "nothing but his wits and a sub de-atomizer." He's grown reckless, and careless, and both of those things result in the alien royal they're supposed to be guarding getting gunned down by shape-shifting Hive assassins who can somehow melt earth. Before he dies, their mark hands M a crystal, and tells her to guard it. Something is not right within MIB and it's up to her — and H, if he can get it together — to suss out the truth.
On the whole, MIB: International isn't all that bad. Thompson remains a joy to watch, making flat lines like "I have no dog, no cats, and absolutely no chill," work in her favor. Her version of the standard MIB uniform is a highly covetable, distinctly feminine twist on the boring pantsuit, paired with high heeled combat boots. (Highly impractical for running, but I'll let it slide because...damn.) And Hemsworth, well, is playing his best version of a Chris. In one scene, he wears pink pants. In other, he unbuttons his white shirt so low even Thompson stares incredulously.
The two, as proved by their previous collaboration in Thor: Ragnarok, have great chemistry, and it's to the movie's credit that there's no explicit implication that they'll be romantically involved. (Although there is a great slo-mo acknowledgment that even M is not immune to the Chris effect — Chris Hemsworth is really making strides towards Top Chris status.) Nanjiani's tiny alien friend is cute comic relief, even if he feels like a deus ex-machina in the final act.
But it all feels very formulaic. The original Men In Black had something to say. The very first scene, in fact, opens with MIB agents wresting possession of a convoy of undocumented migrants from border patrol, a scene that reads very differently in our current climate. One could imagine that the first film in the franchise to feature a woman of color in a lead role might take advantage of that to really grapple with the implications. Do gender constructs exist beyond Earth? What about race? Do our petty human biases really matter in the wider universe? In director F. Gary Gray's hands, MIB: International takes the easy road, choosing bombastic moments to declare its feminism instead of showing it throughout, a trap too many blockbusters have fallen into in the last year or so. One scene, shown in the trailer, has H purposefully referring to "the men and women in Black," a moment almost, but not quite as cringe-worthy as this one from Dark Phoenix.
As always, the best part of the film are the new details we see unfold about the universe: Gustav Eiffel, creator of the Eiffel Tower, is revealed to be one of the founders of the secret organization; there's a cool express subway that travels from New York to Europe in minutes; and Ariana Grande, Donald Glover, and Elon Musk are on a monitor as high-profile aliens to watch.
Still, nothing in the film felt like a vital piece of the Men in Black puzzle. M may be searching for the answers of the universe, but the film doesn't even begin to dream that big.