Look out. Aliens exist among us. Lady Gaga is probably one. Justin Bieber? Almost certainly; the friendly owner of your local Chinese restaurant is definitely hiding some extra, otherworldly appendages. Mostly, they’re happy living peacefully on Earth in near-flawless human disguises, playing pro-basketball or operating convenience stores. But at other times, they crave chaos and destruction. Luckily, the Men in Black are back to protect us all. They’ve brought along their signature mixture of wit and action as well as some new tricks like 3D and time travel.

In 1997, the first Men in Black movie was hailed as a self-aware breath of fresh air in the world of action-adventure movies. The second, which followed a few years later, was widely and gleefully panned. Happily, despite reports of a troubled production, the third hews more closely to the spirit of the first. Fluffy and relatively insignificant, it’s a fun ride — provided you don’t think too hard about its internal logic.

Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) have been partners for years now, tracking down rogue aliens and erasing the memories of civilians caught in the crosshairs. As MIB 3 opens, they’re experiencing some relationship difficulties. J just wants communication but K — all stoic and stone-faced — refuses to open up about a certain mysterious tragedy that irrevocably altered him some 40 years ago. Before they can make any progress, a ruthless alien named Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) escapes from a high-security lunar prison and travels back in time to 1969 to assassinate Agent K, who locked him up all those years ago. Faced with a world where K no longer exists and Boris is on the verge of destroying Earth, J also travels back to 1969 to try to stop the assassination. There, he teams up with the younger version of K (Josh Brolin) to find and kill Boris before it’s too late.

The movie takes a while to locate its footing, starting slowly and disjointedly, particularly in the humor department. Etan Cohen’s script shoots off jokes right and left in the hopes that something will stick, but all of the early ones are literally too forgettable to include in this review. In its final 20 minutes, the film stumbles again. Questions remain unanswered, and the time travel logic stops making even minimal amounts of sense. Perhaps more egregiously, some sloppily-handled sentimentality threatens to bog the whole thing down. The Men in Black movies are good when they make fun of themselves or the genre. (One particularly self-aware example in MIB 3 comes when Agent J calls out the 29-year-old version of Agent K, played by the 44-year-old Brolin, as having “some city miles” on him.) They are not so good when they try to deal seriously with issues like grief and mourning. Sudden solemnity rubs up oddly against MIB 3’s previously glib tone, and you can feel the filmmakers trying to milk you relentlessly for tears without regard to practicalities.

But on the plus side, director Barry Sonnenfeld has stocked his movie with a fantastic cast. Tommy Lee Jones does unsmiling and stiff like none other. Josh Brolin makes for an eerily convincing younger version of Jones, albeit with more of a sense of humor and buckets of charm. And after what feels like years of screen absence, Will Smith reminds us all that he can deliver jokes and shoot aliens with gusto. Actors in smaller roles may be even better: Emma Thompson shrieks high-pitched alien-speak with a poker face, Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader shows up as a disgruntled Andy Warhol, and Michael Stuhlbarg plays an alien who can see all possible futures with ethereal sweetness.

The one problematic characterization comes from Jemaine Clement as Boris. It may not be the actor’s fault — Clement has proved himself absolutely hilarious as a deadpan member of the comedic musical duo Flight of the Conchords. But the script can’t decide whether it wants Boris, who looks like an extra menacing biker with impenetrably dark goggles covering his eyes, to be funny or terrifying. Ultimately, Boris never really manages to be either, shooting off a lame one-liner here and killing a random alien there.

Ah, but those random aliens! Make-up master Rick Baker, winner of seven Academy Awards, designed every alien in the movie, and he has outdone himself. Some of the aliens are comical: when J travels back in time, the kitschy aliens at Men in Black headquarters call to mind those portrayed in movies of the period, replete with gigantic heads and gold jumpsuits. They can also be wonderfully, thrillingly disgusting. At one point, a lethal spider-like bug burrows into Boris’s hand, where it lives when he’s not deploying it to cause mayhem. At another, J battles with an overgrown, slimy alien fish. It’s grey, toothy, and looks like your worst nightmare about the darkest reaches of the ocean come to life.

The rest of the production design is similarly awe-inspiring. Cool gadgets and big guns abound. The 3D is mostly unobtrusive (except for the impact it has on your wallet), but does manage to enhance the action in isolated moments. The best of these is the breathtaking time-traveling sequence when J first jumps back to 1969. Told he has to “get high” for the time jump to work properly, he forgoes the leafy option and instead climbs up to the top of the Chrysler building. The building’s spire juts out at you, and the height feels vertiginously real. J leaps off, and on his way down, his travels take him, for brief seconds, to a multitude of time periods. He catches a glimpse of dinosaurs, then realizes that he’s flying through air at the same rate as suicidal stock market traders from 1929. The entire sequence is completely involving and incredible; the epitome of what a summer blockbuster should deliver.

When he gets to 1969, the sequences set there are marvels of bright color and faithful homage. In addition to providing chances for ample aesthetic fun and pop culture references, going back to 1969 allows the film opportunities for racial commentary, via jokes that turn out to be some of the funniest in the movie. Just watch what happens when, in desperate need of transportation, Smith as J steals a nice car and starts riding around in it.

It’s unclear whether anyone was actively wishing for another Men in Black sequel. Luckily, Sonnenfeld and the rest of the team gave it to us anyway. You may not have noticed they were gone, but you’ll be glad those Men in Black are back.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

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