Power Rangers Review: Go, Go Take Yourself Less Seriously

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The reboot of the popular 90s children’s show can’t decide between the campy fun of its source material or the gritty action of current blockbuster fare and, in the end, fails to make an impact.

Hollywood’s reboot machine is continuing to chug along, with no signs of slowing down. This month alone has already seen big budget updates of King KongCHiPs, and Beauty and the Beast, and there’s even more to come with next week’s Ghost in the ShellPower Rangers is the latest franchise to be exhumed and given a shiny, CGI makeover. At a moment when 90s nostalgia is at an all-time high, the move makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t. It’s undone by it’s tonal indecisiveness. As it switches up its mood throughout its 124-minute runtime, it loses out on what could’ve been its greatest strength: a genuine sense of fun.

The original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers TV show debuted in 1993 and it was, in a word, ridiculous. The show featured an evil alien sorceress named Rita Repulsa, who is freed after being trapped in a “space dumpster” and decides she’s going to conquer Earth. To combat this, a floating head in a tube named Zordon tells his robot assistant Alpha to recruit “five teenagers with attitude” to become the Power Rangers.

They wore candy-colored spandex uniforms, and fought bad guys through stock footage that was lifted from the Japanese show Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, and then hilariously dubbed over. Each episode would essentially follow the same format: Rita would summon a monster to defeat the Rangers. They would get pretty close to killing it until it would magically grow to Godzilla size, which would force the Rangers to call upon their “Zords”—dinosaur-shaped robot ships—which they would eventually join together to create a “Megazord” and save the day. Along the way there was a lesson thrown in about friendship and believing in yourself. As a kid, this was my everything.

I’ve always been a firm believer that the best reboots have shaky source material. No one needed to watch Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho with Vince Vaughn, because the original Psycho is already a fantastic film. Steven Soderbergh’s remake of the cheesy 1960 rat-pack film Ocean’s Eleven, on the other hand? A must-see.

Power Rangers could have been held in the same regard, but it unfortunately couldn’t decide between embracing its campy roots or competing with today’s current superhero and action movie franchises. It ends up wandering between both genres aimlessly, so that by the time the credits roll, you’re not really sure what kind of movie you just watched. If it was trying to compete with today’s big-budget franchises, then it failed. Its unwillingness to pick a tone has rendered it rather forgettable.

A huge part of the problem is the film’s insistence on giving the Rangers a tediously long origin story. The first half of the movie feels like a witless version of The Breakfast Club, but with more cave exploration. In the fictional town of Angel Grove, Jason (Dacre Montgomery), is sent to detention after releasing a live cow in the school, the reasons for which are never made clear. It’s there that he meets Billy (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘s RJ Cyler), a geeky kid inventor who’s on the autism spectrum, and Kimberly (newcomer Naomi Scott, who’s destined for much greater things) an ex-cheerleader and reformed mean girl. Soon, they all find themselves at a mine site where they meet Trini (Latina pop star Becky G) and Zack (Ludi Lin), along with some colorful, glowing coins.

It’s fairly easy to guess what happens next. The kids discover Zordon (Bryan Cranston, whose face is CGI-d into a talking wall) and Alpha (voiced by Bill Hader) and learn to become the Power Rangers. Only the learning takes forever. There’s an endless training montage, a campfire side chat where everyone reveals their biggest secret, and lots of arguing amongst the team until they realize they need to work together in order to morph.

If that last sentence sounded a little cheesy, it’s because it is, but I wished the Power Rangers would’ve taken this more head on. One of the things it has going for it is its message of inclusivity and teamwork. The Rangers all come from different races and ethnicities (thankfully, the film smartly avoided casting a black actor as the Black Ranger and an asian actor as the Yellow Ranger like the original TV series did). It’s also strongly implied that Trini is coming to terms with her sexuality. The moment itself is very brief, but the fact that a major studio release is  LGBT-friendly is refreshing nonetheless.

Yet, Power Rangers would rather opt for moodiness than a silliness with a positive message. It’s a shame, because it doesn’t pull off moody very well. While I appreciate the instinct to give these characters more in-depth backstories—in the TV show, the Pink Ranger’s primary character trait is that she’s good at gymnastics—they still end up being rather one-note. Jason ruins his chances at a football scholarship with his prank, and this decision never really seems to affect him. Zack has a sick mother at home, but she seems to exist for the one scene where he gets to talk about it with the group, and then she’s never really brought up again. The message the film seems to be making is that each of these kids is a misfit in some way or another, but when they come together, they have the potential for greatness. Unfortunately, this lessens the effect of everyone’s personal baggage.

I suppose the reason that this area isn’t more fleshed out is because the film’s creators realized they still needed to write an action movie. When the Rangers finally do morph into their suits—now, shiny metal instead of spandex—they’re given one elongated fight sequence before the credits roll. Director Dean Israelite (Project Almanac) shoots the fight at a frenzied pace, so that you’re not really sure where to pay attention to. The Rangers connect to their Zords rather quickly, and then the movie basically becomes a lazy stand-in for TransformersPacific Rim, or any number of mecha-monster movies. I wish there had been more time given to the Rangers fighting on the ground. That was always the most exciting part of watching the show. Also, the monster in question looks like a giant glob of gold cottage cheese.

The one bright spot lies in Rita Repulsa. Played by the venerable Elizabeth Banks, it’s here that the movie is willing to have a little fun. On the show, Rita was an alien with a large hoop dress and even larger hair that’s shaped into giant devil horns. Rita’s costume here is a little more subdued, but Banks’ performance is anything but. She knowingly takes on lines like “time to kill everyone,” and “Krispi Kreme, the center of all destruction”—side note: how much did Krispi Kreme pay to become such an integral part of the plot?—with glee. Her scenery chewing is hammy and delightful, and I wish the rest of the characters had more of this infectious spirit.

Even the way Rita is eventually defeated is hilarious. It’s a hint at what Power Rangers could have been if it had decided to take itself less seriously. Instead, we’re left with a movie that wants to have the brooding backstory of The Dark Knight franchise with small bits of Guardians of the Galaxy‘s sense of camp thrown in. There’s a point towards the end of the film where the original theme song from the show starts to play, only to be cut off after a few seconds and be replaced by Kanye West’s “Power.” I couldn’t help but wonder why they felt the need to make the switch. It’s indicative of the film’s overall attitude toward its subject, and fact that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Grade: C+

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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