It’s practically a no-win situation, you know?
Take a property that was created pretty much exclusively to sell toys to kids in the all-flash-and-no-substance 1990s and try to give it a dose of updated-for-the-2010s grittiness while still trying to pay lip service to the now-aged 20-and-30-something fans of the original who will almost assuredly be coming to the cineplexes to pass their own special brand of judgement… sounds like a tough assignment, right?
Well, that’s the task that director Dean Israelite and production company Lionsgate undertook when creating an updated version of ‘Power Rangers’ – they lost the “Mighty Morphin'” from the original series title, but added a much-needed layer of depth to the characters themselves – a pathos that was welcomed during the first part of the film but, sadly, completely abandoned during the second half, in favor of generic armor-suited superhero moves and hot giant-robot-on-alien-monster action sequences. It’s a tale of two films – and sadly, neither can connect effectively enough with the other to take ‘Power Rangers’ up to a level anything more than being just another ho-hum kids show cash-grab reboot.
If you’re a fan of the “original gansta” Rangers, then you know the tale: five high school students in the sleepy town of Angel Grove discover “power coins” which let them morph into colorful-suited Power Rangers, each with hefty martial arts skills and also a pilot of their very own mechanized dinosaur robot “Zord.” They’re ready to fight fantastical and other-worldly threats to protect the Earth – in the original series, it’s a weekly occurrence, but in this film, it takes up until the last 30 minutes or so before we see any true “Morphin’ Time.”
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing; indeed, it’s my humble opinion that where the movie truly shines is in its ability to shine a light on the issues and situations that teenagers today find themselves dealing with. Each Ranger has their own social cross to bear: Red Ranger Jason (Dacre Montgomery) can’t live up to his football Dad’s lofty expectations and turns to rebellious thrill-seeking as a way of lashing out; Pink Ranger Kimberly (Naomi Scott) finds herself on the wrong side of her social circle after treating her friends poorly on social media; Blue Ranger Billy (RJ Cyler) deals with the recent loss of his father while fighting the stigma that comes with being autistic; Yellow Ranger Trini (Becky G) has a family that puts so much focus on “normal” that she’s afraid to tell them how she feels differently about her sexuality; and Black Ranger Zack (Ludi Lin) has a high interest in skipping school and feeling aimless in life while dutifully attending to his sick mother in the times when he does go home.
It all makes for a pretty solid setup early on, bolstered by a dash of the extra-terrestrial: in a particularly inspired opening montage, we meet Zordon (Bryan Cranston) and Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks, and props to the creative team for using her goofy-ass full name in the film), aliens who find themselves at odds with each other and in a battle on a random planet called Earth; we’re given enough back-story and information in this sequence and the gap-filler scenes later in the film to get a good sense of who the Power Rangers are, although questions about the “bigger picture” of the Rangers (is this the only team, or is there a larger, Green Lantern-esque galactic network of these squads?) are left maddeningly untouched.
After being asleep for millions of years, Zordon is awoken when the five teenagers randomly find themselves exposed at the same time to the power coins. Rita also “wakes up” at this exact time, although once again, the film doesn’t bother to address why she awakens (was it the power coins activating, stupid dumb luck on the timing, or something different altogether?). So we’ve got a threat, we’ve got a need for a plucky comic-relief sidekick (enter Bill Hader’s pot-bellied CGI robot, Alpha 5) and a “training to be the best” montage, and the first mini-showdown between the forces of good and evil where the good guys realize they aren’t strong enough to win yet, but maybe if they believe in the power of teamwork and stuff… you know the drill.
This is where, for all the decent character work that had been done up to this point, the movie slips smugly into chintzy bash-em-up mode. Not only does it go there, but it does so in such an infuriatingly expected fashion; I’ll keep things as spoiler-free as possible here, but just know that “something big” happens that shakes the Ranger team to its core, and actually could have been a really unique cinematic moment and legitimate character motivator… if it didn’t get the complete “just kidding, everything’s really fine and back to normal” treatment in the very next scene. Yes, ‘Power Rangers’ commits the grossest of crimes: it tries to play on your heartstrings but doesn’t have enough emotional punch to stay in tune.
The final 30 minutes of the film is spent in CGI Battle Land, with ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Tron’ inspired suited heroes and mechanized dino-bots duking it out with a giant liquidy-gold guy and his constantly-posing evil master. It’s entertaining enough, but it’s not really anything we haven’t seen in one of the countless superhero/action films that have come before. In one desperate “how did they do that” move that any intelligent villain worth their salt should have seen coming, the Rangers get their second wind in the battle and – well, I could say I don’t want to spoil anything, but seriously, do you expect a movie like this to let the good guys lose?
I feel like I’m a little more critical of the movie than I wanted to be; it certainly wasn’t a terrible film, but I grew up a little earlier than when the Power Rangers were in their prime, so I’m probably missing that nostalgic glimmer that some movie-goers will have in their eyes when watching this one. ‘Power Rangers’ was never gunning to win any major critical awards, so in the vein of it being a movie about superhero-type teenagers who get into robots and kick some alien butt, it’s hard to say that the film “fails” in any specific way. And like previously mentioned: you play the hand you were dealt, and when your film is based on a rock-em-sock-em sensory-overload-fest of a TV show from the ’90s (which was, in turn, based on an even-more-bonkers sci-fi/superhero mashup show from Japan), it’s hard for the rebooted apple to fall far from the source-material tree.
If you know the vibe of the film you’re going to see and you’re into that, then ‘Power Rangers’ will actually probably pleasantly surprise you. If you’re not up for a film like this – well, look at it this way: at least the primary antagonist isn’t purple and has “Ooze” as his last name.
Tony Schaab wonders who would win in an epic, Gladiator-style fight between the Grumpy Cat and the “This is Fine” Dog – an animal-heavy meme battle for the ages! A lover of most things sci-fi and horror, Tony is an author by day and a DJ by night. Come hang out with Tony on Twitter to hear him spew semi-funny nonsense and get your opportunity to finally put him in his place.