I confess straight out of the gate here, I don’t possess much familiarity with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. When the original series debuted in 1993, I was officially too old to count myself among its target audience. I never saw an episode, never saw the 1995 feature film and truly only am aware of the things that anyone would have picked up via cultural osmosis during its heyday. I knew it concerned five teenagers with superpowers who wore colorful jumpsuits and helmets (with disturbing artificial metallic mouths). I knew they fought monsters of the excessively cheesy, Japan-made Godzilla variety, with men in rubber suits. I knew Voltron was being not-so-subtly ripped off. I heard tell that many young men were quite taken with the Pink Ranger. And that’s all I’ve got.
So when it comes to reviewing the new big-screen reboot—pared down to the more succinct Power Rangers; it’s cleaner—I’m not bringing anything in with me. I have no affection nor disdain for the Power Rangers franchise. From the outside, it seemed goofy to me as a teen, but what, like He-Man wasn’t? Coming in as a blank slate, what I can tell you is that this new Power Rangers is very much in line with modern reboots. It’s slickly made, a touch “grittier” than its candy-colored roots, it borrows a lot from other contemporary blockbusters (many of which are reboots themselves) and it’s mostly quite bland. Still, I can report that the die-hard Ranger fans, who not only appear to still exist but were present in full force at the screening I attended, went nuts for it, so there you go.
In the sleepy haven of Angel Grove, CA, Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery) gets busted pulling a cockamamie prank involving a cow at school one night and is left with a house-arrest monitor around his ankle and a disappointed dad (David Denman). He also winds up in detention, where he comes to the bully-busting defense of the mildly autistic Billy (RJ Cyler). Billy latches onto his protector as his new best friend, promising to neutralize Jason’s electronic shackle if he accompanies Billy on an impromptu excavation in the hills nearby. Out there, they encounter fellow outcasts Kimberly (Naomi Scott), Zack (Ludi Lin) and Trini (Becky G, some sort of Mila Kunis/Selena Gomez hybrid), and the whole lot of them discover a protruding rock formation that releases five mystical coins of varying colors.
With each kid now in possession of a coin, they collectively discover that they all now wield superhuman strength and an imperviousness to bodily harm. They also uncover an underground spaceship containing a wisecracking robot (Bill Hader, but I would have put money on Patton Oswalt) and the giant-faced essence of the fallen warrior Zordon (Bryan Cranston, bringing gravity to what should be a zero-gravity role), who informs the group that they are the latest incarnation of the Power Rangers, a team that functions as guardians of the galaxy. Zordon trains the group and attempts to get them to function as a unit to achieve their full potential, which they’ll need to realize quickly because they’re only days away from a showdown with Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks, the only cast member who seems to know precisely what movie she’s in), a former Ranger who has gone bad.
Power Rangers is a film with an identity crisis. It’s a two-hour film, yet it takes an eternity to put its heroes into their rainbow-hued getups and bring out the monsters, palpably embarrassed to become the very thing that it must. It gets there eventually, offering up a finale filled with a big-budget (yet still appropriately schlocky-looking) take on the kicky, goofy action that transfixed grade-schoolers in 1994, but it’s in no rush to arrive at this predetermined destination. For most of its run, the film comes across like a more polished, less ambitious rehash of Chronicle, with its moody young heroes getting a handle on both their newfound abilities and their relationships with one another. Power Rangers can’t decide if it wants to be the sober version of this material or the cartoon blitzkrieg that people expect of it, so bets are hedged.
What the film does very badly want to be is a superhero Breakfast Club, with five outsiders coming together as a whole, but these characters aren’t up to that challenge. Apart from the enthusiastically nerdy Billy, the others are all riffs on the same moody, misunderstood teen archetype. There is ostensibly nothing to distinguish Kimberly, Zack or Trini from one another, and Jason only stands out from the pack by dint of being highlighted as the noble, whitebread leader. Trini, in particular, is dropped into the movie in a strikingly unceremonious manner. It’s tough to craft a story about characters forming bonds with each other when you have failed in not only establishing distinctive characters but distinctive character types.
Power Rangers also wants to be other movies as well. It swipes its aesthetic from not both the Marvel films (it can’t be disputed that the costume designer had Tony Stark on the brain) and the Transformers series (which it even directly references). Its characters all feel like bland holdovers from any given YA would-be franchise. The whole thing feels as much a pastiche of contemporary blockbuster filmmaking as it does a Power Rangers adaptation. The only thing truly surprising about its wholesale mimicry of everything that’s made money in the past ten years is that it also flagrantly boosted the synth-heavy theme music from Stranger Things, and even that is only noteworthy for how little time has passed since Stranger Things became a cultural phenomenon. They got that theft in under the wire.
The best thing about Power Rangers is cosmetic, but laudable—the cast is a true melting pot. The team consists of members of black, Indian, Asian and Mexican heritages, making the team as diverse from one another as their contrasting primary-color duds (of course, the white guy is still the leader and main character). This was also true of the original cast, but it’s refreshing to see that element ported over. It would be even better if some of that heterogeneity had been brought to any other aspect of this crushingly bland franchise bid because Power Rangers is mighty amorphous.
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