It happened accidentally: My friends and I were playing in an old bone-crushing, hobo-vanquishing abandoned glass mine outside of our town, when we found a set of coins which gave us the powers to protect life on Earth. To range, as it were, with power. There were six of us, yes. We were all students at Generic California Teen High.
Each of us had our own backstory, and something to prove. As I stood with the rest of the gang, I remember looking at each of them, thinking how perfectly balanced, photogenic and audience-pleasing each of us were. For some reason, I felt everything around and within us had a $105 million price tag on it. And yet all of this felt strangely familiar, as if we had been … relaunched … into our lives. Had we lived these lives, in some sense, before?
Well. I’m speaking too freely here. The other five got the powers, and the colors, the fetish skinsuits, the giant ro-beasts, the whole works.
My coin, on the other hand, glowed with the light of a laptop screen, and did absolutely nothing. No super-strength or jumping powers.
As the other Power Rangers trained for murderous battle with CGI rock creatures, I gaped at my magic mystery token with what seemed to be the appropriate level of awe. Eventually it occurred to me to ask the appropriate question:
“Why doesn’t my coin give me magical powers? Where’s my morphing ability? Why are these rhetorical questions appropriate in a movie review?”
The tiny, indefensible movie robot, Alpha 5 (voiced by Bill Hader) shrilled back to me with a carefully audience-tested “Aye-yi-yi,” its trademark phrase from its TV show incarnation. It waved its cold, soulless arms in what was supposed to be a comically charming vaudevillian dance of befuddlement, but really came across as a ghastly aping of the human condition.
Then it replied: “Oh, you’re not a fighting Power Ranger!”
“I’m not?” I said in a very adult wail.
“No,” the meatless creature hissed, “These other guys are the normal Power Rangers: rock-dull Red Ranger, ingénue Pink Ranger, hapless nerd Blue Ranger, icy-and-troubled Yellow Ranger, and completely insane and acting-class-needing Black Ranger. You are the Cynic Ranger; your power is to judge everything skeptically.”
“Really? Do I get a vehicle of my own?”
“Yes,” the robot gargled up in antiseptic English, growing more hideous to contemplate every moment. “You drive a giant wet blanket on other people’s fun. Are you up to the task?”
“Oh, sure,” I said. “That sounds like a great idea.” And suddenly I felt my eyes roll with the strength of a thousand men. The wee, computer-generated mock-man had it right: I really did have special powers.
I then found myself thrown into a movie theater in Atlanta, apart from my friends. I now remembered who I was: a critic sent to judge the Power Rangers and find them wanting or not. Much as Zordon (Bryan Cranston), the Power Rangers’ outer space Svengali, plays his own weird father figure game with the Rangers, so too would I find them worthy of my love or not. Zordon, who is a giant living head embedded in a wall, and who possesses powers over life and death, has a bizarre soap opera with the emotionally volatile teens he has conscripted into his army. Trust me when I say it is the most normal relationship in this movie.
So how did the Cynic Ranger find this film? Somewhere inside of Power Rangers there is a living movie struggling to get out. It would be good, but God knows when. Let me speak as someone who watched the Power Rangers during their initial heyday back in the Cenozoic: the fact that comic relief characters Bulk and Skull are tragically AWOL is the first blow against this movie. But what about the rest of it?
There are moments when Dean Israelite’s film lurches close to a spectacular and grounded version of the TV show of the same name (in its twenty-seventh season, I am told, titled Power Rangers Ninja Steel). And then it totters back to the realm of the “Meh.”
Much in the same way that the original kids TV show took footage from the forever-lasting Japanese television superhero franchise Super Sentai, so too does Israelite’s film take footage of real human actors and attempt to make it into a functioning, emotionally relatable drama. The key here is that they do actually try: I’m thinking of the film’s inclusion of a LGBTQ character (although they skirt around this) and an autism spectrum character, and perhaps of the moment when the Rangers are being pushed into a gigantic pool pocket made of molten lava, and one of them says, rather touchingly, “Nobody dies alone.” In these moments, Power Rangers comes agonizingly close to being what it wants to be: a smart, hip self-aware superhero movie that slyly understands its source material and its own tropes.
This is the age of post-ironic entertainment. Irony is dead, and I’m glad for it: it outlived its usefulness. My joke about being the Cynic Ranger aside, I will take a dozen Captain America movies over a winking nihilism any day of the week. Power Rangers doesn’t know what it wants, and reads like a movie made by a person who is deeply savvy about how entertainment works but whose impulses about tone and wokeness are bipolar. Take the early scenes, when the ensemble of high school students led by Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery) and his friend Billy (RJ Cyler) discover the talismans of Ranger power inside the mine on the outskirts of their hometown, Angel Grove.
The next twenty minutes plays, I kid you not, like a G-rated version of the first part of Requiem for a Dream: a group of young people with different drives share a potent secret which could destroy them all, which leads them through surreal scenes like a solid wall of water, being chased by the police, car crashes and blackouts. This interesting piece of kino lasts right up until they find a hidden spaceship.
Then a shaggy dog character is introduced—the CGI robot—whereupon it becomes 1985’s sci-fi movie The Explorers, a kid-explorer flick which starred young Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix. The Explorers is infamous for having an elegant and moving first half (kids build their own space ship), which becomes a poorly thought out rubber puppet joke in the second. (The aliens turn out to be wacky Muppets quoting famous pop lyrics.) Power Rangers works the same way. Once they discover the spaceship, the downhill slide kicks in, like cooking the same coffee grounds a dozen times. The fresh part of the movie vanishes into a predictable series of hero-journey checkboxes.
Cranston and Hader are first-rate talents, but they’re not given much to work with script-wise and it shows. Then, in the second act, the group goes full Breakfast Club confessional, all to round the corner into Stand By Me in time for the beginning of Act III. The pacing issues are weird, and we have to wait too long for the Rangerification of the group. If you’ve seen any Power Rangers episodes in your life, ever, just add that to a bargain Thor and you’ve got it.
More promising is Elizabeth Banks’ Rita Repulsa, the villain of the film. I would have gladly watched a movie about a day in her character’s life. There is a long scene in a gold store where Rita (who has been trapped in the ocean as hibernating fish-mummy plot device) devours gold jewelry whole, and Banks plays it for all it is worth. You have never seen a woman eat gold like this in a movie, and never will again. Her heavy metal eating will inspire you. Pure, uncut poetry.
Felix Biederman has gone on record saying that behind every weird behavior in politics lurks divorce and the specter of family court, and that’s certainly true here: Rita and Zordon clearly have some unspoken, subtextual long-term romantic issues to work out—a trial separation which has lasted for millions of years—and instead of talking it out like adults, Zordon has sent his teen army against her. Whatever floats your boat.
I should point out that whatever didn’t work for me certainly worked for the audience. The crowd roared and cheered several times during the movie: I had no idea there were diehard Power Rangers fans, but I will never doubt their existence again: the rabid is real, and the real is rabid.
The one place where Power Rangers takes the crown is in ad revenue: Krispy Kreme got its promotional budgets’ worth. Like the Rangers themselves, this movie is merely the puppet of a higher power.
And yet while Power Rangers is never the movie I wanted it to be, it’s not poorly made, nor does it break canon, or drift too far from its source material. The people who made this film cared, they just didn’t always know how best to show that care.
The alterations which have been made from a children’s TV show to an action flick are genuinely meant. The Rangers have to talk themselves through bonding with each other and then with their machines. These feel as real and reasonable as such a fictional universe will allow. It’s like watching a group of total strangers thrown into the same keto diet together. There are brilliant moments, too—Billy, who is clearly the gamer-slash-trivia-knower of the group constructs a conspiracy theory wall of where the secret of all life is hidden, and it is True Detective meets Charlie’s conspiracy freak-out wall from Always Sunny, yarn and all. And that’s what Power Rangers felt like to me; a secret plot to make a much better movie, which almost succeeded.
Director: Dean Israelite
Writer: John Gatins (screenplay); Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Michele Mulroney, Kieran Mulroney (story); Haim Saban (created by)
Starring: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G., Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, Bill Hader
Release Date: March 24, 2017
Jason Rhode is watching everything, including you, right now.