The mere concept of a Hollywood-blockbuster level Power Rangers seems counterintuitive. The entire franchise was born on the platform of saving money by having to produce only half a show in the US – cheapness is not just an essential aspect of the program, it’s baked into its very DNA. Though the franchise has had two previous big screen outings (1995’s passable Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie and 1997’s execrable Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie) both hewed very closely to the TV look and formula – lots of spandex, giant rubber monster suits and Z-tier acting. It’s how it’s meant to be.
But since Hollywood has mined 80s nostalgia to death (GI Joe, Transformers, Miami Vice et al) it’s time to move on to the 90s, and there’s little that’s more quintessentially 90’s than Power Rangers. Even though the series has been kicking around for two dozen years at this point, it’s still the original Mighty Morphin’ incarnation that’s embedded in the public consciousness, so it’s a pretty obvious choice for an adaptation. Now this $100 million dollar blockbuster is here, ostensibly ready to revamp the legend of Zordon and crew for a new generation. So how does it hold up?
Well, the truth is that that’s a lot more complex a question than it might initially seem. In many ways, Power Rangers is a total inversion of the TV series it’s based on. Whereas Mighty Morphin’ was stuffed full of shoddily acted, interminable teen sub-soap drama, the movie thrives on its depiction of damaged young adults struggling to find their place in the world, and bonding over their shared worries and troubles. And where the show soared with its colourful, campy superhero antics and cheap but imaginative fights and monsters, the movie turns to sludge, wheeling out shoddy CGI beasts and uninspired camerawork and choreography.
It’s pretty remarkable, and unexpectedly impressive, that director Dean Israelite and his crew managed to mine out a considerable amount of personality from his characters. The rangers on TV were infamous as bland goody-goods with styrofoam personalities, who looked 30 years old and possessed questionable acting talent for the most part. Here, the script reimagines them all as much more complex, flawed personalities and gives them ample time to bounce off of each other and their supporting cast. The new Jason (Dacre Montgomery) is one of Hollywood’s current favourite archetypes, the star quarterback turned social outcast, after a prank horribly backfired and left him without an apparent future. Kimberly (Naomi Scott) is his distaff counterpart, a popular cheerleader hung out to dry by her former friends (not without reason as it turns out). Then there’s Billy (RJ Cyler), a nerdy misfit who struggles with human interaction because of his autism, Zack (Ludi Lin), a trailer park troublemaker and frequent truant, and Trini (Becky G), angry lesbian loner.
All of these familiar names have been recreated in a way which suggests a stereotypical ‘darker and edgier’ reboot, but unlike a lot of similar cases the film actually gives us time and insight into these characters that let them move beyond possible stereotypes. There’s some smart writing and dialogue, and the cast is softened and bought together in a way that’s both realistic and endearing. There’s a mesmerising scene around a campfire where the Rangers each confess the screwups that took them to this place in life, that feels more like something out of an acclaimed indie drama than a multi million dollar blockbuster. Part of what helps us attach to the group so well is the superlative acting from the cast, mostly young unknowns. In particular I want to call out Cyler, who imbues Billy with nervous energy without ever losing the charm at the character’s heart, and Lin, who flits convincingly between self-entitled jackass and more delicate, sensitive young man.
While the film soars when it concentrates on the harsh life lessons that it’s core cast have to learn, it begins stumbling whenever it has to have them connect to the fantastic. The story attempts to give the team’s mentor, Zordon, a little more backstory and some bite to his personality, but it mostly makes him come off as an ass when really he should be aiming to guide the team. It doesn’t help that Bryan Cranston, probably one of the best actors in the world, is hidden behind a shoddy pin-wall special effect which mutes his expressions and emotions. There’s very little sense of wonder to be found in the Rangers’s interactions with this supposedly astonishing alien tech, partially because the film doesn’t really feel like it wants to linger on it and partially because of the design aesthetic, which is all Man of Steel meets Matrix low lighting and weird swoopy techno-organic shapes. It makes one pine for the blinking control lights of a shoddily constructed Command Centre.
In fact, the longer the film goes on, the more it feels like it’s actively trying to shove aside its pulpish origins, and that it would banish them altogether if it had the chance. The Rangers don’t actually appear in costume until the last 20 minutes of the film, which is time for maybe two minutes of on-foot action, a bunch of sub-Transformers robot battling in the middle of Angel Grove, and a Megazord fight which is basically one move long. Furthermore, when the suits and the Zords do come out, you’d probably rather they didn’t. The design aesthetics are awful, the iconic suits redesigned into a bunch of ill-fitting, goopy organic armour and the zords now giant, shapeless mechanical monstrosities that you struggle to find the animal form in. All of it looks as fake as hell, like it was deliberately designed to look like bad CGI so when they switch to the actual bad CGI it won’t be so obvious. You’d think it would be impossible to take five multicoloured superheroes and suck out any hint of energy or flamboyance out of it, but that’s exactly what happen here. Staple elements like the morphers, the team role call, or the group pose never show up. It’s not that elements like this are at all essential, but they’d highlight the over-the-top theatre that’s usually a trademark of the show, and add an element of showmanship that’s painfully lacking.
We can’t exactly count on the villains to save us either. Elizabeth Banks is admittedly tremendous as Rita Repulsa, and seems to be the only person who actually realises what kind of film she’s in. She hams it up for all she’s worth, chewing the scenery like it’s going out of fashion, and it’s nice to see at least one of the cast is actually having fun with their part. Unfortunately, she’s betrayed not only by a huge lack of screen time (Rita is maybe in four or five substantial scenes tops) but also by the sheer flimsiness of her scheme. Rita is looking for the Zeo Crystal (a cute reference to one of the later series), which just so happens to be buried beneath the town’s Krispy Kreme store, opening up a boatload of unfunny product placement. She’s aided by Goldar, a gigantic golden monster which looks even faker than the Rangers’s Zords – if that’s possible – and has no lines, motive or personality. He’s just a big body made out of bad CGI nacho cheese and a desperately disappointing foe for the Rangers to battle. The film isn’t really much of a looker either. Israelite directs with a steady but unspectacular hand, which results in a mostly boilerplate style with precious little in the way of clever visual flourishes, and the fight choreography is poor and relies heavily on cutaways and edits.
What’s critically missing from the movie is any sort of sense of fun, or excitement. The obligatory nods are there (‘It’s morphin’ time!’, a brief snippet of the original theme etc) but they feel forced and clunky. Really, the film feels like it needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the ‘Power Rangers’ part of proceedings, almost as if it’s ashamed of its origins. That’s somewhat understandable (it’s fair to say Mighty Morphin’ hasn’t stood the test of time too well) but why bother to make a big-screen version if you just want to get away from what you’re homaging? Power Rangers is a perfectly fine movie and a surprisingly good character piece, but as a fun action extravaganza, and especially as a rebirth of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, it falls disappointingly short.
- The official title of the movie is Saban’s Power Rangers if you needed any more proof that Haim Saban is a raging egomaniac.
- Toei clearly lawyered up, as the third credit (behind Israelite and Saban) reads in massive letters ‘Based on ‘Super Sentai’ created by Toei’.
- Original cast members Amy Jo Johnson and Jason David Frank pop up for cameos in one of the large crowd scenes.
- Astonishingly, there’s another actor in the film who appeared in the original series, and it’s Bryan Cranston! Cranston was a jobbing actor in the early 90s and provided the voice for a few monsters of the week. He also dubbed some anime, most notably Macross Plus.
- One of the things I enjoyed most about the film was how diverse the cast is and how little the film draws attention to that. As a Chinese man the scenes where Zack speaks with his mother in Mandarin were particularly cool.
- At one point in the film the locations of Mariner Bay and Reefside are cited, which were the locations for Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue and Power Rangers Ninja Storm respectively.
- Hilariously, although mostly shot in Vancouver, the film also had some scenes filmed in New Zealand, which has a long history of serving as fake California in the TV series.