“Are we Power Rangers or are we friends?”
Yes, that’s one of many cringe-worthy things included in director Dean Israelite’s cinematic re-imagining of the 90’s juggernaut kids show, POWER RANGERS. However, if you power through all those awkward, stilted moments, there’s some heartrending, empowering and reaffirming rewards waiting for you on the other side. It’s just too bad that the cinematic adaptation fails to figure out whether it wants to be serious (like the teen films of today) or campy (like the hugely popular TV series of which its based). Essentially, this is LEMONADE MOUTH meets CHRONICLE crossed with THE MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS. Much like the heroes at the heart of the story, the film suffers from an identity crisis. That said, it can be revelatory and fun.
Thankfully screenwriter John Gatins helps to keep the proceedings (inspired by the TV series “Day of The Dumpster” pilot episode) pretty lean. Unlike other spandex-clad franchises, there are no set-ups – obtuse breadcrumbs, if you will – dropped for future films in this series. It’s fairly self-contained, despite the bloated runtime. The plot: 60 million years ago, a team of color-coded heroes perished, nearly leading to the destruction of Earth, which was saved only by burying a bunch of crystals. I know. But please stay with me here. The site where these are buried is modern-day Angel Grove, a sleepy seaside hamlet home to a new gaggle of teen warriors: conflicted athlete Red Ranger Jason (Dacre Montgomery), repentant mean girl Pink Ranger Kimberly (Naomi Scott), “on the spectrum” Blue Ranger Billy (RJ Cyler), daredevil Black Ranger Zack (Ludi Lin) and misunderstood Yellow Ranger Trini (Becky G). After the crystals are uncovered, and the team’s otherworldly mentor Zordon (Bryan Cranston) and android assistant Alpha 5 (voiced by Bill Hader) are established, the team harnesses their newfound power to fight against unfrozen baddie Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks).
What’s so refreshing about this iteration is that it deals with real world relevancy in a hyper-fantasy world. The characters are destined to become touchstones, avatars for the youths in the audience who may face similar physical and emotional challenges. The advice the film subtly espouses: power through it by finding people who lift you up in life. Diversity in the casting is wonderfully progressive, buoyed by the fact that they don’t even point that out on screen. It’s also a blessing that the females’ abilities are never questioned by the male members of the squad. The narrative feels grounded in equality, which is sadly still a fantasy compared to our current socio-political zeitgeist.
At first glance, you might be quick to expect these characters to be one-dimensional tropes, but Gatins’ script does its best to dive deeper. Actors do what they can given the material (with Banks surpassing them all), but there are a few small blunders. These kids are all struggling beyond their teen caste society labels; Kimberly regrets being a bully (yet she re-bullies her mean-girl ex-besties). Jason is apprehensive of where life will take him (yet he’s self-sabotaging his bright future). Zack’s terrified of losing his cancer-stricken, homebound mother (yet is too scared to go home). Trini, who’s not even given a name until about 45 minutes in, is frustrated with her conservative home life (but the filmmakers hold back on saying it’s because she’s questioning her sexuality). And Billy isn’t just the “BREAKFAST CLUB Brian” of the group. He’s figuring out where he belongs after the death of his dad. He’s also the only flawless character.
Another problematic element sinking the ship is tone. In its determination to be all things to all people, it’s at war with itself. Again, not all the serious stuff works. There’s a masturbation joke that starts off the movie where, at which point you might ask, “who exactly is this movie for?!” Dialogue is clunky on more than one occasion. There’s nonsense with Zordan being able to explain everything else but how to morph. The intensity level needs to be dialed back a little for younger audience members (maybe younger than 6, but you know your kid). Product placement is particularly egregious in terms of how its laughably handled. When the camp factor is brought in – specifically in the third act – the picture veers wildly off course. Though there’s tiny bits of it sprinkled throughout (like their nerd language, Alterian, ugh, and the crew’s dinobot vehicles, “Zords,” double ugh,) that’s played straight-faced, things get heavily fan-service-driven, with iconic lines being said, cameos being dispensed and the original theme song being played. This is when I questioned my life’s choices – and how dyed-in-the-wool film critics are supposed to evaluate this as CINEMA, when it’s sorta more like sin-ema. Be camp or be serious because you can’t be both.
The answer is simply that we’re not the target demo – that’s the series fans and youngsters it hopes to inspire. I just hope the good here inspires the right things versus the mistakes inspiring future imitators.
3.5 out of 5
POWER RANGERS opens on March 24.