As someone with no strong feelings for the Power Rangers franchise (I hated it as a kid and came to appreciate its charms as a parent), this is an interesting attempt to craft a grounded and character-driven adaptation, one that successfully blends genre with larger-than-life superhero spectacle. And if you might find it absurd to have a somber and violent Power Rangers movie, then we should note that it can coexist with the 800-plus episodes of the more kid-friendly televised variation. At its best, Power Rangers is a throwback to the likes of Masters of the Universe and the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. It’s from a time when getting a darker, more serious big-budget feature based on your favorite kid-friendly property, one that felt like a real film, was a rare and splendid thing.
Power Rangers likely won’t do much for those who never liked the property in the first place. But for those who grew up with it, or found it through the many different incarnations throughout the years, it provides the kind of passionate, loving reboot that we very rarely see from the studio system nowadays – one that goes deeper into its mythology without ever losing the camp element that made it so much fun in the first place.
Screenwriter John Gatins succeeds in effectively distilling the Power Rangers’ sprawling mythology into a manageable scope and dialing back the campy humor and martial arts fixations that characterized the TV series and liberally informed the feature films. The current version instead emphasizes more realistic dramatic situations by imbuing each Ranger with some type of personal issue … Israelite, building on his experience with teen sci-fi feature Project Almanac, orchestrates a vastly more complex array of characters, action set pieces and technical resources for a combined effect that maintains dramatic tension even while teetering on the brink of excess.
For what it is, Power Rangers is fine, with Project Almanac’s Dean Israelite having made a good-looking film, although it’s clear the budget was saved for the big-finale, with much of the film being devoted to endless training montages. A friend described it best when he said it felt like a $100 million CW pilot, but kids and young teens will likely get a kick out of it. It’s not especially mind-numbing, although it doesn’t really have enough substance to sustain a major franchise, unless they really scrap the old TV show mythology and tell their own story.
Yet even with all the Cranston, “Power Rangers” is not quite a gritty reboot, but also not quite sure what it is instead. It’s a mash-up of approaches that don’t go together. Our diverse quintet of high schoolers meet in Saturday detention, and yet the script fumbles the “It’s ‘The Breakfast Club’ only they turn into superheroes” angle. The writers hatch a convoluted scheme where each one independently visits an abandoned gold mine (!!), where they find an imprisoned magical being (Cranston) and his goofy talking robot (voice of Bill Hader). They instruct them that they can turn (or “morph”) into a gaggle of loudly-colored, spandex-wearing, high-kicking, dino-bot-riding defenders of Earth … Each one is saddled with an “edgy” backstory cribbed from an ’80s after school special, while Cranston seems to think he’s doing Shakespeare. By the time Repulsa is leveling a dead-end small town, as opposed to the usual city destruction that makes up today’s blockbuster climaxes, you won’t know what kind of film you’re watching, or why it contains no less than Walter White.
“What this exasperatingly bland movie needed was more personality of its own — it needed to be made on a budget small enough to afford to fail even harder than it’s probably going to anyway. If not for Elizabeth Banks, some dinosaur-shaped mechs, and the fact that everyone keeps saying the word “Zordon,” this would hardly seem like a Power Rangers movie at all; even the iconic, color-coded spandex suits have been turned into hard plastic nonsense that looks so dumb and lifeless that Zack Snyder might as well steal it for “Justice League.” The film is a blast during the few brief moments when it embraces the cartoon craziness that’s made the television show into such a cultural fixture, but it sheepishly backs away from every one of these giddy indulgences as if it’s afraid of getting caught with a hand in the cookie jar; why play the series’ unforgettable theme song (“Go Go, Power Rangers!”) if you’re going to cut it off after just a few bars? If only “Power Rangers” had the courage to put down its mask and work with its audience.
Power Rangers will one moment have a scene where a character is, in the most serious tone, talking about the horrors of revenge porn, to a movie that makes masturbation jokes, to then fighting a donut-eating character named Rita Repulsa. This movie should be campy fun – and parts certainly are – but it too often gets bogged down in its own self-seriousness that the camp just comes off as startling. There’s even a scene in which the original Power Rangers theme song plays and it just feels so out of place in a movie that also has a character who feels she destroyed people’s lives because she sent revenge porn.
It’s all franchise window dressing. What it can’t cover up is that the characters in “Power Rangers” have all the depth and idiosyncrasy of walking talking robo-teen action figures. How will a movie like this one do? In the minds of the people who made it, it was obviously conceived to be a blockbuster, one that would cut a swath across the demos and generations. But it seems likelier that the movie will earn the 2017 equivalent of the so-so grosses the 1995 movie did. The irony is that 25 years ago, “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” was launched as superhero fodder for kids, and there was indeed a place for it, but we’re now so awash in superhero culture that kids no longer need the safe, lame, pandering junior-league version of it. They can just watch “Ant-Man” or the PG-13 “Suicide Squad.” Safe, lame, and pandering have all grown up.