Movie Review: Power Rangers
By Ben Gruchow
April 3, 2017

Edgier Power Rangers!

There has never been a greater gift to Power Rangers than the ability to assess a franchise film in the context of what’s come before it: this is ostensibly because the last two theatrical things to come before this movie were Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in 1995 and Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie in 1997, and they were varying degrees of recklessly brain-dead, poorly-made cash-in. Which isn’t to say that this Power Rangers isn’t also a cash-in, for there is almost no reason in the world for it to exist other than capitalizing on nostalgia for a brand that hasn’t been relevant for nearly two decades; it is to say, however, that this Rangers is superior in every imaginable way to those entries by such leaps and bounds of magnitude that past a certain point we might as well give up and extend it the legitimate credit it deserves for taking such a cut-and-paste hackjob of a TV series and making it into something cinematically literate. It is a low bar to clear, but clear it we do.

I roast the movie more than it deserves, frankly; even on its own problematic and middling terms, this achieves roughly the same win-loss ratio with regard to character and story and excitement as something like the 2000 X-Men kick-off, or Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man, or even Lionsgate’s own 2012 The Hunger Games. Like those starters, what we have here is a narrative that is not quite sure yet what it wants to be: the filmmaking is competent but timid and mostly anonymous, the writing stops shy of making much of a clear point for fear of alienating a new audience, and the cast has about 70 percent of their characters mapped out and occasionally steps on the frayed edges of that nonexistent 30 percent. Also like those films, though, there is chemistry and agency between its cast members and a sense that there is potential in the overall story to be told.

The Power Rangers, this iteration of the narrative makes clear to us, are a band of ancient warriors assigned to protect the universe. We see them in an apocalyptic prologue set at what I assume is the T half of the K-T extinction; as armored humanoid aliens doing battle with each other. Whether this makes the Rangers a race or merely a designation, I am not sure; maybe their armor adjusts to represent the form. The big purpose of the prologue is to set up a showdown between two Rangers, one good and one evil. The good one is the Red Ranger Zordon (Bryan Cranston); the bad one is the Green Ranger Rita (Elizabeth Banks). Rita is defeated and Zordon is put into hibernation by a meteor strike, and one assumes their extraterrestrial supervisors and the engineering department in charge of all their advanced weaponry filled out disciplinary notes for both and wrote everything off as R&D loss.

In the present, the movie shifts to a couple of high school kids in varying stages of social and academic function, with the spotlight initially trained on Jason (Dacre Montgomery) as a perpetrator of a school prank; Billy (RJ Cyler) as a kid initially bullied by his peers, and Kimberly (Naomi Scott) as a former cheerleader shut out for an unspoken act of cyberbullying and assault. Showing up somewhat later are Trini (Becky G), whose penchant for yoga and tai chi are augmented by her tendency to do so in dangerous settings, and Zack (Ludi Lin), whose function as a person appears to initially be figuring out who she is. The five of them end up in the same place at the same time in a restricted quarry for gold mining and encounter five mysterious coinlike little gems. These gems can enhance physical function and resilience, as they and we discover shortly in a race to outrun a train (a race with a rather startling outcome, given the expectations set; it's not necessarily a wild twist, but I can appreciate it when a movie sets up a familiar scenario and then undercuts it).

The coins belong to Zordon, it turns out, now appearing as wall-sized pin art; their discovery of the coins means they are destined to become the new Power Rangers. Not a moment too soon, either; Rita has returned, and she plans to raise a mythical beast that will eradicate all life on Earth. The kids will need to train, gain command of their powers and ability to morph into and out of their armor at will, and work together as a team. This is all standard material for the genre; others have compared this film to the infamous 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four, but to my eyes it's a lot closer to X-Men: strangers with identities they don't fully understand come into a preexisting power infrastructure and must adapt to defeat an emerging threat. If it lacks the poise and formality of the 2000 film, it also lacks the uncomfortably stiff and cold interpersonal dynamics of the 2015 one.

It also breathes a little easier (if also more languidly) than either of those; the introduction-and-training part of the movie occupies the front two-thirds of a 124-minute movie, and it stands to reason that the back 30 percent, where Rita makes her grand entrance as the antagonist and we get virtually all the plot and rising action crammed in, would feel the messiest. This is the sophomore effort from director Dean Israelite, and it bears the hallmarks of a still-green director yet uncertain of their sensibility: the first two acts are competent but workmanlike, with visuals that occasionally leap out at us but more often feel perfunctory (a long revolving take in the beginning is technically impressive without ever being more than mildly emotionally arousing; a dream sequence gets the point across without taking on the texture of a dream). And once the pyrotechnics start up in the final stretch, it's evident that Israelite dispensed his energy and attention at getting the movie through the sequence intact more than doing so with any real flair or scope or tension.

Power Rangers is hardly alone in its storytelling timidity and visceral shallowness; surer franchise bets than this have shared in those attributes by appealing to the widest audience possible and saving the creativity for later. Each of the other films mentioned in this review (save for Fantastic Four) had middling initial installments before taking significant steps forward in visual and narrative boldness with their sequels. And there's a certain raggedness here that's beneficial to the movie’s spirit. The final act may lack much scope or impact, but it allows the characters to continue evolving without having to stop for forced pathos (it also contains the movie’s single most successful visual gag, involving a donut).

This is all feather-light, low-stakes material, and it scarcely waits for the end credits to begin jaunting out of our brain. But there's a friendliness and a certain emotional intelligence to it, anchored by a mid-film campfire scene that's authentic in its sensitivity. The ingredients are there to produce a future storyline of greater consequence and impact, which is positively miles ahead of where I thought we'd be while allowing this film its own distinct, if modest, pleasures.

3 out of 5