By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Those Mighty Morphin Power Rangers return to the big screen after a long absence (the last one was in 1997), but despite a big budget and aggressive repackaging, Power Rangers fails to leave an impression, due to an uncertain tone, clumsy writing, poor casting, and lacklustre direction.
Beginning in the Cenozoic Era (also known as the Age of Mammals), we see the power rangers are intergalactic aliens who do their best to protect the universe. Currently battling the evil Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) on Earth, Red Ranger leader Zordon (Bryan Cranston) and his fellow warriors are on the verge of defeat. Before Rita can get her hands on them, Zordon buries the rangers’ five coins beneath the surface, just in time as a huge meteorite hits the planet, obliterating everything in the area while knocking Rita deep into the ocean.
Cut to 65 million years later, and a small American town, where our five teen protagonists will be introduced. First is Jason (Dacre Montgomery), a local football star who is participating in a high school prank, which involves a puerile joke that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a Tom Green sketch. The prank goes horribly wrong, and the jock is sentenced to both house arrest and school detention. Here he meets Billy (RJ Cyler), a brainy but OCD-afflicted student who is continually bullied by those around him, and Kimberly (Naomi Scott), a former member of an elite clique who has suffered a fall from grace.
Billy, after helping Jason dodge his 7pm curfew, convinces him to accompany the budding archeologist to a particular quarry site, where he has been searching for potential treasures. Also in the area is not only Kimberly, but social outcast Trini (Becky G), and self-confessed crazy guy Zack (Ludi Lin). Before long, Billy has uncovered the five powerful coins, giving each of these unfulfilled youngsters super human strengths and abilities. As the group try to understand what is happening to them, their paths will be directed towards a hidden spaceship, inhabited by a small robot named Alpha 5 (voiced by Bill Hader), and Zordon, whose spirit was transported into the ship’s mainframe just before that fateful meteor strike. Initially unconvinced that these puny humans are the chosen ones, Zordon’s mind is slowly changed as the group are put through intensive training, revealing the kind of purity and teamwork required to make a true ranger team.
As these teenagers try to harness and control their considerable powers, Rita has re-emerged from the ocean depths, and her own magical capabilities are quickly rejuvenating. Backed by her numerous minions, Rita is after special crystals which are hidden within the Earth, crystals that gave the planet life so long ago. Zordon informs the rangers that they have eleven days to stop Rita from acquiring the crystals. If they fail, Earth will be destroyed.
Based on the popular TV series (by Haim Saban) that began in 1993, which itself spawned two feature films (one in 1995 and another in 1997), the small-screen hit actually blended, Roger Corman-style, footage from a 1992 Japanese series called Super Sentai Zyuranger with new scenes shot in the U.S. Believe it or not, Saban’s show is still running, aired under variant titles such as Lost Galaxy, R.P.M, and its most recent incarnation, Dino Charge.
Power Rangers 2017 awkwardly hovers between two camps. The producers and film-makers certainly want to aim this reboot at a new generation, and attempt to darken and deepen the Ranger universe in a way that resonates with contemporary audiences. The heroes’ suits look more like armour than party-friendly costumes, the young characters are given angst-ridden backstories, and the main villain is made more threatening. In fact, the whole set-up is like a cross between John Hughes’ 80’s classic The Breakfast Club and the 2012 sci-fi found footage film Chronicle, but lacks the former’s insightful examination of young people, and the latter’s ingenious execution of its science fiction elements. Other films and shows that come to mind as the story plays out are Voltron, the 2013 live-action, big screen version of Gatchaman, and even a little bit of The Lost Boys.
However, all these efforts are undermined by screenwriter John Gatins, who quickly introduces the Rangers’ history and worries through clunky verbal exposition, and director David Israelite, who frequently relies on campy behaviour, ensuring the villainous Rita and her cohorts present no real danger, causing the adventure to become a frustratingly jarring exercise.
Coming off the disappointing teen time travel thriller Project Almanac, Israelite does the cinematic equivalent of paint-by-numbers, draining the production of any kind of distinction or individual style. Though competently staged, there is nothing here that you haven’t seen in the dozens of superhero films that have flooded theatres over the last ten years. Only a few months older than Damien Chazelle, the youngest person ever (32 years old) to win an Oscar for Best Director, Israelite struggles to give his film memorable flavour and panache, but admittedly it is a tall order when there seems to be a new superhero film every twenty-four hours.
Gatin, an actor-turned-writer who penned such formulaic titles as Summer Catch (2001), Hard Ball (2001), and Coach Carter (2005), but also wrote the compelling, Oscar-nominated Robert Zemeckis drama Flight (2012), blurts out character traits in an obvious manner, rather than organically developing them through genuine interaction and internal conflict. These character soundbites make the first half of the film feel incredibly padded and overlong.
Performances hamper proceedings even more. All five of the young actors fail to register, generating little in the way of charisma and presence (Lin is probably the best of a bad bunch), so it’s hard to invest in these characters when they are all so interminably dull. Bill Hader (who sounds like Patton Oswalt throughout) tries to add comedic spark as the voice of Alpha 5, but can’t overcome the continual stream of tiresome one-liners, and the indefatigable Bryan Cranston appears in his obligatory movie of the week. There is also one of the most shameless incidents of product placement seen in a movie for quite some time, putting the film in the same company as Mission to Mars, Minority Report and I, Robot.
At the other end of the spectrum is Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games), who camps it up incessantly as villainess Rita Repulsa. While the film-makers want to give this reboot a mildly darker edge, Israelite has obviously instructed Banks to indulge in a pantomime-like performance, reverting to the tone laid down in the 90’s TV programme. While it works against the director’s frequently contradictory approach, Banks is at least lively, and provides the film’s only real sense of fun.
Like the blockbuster Beauty and the Beast remake, this may also entertain those who are unaware of its original source material, but a wildly inconsistent tone and generic attitude (undercut more by a boring group of protagonists), makes this new-look Power Rangers a hard sell, aimed at a new generation who have an ever-expanding Marvel universe to immerse themselves in. Die-hard fans might derive some enjoyment, but whether this movie franchise is successfully relaunched is hard to say.
[referring to the wrecked car]
Jason Scott: Is this to remind me of my screw-up?
Sam Scott: You know, I don’t think we’re ever going to understand each other.
[referring to Jason going to detention]
Sam Scott: [to Jason] Now you’ve got to come here every Saturday just to graduate with all these other weirdos and criminals!