I was an 80s kid who loved GI Joe, Star Wars, and Ninja Turtles, but I never really got into Power Rangers. For some reason, by the time Power Rangers ruled the airwaves of the 90s, I was a little too old for it. Plus the commercials always looked dubious: brightly colored costumes with inexplicable unmoving lip-molds, robots, and rubber-suited villains. The practical effects that worked for me in Star Wars seemed more laughable and lame to my nine year old eyes, and so I never watched it. I resented the Power Rangers toys next to my beloved GI Joe’s on the K-Mart shelves, like some new kid on the block who starts calling your best friend their best friend.
Well, now it’s 2017, and we’re so far into a decade of rebooted 80s and 90s entertainment franchises that a Power Rangers movie seems now rote and humdrum. After two new GI Joe movies AND two new Ninja Turtles movies, I’ve come to accept that the childhood reboot movies (CRMs) will never be satisfying. The question will never be “How good is it?” The question will always be “How bad is it?” And thus the highest praise will always be “not bad”.
After I watch a CRM, I have a strange feeling that maybe I’ve never seen a good movie. That maybe I should praise what I just saw because movies aren’t ever really any better. Movies are always a few funny jokes and one or two likable characters, a bland plot and not much else. I felt like this walking out of Power Rangers. But then I remembered that last week I watched The Wind Rises, a patient, beautiful, haunting film. There are still good movies, that both adults and kids can love. They just don’t really exist in the world of CRMs.
So, let’s get it over with [Spoilers follow]
Power Rangers begins, a title card tells us, in the Cenozoic era, the screen sprayed with exploding earth and vague jungled mountains in the back-ground. It feels like it’s shot on a backlot that was used the day before for Hacksaw Ridge. Let’s call it scorched-earth chic.(Hey, that was a good move too. Not classic, but pretty darn good. Faith in movies restored). Anyway, the Red Ranger is crawling desperately for some reason. I know he’s the Red Ranger because his suit is red. It turns out his name is Zordon. Yes, I know what you’re thinking – very close to Zartan from GI Joe. But Zordon is a good guy is this one. In particular, he’s trying to hide some shiny stones from a bad-looking witch lady. He calls her Rita.
Wait, let me Google a couple things: okay, to my surprise, the Cenozoic era is a real thing, though it’s hardly specific: for instance, we are currently living in the Cenozoic era. 66 million years ago, it was also the Cenozoic era. I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be a few million years ago in this opener, for what it’s worth, so we’ll just call this the early Cenozoic.
But I’m afraid I can’t buy that Rita is a real name used a few million years ago; case in point, Rita is a diminutive of Margaret, which is from the Greek for pearl. Saint Margaret, who is responsible for the popularity of the name, was martyred in the 4th century AD. I’m pretty sure Rita is a much more recent nickname. So, historically speaking, it’s highly improbable anyone would be named “Rita” in, like, 10 million BC. “Zordon”, of course is much more plausible.
Anyways, Zordon seems to temporarily defeat Rita, and hide the jewels – one red, one pink, one yellow, one black, and one blue – before our transition to the present day (or, the late Cenozoic, if you will). Two jocks are trying to pull some prank with a cow at their school, and a joke about milking a bull is made. It’s surprisingly crude and very funny in a Judd Apatow sort of way (if you like that sort of thing, which I do from time to time), but feels a little out of place here, especially when made by a character who will only appear in this scene.
One of our jocks, it turns out, is the star quarterback, but after crashing his truck running from the police, he’s kicked off the team and placed in Saturday detention. This gives the filmmakers the opportunity to do a “super hero team as The Breakfast Club”, but the effort feels half hearted, and doesn’t quite land. Instead, the scene sets up an unexpected friendship between Jason, the humbled Jock, and nerdy Billy, another detentionee who Jason defends from a wholly cliche and uninteresting bully. We get to see that Jason has a Steve Rogers streak, though Dacre Montgomery, who plays him, is no Chris Evans.
Billy, played by RJ Cyler, on the other hand, is the best character in the movie by far – funny, awkward, endearing, motormouthed, and guided by love. Whereas other characters talk about their families only at times that feel prescribed by the script, Billy talks about his mom and his late father incessantly, as if they are more real to him even when absent than the people around him. He also latches onto Jason as not just a friend but a big brother. Even when surrounded by all the other Rangers, he directs his comments to Jason as the one out of the group he both most cares about and feels is somewhat in charge of looking after him. I could stand to watch a movie all about Billy.
At detention we also meet Kimberly, played by Naomi Scott. She looks like a cross between Krysten Ritter and Chloe Bennet, though unlike their typical cynical outsider characters, she here plays a cheerleader – the archetypal analogue of Jason’s quarterback – who has been, surprise, surprise, also defrocked of her social status due to some mean girl drama over a boy. I would have liked to have seen both of them in their prelapsarian states; especially in a movie that will try to be about teamwork between teens, it would have been nice to see several contrasting examples of teens working as teams, football, cheerleading, etc.
Kimberly also likes doing Yoga on rocky outcroppings overlooking quarries, which is convenient, because later that night the quarry is exactly where Billy drags Jason. The three of them are not the only ones who like an evening stroll in the trees and crags. There’s also Zach, played by Ludi Lin, who has a generic swagger and has the questionable habit of watching Kimberly do yoga through binoculars. This creepiness is never really addressed. There’s also Trini, played by Becky G. (Yes that’s the entriety of her stage name. She’s a musician. Go figure.) Trini is… possibly gay? A Selena Gomez look alike? Has parents who just don’t understand? Honestly neither she nor Zach has much of a character. Zach has a sick mom that lends his character an easy sympathetic note, and helps smooth the bad-boy rough edges. Trini has none of this and deserves more of a character.
After a requisite cave in (caused partially by Billy’s penchant for pyrotechnics), the five find themselves in a gravity defying pool and then a buried spaceship, where they receive the stones we saw at the beginning, and are invited by a wisecracking robot to become a team of… superheroes? Alien warriors? It’s unclear what exactly the Power Rangers are. They keep being called “guardians of life” which sounds generic enough to mean whatever we want it to mean. There turns out to be a crystal that holds some sort of life force, and that crystal needs to be guarded from Rita, who, wouldn’t you know it, has woke from her millions’ year long slumber and is now stealing/consuming gold all over town in an attempt to…
Are you still reading? If so, you’ll have to forgive me, because at this point in the movie I really needed a bathroom break, and I may have missed something about the whole Rita plot. It didn’t matter, because the rest off the movie still made enough sense after I came back, though my popcorn had gotten cold.
Back with the Rangers, they decide over the course of a few scenes that they do indeed want to take on this responsibility. It helps that there’s both a funny and helpful robots (Bill Hader channeling a KiKi’s Delivery Service era Phil Hartman), who shows them the ropes of being a Ranger. There’s an austere, Jor-El-like talking head that happens to belong to Zordon himself. He’s somehow stuck in another reality or dimension or somewhat, and cannot return until the rangers can “morph”, which pretty much seems to me put aside their differences and work as a team and thus access cool suits and robot vehicles? This morph will open the portal through which Zordon can come to earth. I think. Is Zordon dead? Are we learning that teamwork is really the key to human resurrection? I remain confused.
Some of the training montages are fun. The single best scene on the film is a short sequence of Kimberly and Trini eating breakfast together at a restraint, and fighting over the last bite of a cinnamon roll by flipping it back and forth from fork to fork, ninja style, through the air. The scene has an energy the rest of the movie lacks, and must itself be from an alternate dimension where Chris Evans plays Jason and people’s names are not so anachronistic.
As bad as Rita Repulsa’s name is, Elizabeth Banks plays her with winking relish, and some of the early scenes of her eating gold off jewelry store counters in full view of cowering salespeople and customers are creepily effective.
Inevitably, the Rangers end up being lured into a trap by Rita, who knows they haven’t learned to morph yet, and easily disarms and ties them up. She then – and this actually happens – kills Billy. She drops him into the ocean with his hands tied, and he drowns before the other rangers can get to him. I kept expecting him to be resuccitated by Kimberly (you’d think she’s know CPR?), but no. Billy is dead. His four friends carry him to Zordon in slow motion while “Stand by Me” plays. At this point I was proud of the movie. It may be bland and generic, but I did not at all expect Billy to die.
Still, because of Billy’s death, the Rangers all bond and work together, and this opens the portal, but instead of Zordon coming through, Zordon sends Billy (Billy’s soul?) back, and surprise, he sputters to life. At this point I wrote in my notes “Good guy Zordon”. This proves to Jason that Zordon is actually trustworthy and all around a pretty chill guy, something he struggled with early on.
(Why – if I may digress – is the white guy automatically the leader? Why not Billy – who happens to be black? Or Kimberly? Why MUST it be Jason? At one point, Zach, ever the hot head, questions Jason’s leadership, and we seem forced, as the audience to say that Zach couldn’t possibly lead. By why not? [Okay, okay – I get it. Jason is Leonardo, Zach is Raphael, Billy is Donatello, etc etc. I liked it better when everyone was green and amphibian.])
Due to Billy’s death and resurrection, the team has now bonded enough to “morph” together, which involves Jason saying, with maximum cheese, “It’s morphin’ time!” at which point their power ranger costumes magically appear on their bodies. What happens to the clothes they were wearing before is anyone’s guess. I’ve wondered this about Green Lantern as well… anyway, I digress.
Now that they have their costumes the Red, Blue, Black, Yellow, and Pink – yes Yellow and Pink are the girls, but no, Billy’s not the Black ranger, thank goodness – Rangers are ready to take on Rita and her minions. An escalating fight sequence now takes place. It’s honestly pretty fun in a sort of throw back way. There’s no shaky cam or Michael Bay grandiloquence. Mostly it’s just people in silly costumes jumping around fighting each other, aided by CG embellishments to their costumes (especially Rita’s minions, who appear to be some sort of rock golems. The fact that they remind me of the similar minions at the end of suicide squad is not a great thing).
The final fight turns out to be not Rangers vs Rita, but Rita’s golden, three story tall monster Goldar (guess what he’s made out of!) vs a three story tall robot made out of smaller robots, each piloted by a Ranger. When their robots first form this giant robot, which seems to called a be called a Mega-Zord, it turns out the Rangers don’t know how to steer it, and it immediately falls over. This is funny in a Marvel/Whedon way, and I salute whoever had the idea.
Anyway, in the end Mega-Zord body-slams Goldar, WWE style, and the town is saved. But what of Rita? The fight sent her spinning into space, much like Vader in the original Star Wars, and my guess is she’s scheduled return for the sequel. I don’t think I’ll see the sequel, but I do thank the movie for reminding me of another film, which is both aesthetically coherent and also features robots body-slamming monsters: Pacific Rim. I should really watch that again. That was a good movie.