I know what you’re thinking, ’cause it’s the same thing I’m thinking: if it’s just called POWER RANGERS now instead of MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS does that mean there’s no morphin anymore? Or that there is morphin but they didn’t want to mention it in the title because it’s not particularly mighty as far morphin goes? And is morphin actually just morphin’ without the apostrophe or is it some mythological Power Ranging concept that I’m unaware of and it’s not explained in the movie and that’s why it’s not in the title? Also, did they foresee that I would try to text “It’s morphin time!” to my friend and it would autocorrect to “It’s morphine time!”? I mean, this is a movie that raises many questions.
There is in fact morphin (not morphine) in the new 2017 movie POWER RANGERS, but they have to earn it. A do-over, not a sequel to the ludicrous 1990s after school TV show, director Dean Israelite (PROJECT ALMANAC) and writer John Gatins (FLIGHT) (story by Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless [THE LAST WITCH HUNTER, GODS OF EGYPT] and Michele Mulroney & Kieran Mulroney [SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS]) try to make sense out of a mythology that started as just some bullshit that importer Haim Saban made up to string together library footage from the Japanese robots vs. giant monsters show Super Sentai Rangers.
I’ve honestly been looking forward to this for many years, the day when the generation that grew up on this ridiculous show would be ready for the serious movie treatment. It’s not as “dark and gritty” as Joseph Kahn’s satirical take in the short POWER/RANGERS, in other words it’s not as hilariously misjudged as you/I might expect/hope. There is a slight attempt at edginess I suppose considering that it opens with ancient alien Rangers fighting each other to the death and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs with a suicide comet, then goes right into a not as funny version of the jerking-off-a-bull joke from KINGPIN. But for the most part it’s a good tone for this: way smarter than the show, but still a little dorkier than it seems to realize it is. I enjoyed it quite a bit.
The basic concept, in case you’re not familiar: a group of teens in the town of Angel Grove, California are given powers to defend the earth from alien monsters. The “Rangers” pretend to be ordinary high school students until it’s time to put on their face-covering motorcycle helmets (each of a different color and dinosaur theming) and do acrobatic martial arts against an army of drones called “Putties,” or use their “Zords” (robotic dinosaurs that they drive) to fight against various giant monsters trying to crush the empty warehouse district. This formula of Saved By the Bell meets Voltron became a pop culture phenomenon in 1993 and the Saban company has continued to reinvent it with revolving casts and concepts ever since, going through around twenty different revamps including POWER RANGERS LIGHTSPEED RESCUE, POWER RANGERS JUNGLE FURY, POWER RANGERS DINO SUPER CHARGE and POWER RANGERS DR. DOLITTLE FORCE GENESIS TORNADO PUNCHERS.
I’m not clear who the original Power Rangers were supposed to be, they were described as “teenagers with attitude,” but they seemed like very square All-American popular kids. This time it’s clear that they’re bad kids and misfits who unite and try to prove themselves to the world and their parents and what not – I’m sure that’s inspired by THE BREAKFAST CLUB, but of course my mind goes to A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS.
Sort of the lead (and leader) is Jason (Dacre Montgomery), who was the star football player but got kicked off of the team, ruining the season and angering the town. Kimberly (Naomi Scott, THE MARTIAN) was kicked off the cheerleader squad and excommunicated by her friends, so she goes into the bathroom and gives herself a cool haircut. They meet in detention, where they also meet Billy (RJ Cyler, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL – he was Earl), who explains that he’s on the spectrum (which would explain alot about the cartoon nerd behavior of the original character).
The Power Rangers were always diverse, but it was a little weird that the black guy was the Black Ranger and the Asian girl was the Yellow Ranger. They ditched that, and seem to be intentionally pushing away from the stereotypes, so the black kid is the nerd and the Asian kid (Ludi Lin as Black Ranger Zack) is the kind of douchey too-cool-for-school guy. The Yellow Ranger (Becky G, Empire) is said to be a lesbian.
(I thought it would be funny/cool if they had one of the boys be the Pink Ranger but never commented or joked about it at all. Then I read that in fact Max Landis, who wrote a draft of the script that they decided would be better to seal inside a magic crystal and fire into space, did have a male in the pink costume, but it was a joke about how they got their alien coins mixed up.)
I mentioned that these Rangers have to earn their Morphin, and that is the key to both the strengths and the weaknesses of POWER RANGERS. This is a better message for the kids: even if you’re destined to find glowing alien artifacts in a mine and turn into monster fighting super heroes, you still gotta work for it. I don’t care if you’re the Chosen One you can’t just sit around the house all day you gotta put in some fuckin elbow grease. First they discover their super strength and jumping powers and try to get used to them. Then they meet the robot Alpha 5 (Bill Hader, ACCIDENTAL LOVE) and giant talking face Zordon (Bryan Cranston, DRIVE) and stand on platforms inside a crashed alien ship… but then it doesn’t work. Nope, it’s not morphin time yet. They aren’t ready.
So they have to train and they eventually discover that (SPOILER FOR THE MOVIE POWER RANGERS) opening up and learning to like each other is the secret to morphin. Although it does feel like the movie takes a little too long getting to where they get to wear color-coded suits and helmets, I do like that they’re basically harnessing the magical power of friendship.
Also on this theme: when their Zords (reminder: robotic dinosaurs that they drive) combine into the giant “Megazord,” they have to learn to coordinate as one body. At first they just stumble all over the place because they’re a bunch of separately moving parts.
Oh, by the way, would you be surprised to hear that the appealingly simple spandex-and-helmets designs of the original costumes have been recreated in thick layers of sculpted plastic muscle armor with all kinds of added textures and light up parts and extra flaps and doodads and crap all over the fuckin place? Or have you seen movies lately? I don’t know if today’s film designers were home schooled with the incorrect information that overly detailed = cinematic, or if they’re paid by the hour so they never stop gluing shit on top of shit on top of shit on top of shit. But at some point this madness has to end and people have to learn how to draw and sculpt things that are beautiful again.
Dear concept designers, when you’re sittin at the drawing table, know when to walk away, know when to run. –Kenny Roger’s “The Gambler”
Anyway once they have their overly complicated messes of armor they are equipped to jack into their Zords (now computer animated, of course, and similarly overdesigned) to go fight resurrected power mad ex-Ranger Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks, W., SLITHER) and the giant winged (but not flying?) monster she made out of gold, some of it stolen from a homeless guy’s teeth. After 90 minutes of trying to do a classier, more cinematic version of Power Rangers (my favorite example being the RIGHT STUFF slo-mo group walk toward the camera with Philip Glass-like synth blurps [music by Brian Tyler, BUBBA HO-TEP]) all the sudden they’re like fuck it and just trot out the original TV “Go go Power Rangers” song as they ape the vintage Japanese stock footage of the Zords running in profile. (Hopefully if they make a sequel they’ll be meta enough to recycle this footage, maybe even make it a little grainier than the rest of the movie.)
The biggest laugh actually came at the best possible place: the dispatching of the villain. SPOILER: After they choose not to kill Rita, but to take her to Zordon, she goes kamikaze and leaps to attack. It’s the cliche of the defiant bad guy forcing the good guy’s hand, except instead of shooting her in the head they’re driving a giant robot that literally slaps her into outer space.
Banks, by the way, is a highlight, playing Rita very mega but not as if she’s in a comedy. Just right. Great casting choice.
For me the biggest problem with the movie is the pretty minimal amount of martial arts. What they have (fight coordinator: Brian Ho) is mostly against shapeshifting computer animated putties, but it’s fun. It’s just a small amount considering this comes from a show that always had a bunch of karate fights, so much so that it served as a training ground for the King of DTV Action Isaac Florentine (who was a frequent Power Rangers director, second unit director and choreographer). I hope they make a part 2 and I hope as we speak those kids are laying in their bunk beds at Kung Fu Boot Camp staring up admiringly at a poster of Keanu training for THE MATRIX.
I’m glad I saw this with a big opening weekend crowd. There were giggling kids, but mostly Millennials who clearly grew up on the show. They laughed, applauded, had loud nerdy conversations afterwards, also their rumblings of excitement tipped me off to the original cast member cameos in a crowd shot. I’d guess they’re not totally blinded by nostalgia, they probly realize how absurdly shitty and insane the show was. But the movie is enjoyable for the challenge of taking that nonsense, staying faithful enough to bring up those memories, but still turning it into something semi-coherent… and yet not so much that it drains it of its stupid charms. Luckily I don’t think it’s entirely self conscious. The Rangers and Rita sure seem serious when they keep yelling about getting to the Krispy Kreme during the climactic robot battle, because (due to endorsement deals beyond the reality of the movie) that is the location of the all important Zeo Crystals. Assuming the filmatists know how funny that is I thank them for playing dumb.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.