Review: “Power Rangers” (2017)

3.5 out of 5 stars.

They’re not your typical superheroes, but the Power Rangers were an indispensable aspect of almost every 90s kid’s life, beginning with the original 1993 television series.  It’s rather astounding that, given the franchise’s ongoing popularity and the onslaught of nostalgia-based adaptations and reboots over the last few years, the Power Rangers haven’t made the leap to the big screen sooner (excluding the 1995 and 1997 films).  Maybe it’s because it’s hard to balance the pure cheese of the original show with the more serious themes most other current superhero movies are exploring—something this new “Power Rangers” attempts to do, but doesn’t quite succeed.

The opening sequence sets the stage for the film’s main conflict, portraying a prehistoric Earth where a group of warriors known as the Power Rangers (led by Zordon, played by Bryan Cranston), die trying to hide the Zeo Crystal from traitorous Ranger Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), an object she could use to destroy all life on Earth.  Before he dies, Zordon hides the power coins that give the Rangers their powers, hoping that someday they will find those who are worthy of becoming the next group of Rangers.

Fast forward to the present day and the sleepy fishing town of Angel Grove.  A Breakfast Club-like setup introduces us to a few of the main characters, high school students who are sharing Saturday detention together for a variety of reasons.  Jason (Dacre Montgomery) is a former star football player who is under house arrest after a prank goes terribly wrong; Kimberly (Naomi Scott) is a former cheerleader who has been excluded from her clique after punching her ex-boyfriend’s tooth out; and then there’s Billy, an autistic tech genius who convinces Jason to go with him to the quarry where his dad used to work.  It’s there that they have a chance encounter with Zack (Ludi Lin), who skips school and spends most of his time caring for his ailing mother, Trini (Becky G.), a loner who wants to be left that way, and Kimberly that leads to them finding the power coins and Zordon’s ship, which is inhabited by the robot Alpha 5 (voiced by Bill Hader).  They learn about the coins, which have imbued them with powers that make them super strong and agile, and about Rita, who will return for the Zeo Crystal in 11 days and will end life as everyone knows it unless the Rangers can stop her.

The problem is, the Rangers really need to be able to morph into their armor to have a chance at stopping Rita, and to do that, they need to be able to connect with one another.  But they’re all strangers who just met a day ago.  So much of the film is spent getting to know these characters, but that isn’t an issue at all—in fact, it’s the film’s strongest point.  The cast is led by a relatively unknown group of young actors, but they have no problem carrying the movie.  The characters are also wonderfully, admirably diverse in a way that most superhero films are not.  The team consists of three guys and two girls, and yeah, the leader may the white guy, but we also get a black autistic hero in the form of Billy; a queer Latina hero in Trini; and an Asian hero in Zack.  Each member of the team has their own personal issues that come to light as they get to know each other better and journey not just from nobodies to heroes, but from strangers to friends.  For instance, Trini rebels against fitting into the labels her conservative parents want for her, while Kimberly struggles with things she’s done in the past that she believes indicates that she’s a horrible person.  Unfortunately, not all of these characters’ backstories, all of which do sound very interesting, are fully explored.  In some cases, details are introduced but then forgotten about entirely by the end of the film.  For example, the beginning of film suggests issues between Jason and his dad not understanding each other, but we never understand why they have such a rocky relationship, nor why Jason was even motivated to do the prank that ended up getting him punished in the first place.  Sure, these are all things that could be explained in future sequels (which already seem to be happening), but not following through with them hurts this movie as it stands on its own.

Power Rangers
Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) confronts Trini (Beck G.)

It is still the first act of the movie where the characters are learning about themselves and their powers that is the most fun and interesting.  Watching them gleefully leap across gorges, all of their cares and problems tossed aside, at least for the moment, is, as it turns out, more entertaining than watching them fight Rita and her minions in the third act.  There’s a grittiness about this section of the film: technically, from the shaky camera moves; visually, from the bleakness and mysteriousness of the old mine that serves as a setting for so much of the action; and emotionally, as we watch the Rangers struggle with relatable real-world problems on top of exploring their new powers.

The second act, in which Rita and her threat to the world really comes into play, is almost entirely different from the first act.  The CG effects kick into high gear as the Ranges venture off to fight Rita, using a combination of their own powers and the Zords, giant robotic creatures that the Rangers can pilot once they’ve morphed.  It’s fun at first, but grows tiresome quickly as the finale just never seems to end.  And it’s at this point that the film tries to reflect some of the campiness of the original show, after having been a pretty serious movie up to that point.  The visual of giant robot dinosaurs fighting a giant gold man created by Rita (Banks really does relish playing this over-the-top villain) is ridiculous on its own, but there are other things the film does too, like incorporate a version of the Power Rangers theme song.  And then there’s the fact that a major aspect of the plot centers around a Krispy Kreme donut shop, in what is one of the most hilariously obvious product placements ever (Krispy Kreme is one of the film’s advertising partners).  Usually in origin stories, the protagonist finally becoming the hero is the most exciting part of the movie, but here, the build-up is more intriguing than the conclusion.

That’s not to say that “Power Rangers” isn’t a fun movie, or that it won’t please those who grew up with the 90s show, along with being a solid introduction to the franchise for those who aren’t familiar with it in the first place.  It largely succeeds in making the franchise feel more contemporary, and sets up the potential for sequels without leaving loose ends.  The film is something a bit different, and maybe a bit more relatable for young people especially, than other current superhero movies, and that makes it a success in and of itself.

Runtime: 124 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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