Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Movie Review: Power Rangers (2017)



Power Rangers is one of those franchises that definitely divides people in hindsight. Personally, even today, I still find a lot to like about it. While I may have a stronger connection to the Disney era of the franchise, in particular Dino Thunder, RPM and especially SPD, I did grow up with the Mighty Morphin’ series on VHS. While the rest of you ponder how old this inevitably makes me, also understand that a lot of my opinions regarding media aimed at children were born from my love of this franchise. Yeah, it’s frequently kitschy and more than a little stupid, but at its best, it’s the kind of kick-ass and brightly coloured action fun that I can see merit in. That, and there’s plenty of examples of real character moments and genuine drama to give it its worth in today’s superhero-drenched landscape. So, between my love for the original shows and the year-long dreading I’ve been going through concerning this film for various reasons, how does this latest iteration of those teenagers with attitude turn out? This is Power Rangers.

The plot: In a chance encounter, Jason (Dacre Montgomery), Billy (RJ Cyler), Zack (Ludi Lin), Trini (Becky G) and Kimberly (Naomi Scott) meet each other at a mine and uncover five mystical coins. After waking up the next day and discovering that they have each gained superhuman powers, they eventually find a fallen spaceship containing Zordon (Bryan Cranston) and his assistant Alpha 5 (Bill Hader), who proceed to train the five teenagers with attitude to fight off the alien villain Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) and become a team that can defend the Earth from intergalactic threats: The Power Rangers.

Considering only one of our main group has bonafide experience as an actor, with RJ Cyler previously being in the quite excellent Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, the acting here is actually really damn good. Montgomery has a definite chip on his shoulder as the reluctant leader but he shows definite hero qualities that make his character quite engaging. That, and the fact that he’s able to hold his own against Cranston is quite astounding. Cyler may have his character’s autism a little too in focus, but he certainly gives it the genuine feeling that it needed, to the point where he pretty much becomes the main character for this version of the Rangers. Becky G, Ludi Lin and Naomi Scott may not get as much development as Red and Blue, but they also do remarkably well at going beyond their basic character designations and becoming actual living beings in their own right. Cranston, who actually has a under-appreciated history with Power Rangers from back in the Mighty Morphin’ days, gives the mentor Zordon a more flawed personality here, actually giving the usually-nebulous floating head in a tube a character in the process. Hader, who is quickly gaining a reputation for giving voices to endearing robots since his work on The Force Awakens, sticks to Alpha 5’s more recognizable traits while giving it his own special touch. Then there’s Elizabeth Banks, who manages to imbue her more scorned version of the alien sorceress with a crazy amount of intimidation. Emphasis on the crazy, as she seems to be having all the fun at portraying this mentally-deranged supervillain; thankfully, we get to join in on that fun.

With a series that is this entrenched in the early 90’s, how does this film modernize it? That is, does it make any attempt to modernize it? Well, it all starts with the characters and the film is off to a very promising start here. The original cast, aside from filling in their own niches within the era they’re based in, were also a bunch of goody-goods that fulfill that superhero role in that these are apparently people that you are meant to look up to and, maybe, emulate. All of that is thrown out here, instead going for the more rebellious outsiders to fill out the main cast. And honestly, this works a lot better. Not only does it put a stopper in the preachiness that pervaded the old series, it also fits into the teenaged wish fulfillment niche that director Dean Israelite showed at least some competence with back in Project Almanac. The Rangers are all fitted with labels that isolates them from everyone else, from the geek to the failed sports star to the cyber bully to the reckless recluse, even down to a character who is alluded to be LGBT. I’d call it pandering, if it weren’t for the fact that these are actual characters that exist beyond their labels. They’re flawed, troubled and even guilty of some unsavoury things, but in the end, they have the inner strength of heroes with how they actively look out for those around them.

This ends up playing into the Rangers mythos a lot better than I ever would have expected, considering the new origin story for Zordon and Rita. Along with themes about the juxtaposition of science, magic and nature, with all three have varying prominence across all the TV series, the big thing about the show that made it work was down to a single message: One’s power doesn’t define one’s worth as a hero. Or, to put it another way, you don’t need Power to be a Ranger. In the various shows, more times than not, the Rangers would always continue to fight even if they had lost their powers (which happened with frightening regularity) or even if it would mean their deaths. That stays true here, as we spend far more time with our Rangers out of their suits than in them. We see them adjust to their surroundings in light of their new powers and new responsibilities, and while they have their doubts considering the surreality of their situation, they walk their path to becoming Rangers in a way that makes it feel justified and pretty gratifying to watch. It also helps that, unlike the series, these aren’t already perfect fighters. We see them train, fail, train harder, fail harder and so on, along with gaining the resolve they need to morph in the first place, making the moment when they do finally don the suits feel like it was earned by the characters and the film as a whole.

All of this faithfulness and adaptability comes as a real surprise since, on the surface, this really doesn’t look like Power Rangers. I could bring up the little things that make this feel off, from our introduction to the Red Ranger that involves someone mistakenly milking a bull… because the new status quo for appealing to teens is gross-out humour, more’s the pity, or the inherent product placement concerning the final fight taking place in (or, rather, in the ruins of) a Krispy Kreme store, or I could bring up how Bulk and Skull are nowhere to be seen, even though they were easily the best parts of the first five years of the franchise. The roguish nature of the main characters kind of excuses that last point, but ultimately, these are just fanboy nitpicks. When we get into the look of the film, though, things turn a little bit grey. Literally. When dealing with characters that are built around bold and bright primary colours, why the hell does this film look so dreary? Even the costumes, which looked off from day one and started my year-long dread, look so non-descript that they barely feel like they warrant attention. Must be why we don’t actually get to them until the final act. The Zords are the same way too, largely stripped of their animalistic designs and just looking like various types of tanks skulking around. For a film that is this good below the surface, the surface itself looks a bit dodgy. Of course, it seems like the film itself is aware of its own influences with a straight-up reference to Transformers when one of the Zords accidentally crushes a car that look like Bumblebee’s vehicle mode… and the Ranger piloting it flat-out says “Sorry, Bumblebee!” Then again, it’s difficult to get too mad at the action beats because, even in those suits and those Zords, the fight scenes are still pretty cool to watch.

All in all, I am once again honestly surprised that this film turned out as well as it did. While definitely flawed, mostly to do with how it both embraces and tries to shy away from its own source material, this is the sort of movie that fans of the franchise have been wanting for decades now. Hell, even removed from the past Power Rangers films, this is still a pretty solid superhero flick in its own right with good characters, surprisingly good acting and enough knowledge about the series to know what to build on and what to get rid of. It’s better than The Great Wall, as the subject matter here not only latches onto a fairly significant part of my childhood but did it justice in the process. However, given how this film definitely has some identity issues, it falls short of The Boss Baby, which took a made-for-YouTube level idea and gave it a shocking amount of poignancy.

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