Apr 1, 2017

Power Rangers [12A]

Dir: Dean Israelite
I was just a bit too old for Power Rangers. I remember it coming on UK TV in the mid 90's, when I was 13 or 14, and feeling that I had aged out of the audience by a few years. That said, I ended up watching quite a lot of the early series' because my brother, 4 years younger, was a huge fan. I was a fan of Amy Jo Johnson's Kimberly, rather than of the show. I didn't have much investment when approaching this reboot, but as a fan of teen movies and of martial arts films, I was hoping for something I could enjoy, even if at the purely silly and superficial level on which the show functioned. It's weird to feel disappointed by a film you went in with no real expectations for.

The film retains the basic setup of the show. Five teenagers from Angel Grove, California, discover coins that give them access to an ancient power. At a command centre Zordon (Bryan Cranston) and Alpha 5 (voice of Bill Hader) inform these new Power Rangers – Jason (Dacre Montgomery), Kimberly (Naomi Scott), Billy (RJ Cyler), Zack (Ludi Lin) and Trini (Becky G) – that they are now tasked with protecting the universe from Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), who has just awakened after 65 million years and now seek the Zeo Crystal, with which she can destroy all life on Earth.

There are a couple of new ideas introduced to the backstory here. The first – that Rita was a Power Ranger who went bad – has promise. This makes the conflict between Rita and Zordon more personal, or it should, but like much of the rest of the story here it's stated rather than explored. Another new idea is connected to how the Rangers morph. The handheld morphers are gone, replaced with some vague babble about only being able to morph when they are 'thinking only of each other'. It's this second idea that encapsulates what's wrong with Power Rangers 2017.

There seems to be a feeling, especially in reboot culture, that audiences won't invest emotionally in a story unless it is dark and po-faced. Power Rangers sticks resolutely to this model for a good 80 percent of its needlessly lengthy running time. The rangers aren't friends as the film begins, instead they're all outcasts to a certain degree. Jason is a sports star who messed up his chances of playing in College with a stupid prank. Zack looks after his ailing Mother and cuts school a lot. Billy is an autistic genius with a tragic dead father backstory. Kimberly did something awful to a friend (it sounds like she shared some revenge porn, but this is a 12A, so the film never says that). Trini doesn't get on with her Mum and it's implied that this might be because Trini is gay (there's a vague reference to 'girlfriend problems'). The film spends a lot of time on this teen angst bullshit, but it never does anything more than skim the surface of the issues it brings up. It puts a moody face on, but nothing more. If the film committed to these themes, if it used them, as it aspires to, to bring the Rangers closer, to make them knit together as a team and as friends, that would be something. Unfortunately it's just not well enough written or, for the most part, acted for that to work. What we get instead is a film whose storytelling is as downbeat and grey as most of its look. An hour in I wanted to yell at the screen, to grab the screenwriters and scream “have some fun, it's Power Rangers”.

The acting is as problematic as the writing when it comes to how the tone of Power Rangers fails. RJ Cyler runs away with the film, occasionally finding some levity as Billy and being the one person whose excitement at suddenly being a superhero seems real and investable. The other Rangers are stunningly dull. Writer John Gatins seems to have taken one personality type ('rebel') and handed it to both Trini and Zack. Neither Becky G nor Ludi Lin has much to do (indeed Trini isn't named until almost an hour in, so much of an afterthought is she), but they don't elevate the material either. As Jason and Kimberly, Dacre Montgomery and Naomi Scott have bigger parts, but their personalities are just as small. The film can't decide what to do with them either, at one point it seems to imply that Billy might have a crush on Kimberly, but neither this nor the equally briefly and randomly hinted at attraction between her and Jason comes to anything. There is little to no sense of them as a group, so a would be emotional end of act 2 beat, in which they all say they would die for each other (they've known each other a week) is rendered laughable.

The supporting roles are equally mixed. Bill Hader contributes an Alpha 5 you won't want to strangle, which is progress, but Bryan Cranston can't find anything to hold on to as Zordon. On the plus side there's Elizabeth Banks. Banks seems to be in the Power Rangers movie I might have enjoyed watching. She chomps ever increasing amounts of scenery with a glee that seems to grow scene by scene. It was nice to see someone having fun with what should be a fun concept.

Power Rangers is ugly in the way most blockbusters are ugly now. The film it looks most like is Transformers, like that series it takes something that was bright, bold and colourful and renders it mostly in shades of grey. This is most notable the first time we see the Rangers in full costume as a group. They get a Right Stuff shot, it should be the moment all our childhoods come flooding back, but the shot is so dark that you can barely see the differences in the colours of their costumes. This is also a problem with the Zords, which look like rejected models for Michael Bay's next Transformers movie. The action is slightly more coherent than I expected, but it's disappointing not so see more martial arts before we get to the big CGI smackdowns of the Zord vs monster fights.

In its last 20 minutes, the film changes tone quite radically. It seems to remember which TV show it's adapting and decide that, it's time to cut loose a bit. In the daytime set fight scenes there's finally a bit of colour to the Rangers' look and there's finally a sense of teamwork and of the team enjoying discovering their powers, while recognising the stakes of what they have to do. It's the best part of the film, but it sits awkwardly with the preceding 90 minutes. The last fight and, to some degree, the earlier scenes of Elizabeth Banks having a grand old time as Rita, feel like they belong to another film; one that found the sweet spot between the corny show and original film and something that brings a little more credibility to this idea, updating it for a new time. If this tone is what the whole of the inevitable sequel ends up going for then I could imagine watching it. If it's more of the Sour Rangers stuff we get here, count me out.

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