Revisiting Power Rangers (2017)

Revisiting Power Rangers (2017)

Power Rangers - DVD-Bluray

This ain’t new territory for me, but it is different for the blog…it’s about a movie! A lot of my recreation actually revolves around movies, and it’s something I find myself often wanting to discuss or learn about. One day I’ll go on and on about my film preferences, but for now, I’m just gonna jump into one of the most anticipated films of 2017, Power Rangers.

I saw this back in the theater with my son, and had a lot of thoughts and questions at the time, but I really hate to start dissecting a movie after a single viewing. Almost always I find minor and sometimes major plot points that I missed upon a second viewing, plus there’s a certain understanding to be gained when watching a movie when you already know how it ends. First impressions and perceptions are important, but at best they provide incomplete understandings of the film as a whole. Power Rangers just did hit home video earlier this week, and I’ve already watched it twice to make sure I’ve got a firm grasp on what’s going on.

Officially, I’m on the older end of kids-who-grew-up-on-the-internet. I guess technically I could be labelled a “Millennial,” and there are a lot of cultural markers that I do not share with Gen X, but the fact remains I’m just a few too many years removed from defining hallmarks of Millennials, mostly because I do remember functioning without cell phones, the internet, and even computers. I got my first computer in the 7th grade, and the internet followed a couple of days later. By then I was familiar with the web via friends’ houses, weird little demos and expos that would be set up (I remember one year the State Fair had a giant tent full of computers that were sitting there just for the sole purpose of letting people surf the web), and random snippets we were treated to in middle school. I didn’t get a cell phone until I was 18, the summer before I left for college. I still remember when mySpace was “tha shiz” and Facebook was only available to college students. Jeez, there was a large-ish group of kids I hung out with who were 2 years younger than me and even they seem a bit removed from the generation of Millennials.

I was born in 1985. So yeah, I kinda remember parts of the 80’s and have very distinct memories regarding the early 90’s. I do remember when MTV played almost exclusively music videos (except on the weekends where it was all Road Rules and Real World) and I was very much into grunge and alternative rock and that big ol’ snowball even if I was a few years late. I am definitely stuck in a lost area where I feel like I mentally identify more with the angsty, dissatisfied Gen X, though culturally I have more in common with the Millennials, even if some of that culture hasn’t played as large of a role in my life as it has others.

Why bother with all of that? I just wanna try to put you into my mindset going into the movie. The original show, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, debuted in 1993 and I can guarantee you I watched almost every single episode of the show up through the third season with some intermittent viewing in Seasons 4 and 5. Now this was the perfect show for my 8 year old brain. Lots of fighting, monsters, robots, giants, aliens, and best of all, everyday “kids” with the amazing secret that they could transform in the motherfucking Power Rangers! I thoroughly enjoyed the 1st season and while it is a little tougher for me to sit through these days without becoming distracted, it was a damn fine piece of television, especially considering how derivative it was. The whole “Green Ranger” thing was expertly done – it gave the show enough gravitas to keep it from being just another monster-of-week show, yet it also wasn’t so heavy and complex as to overly serialize the show for younger viewers. (I wish I could say the same thing about the protracted “Alien Rangers” saga. Obviously the writers wanted to introduce a tonal and thematic shift to the tried-and-true formula, but man oh man, this is one tough stretch of TV to make it through. I think it turned off a lot of long-time viewers and it’s easy to see why fans had some trepidation over the following Zeo…I can definitely say that “Power Rangers” never quite meant the same thing to me afterwards. What should’ve been a week-long miniseries was turned into the second half of the third season, replete with boring-ass leads: the Alien Rangers were a total snooze, and seriously, I’d like to shoot whoever thought it’d be a good idea to follow around the pre-pubescent Rangers.)

The second season took our young pre-adolescent brains by surprise by switching up the zords and then throwing in the White Ranger…and then the third season came with the Ninjazords…and then the Shogunzords…the Alien Rangers…yeah ok, a formula was starting to emerge, but then again, kids my age were starting to age out of it…and that’s ok. Shows like this rarely appeal to the same kids more than about 3 or 4 years, so they don’t have to worry so much about keeping fans. But there was a magnificent moment hidden (ok, it wasn’t hidden at all) in there that really gave kids my age everything they could ever want out of the Power Rangers and served as a decent bookend to those “classic years,” if you will. Can you guess what that moment was? Yeah, it was Power Rangers: The Movie from 1995.

To be clear, no, this flick is not as awesome as I remember it, and yes, I can completely understand the groans of my parents as I monopolized the VCR for 90 minutes or so. But I still gotta give credit where credit is due. The movie used the same cast from the show. It did the same shit as the show, it just made it look way cooler, such as turning the Rangers’ spandex outfits into exoskeleton-like armor, giving the zords a metallic look rather than the plastic and rubber of the series…it was a very good looking production, and although it was a little light on substance, we were at least treated to a story about transition rather than being forced to trudge through an origin story.

What was really weird was how the movie was like, half-canon. It was like the show had to explain how the Rangers went from the Thunderzords to the Ninjazords. The TV show had its canon explanation, and the movie had its explanation. So the movie followed the beginning and end points of the show, it just chose an entirely different route. I never understand the decision not to canonize it and just do away with the TV version of the transition.

Anyway, a couple of years later the film was followed by Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie and by god what a piece of garbage was this!? This flick was fully canon and lacked the production values of the previous movie, so it basically looked like 3 or 4 episodes mashed together. Admittedly I saw this in a bit of a vacuum; it served as a bridge between Seasons 4 and 5 and my viewership dropped off pretty heavily during the second half of Season 4 and I probably caught less than half of Season 5 total. Regardless, the concept itself wasn’t a lot of fun. The Rangers trade in all these cool creatures and machines and robots…for fucking dune buggies and ATVs? Wha…?

Turbo should’ve lived its life as a multi-part episode, lauded for its “super cool action sequence.” Instead, the exact same material has earned the label of “total shit movie with laughable effects.”

And then the series went on and on and I grew up and my kid kinda clued me into it from time to time but that was about it…until I heard about the new movie. At first I wasn’t enthused – I thought, “what in the hell do I know about Power Rangers nowadays?” But no no, this wasn’t some cash grab aiming to leech off the show, this was a serious effort to breathe new life into beloved source material.

Warning: There just might be spoilers ahead. If you want to be totally surprised, then go watch the movie and come back over here.

If you saw the trailers for Power Rangers, the first thing that probably stood out was the darker and more serious tone. I know my jaw dropped a little when it was made clear that the Rangers were being sourced from a detention class. Now obviously we were going to be dealing with some comedic overtones due to the target demographics, but I was impressed and excited that the film was eager to plunge into more plausible territory.

One of the criticisms leveled at the movie was how it didn’t closely stick to its original material. Well let’s be honest – the “source material” is pretty damn thin to begin with, and I actually thought it was brilliant how the writers tied so many elements together: the Power Coins, Zordon, Rita, the Green Coin, etc. In the original show you had all these components that made up what the Power Rangers were, and if you were lucky, you’d get a little sentence or two of exposition somewhere down the line, but there wasn’t some big cohesive blanket that tied it all together. Power Rangers did that by making Zordon and Rita former Rangers. In many ways, this is the origin story we never got. In fact, you could slap this story on the front of MMPR without directly contradicting anything established in the first season; you just get a little more backstory on the Rangers getting to know their powers and an explanation for Rita’s residence on the moon. Little moments like watching the Rangers figure out how to pilot their zords are great for reminding us that they’re still human and more or less normal people.

The one glaring issue that plagues Power Rangers is its inability to find its footing when it comes to pacing. On the real, I am tired of origin stories. I mean superhero movies are popping off like a fuckin’ telethon, and most people would agree that the best place to start is at the beginning. I don’t entirely disagree, but I am left wondering why, so often, the first film is devoted entirely to one’s origin. Some of these films would’ve been better to cover the origin in the first act and then advance the story by several years. And hey, if you every really wanted to get into further backstory, you’ve got the perfect setup for a later prequel. Let’s face it – aren’t origin stories more interesting once we’ve already gotten to know the characters?

All that being said, I actually thought Power Rangers was the perfect place for an origin story…damaged kids, redemption, trust, betrayal..it had a lot going for it. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of “origin-ing” going on and the script doesn’t master the art of slowing down for exposition when needed and then going full throttle to get us to the good parts. A lot of points need to be made; 1) the kids getting to know each other, 2) the kids accepting their role as Rangers, 3) the kids’ mastery of first their new “powers,” then morphing, and then Zord Driving 101, 4) the relationship between Zordon and the kids, 5) Zordon’s status as a former ranger, 6) the nature of Zordon and Rita’s rivalry.

Hey I get it. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and obviously we’re not going to get 100% of all 6 points. The goal is to get enough of each to get us interested and keep us wanting more in the sequel. Power Rangers spends way, way too much time trying to force characterization through contrived encounters between the 5 main characters. Shit, why not call it “fate” and be done with it? That’s a concept I could buy in a film like this. Instead, we’ve got the 5 of them spending the first 30 minutes kicking each other in the balls to no avail. I wish they’d let the situations with them as Rangers unfold more naturally instead of trying to establish their personalities ahead of time. I mean honestly, Zack and Trini are just lost as we watch Jason and Billy try to meet each other in the middle and Jason trying to “get through” to Kimberly.

Better yet, why not make a couple of them friends ahead of time? Watching the 5 of them onscreen is terribly awkward – the most convincing chemistry is used up (perhaps rightfully so) on Billy and Jason, but even then it doesn’t feel as much like they’re bonding as it does trying to put themselves in situations where we, as the audience, can see what kind of guys they “really are.” Most of what we get is aimless bickering between 4 alpha males whenever they’re all onscreen. (I’m using “alpha male” figuratively, with Billy being the non-alpha.) It isn’t until almost the literal end of the movie that we get that heart-warming moment of camaraderie between them as a team when they’ve faced certain death. Sure, we get that moment where Billy unexpected morphs, though his is radically overshadowed by Zordon’s bitch-fit.

And moving along, it takes almost a hour for much of any “Ranger stuff” to happen and by any measure this is just too damn long. And why did it take so long? Because the kids had to meet…and bitch. Then discover their connection with the Power Coins…and bitch. (Remember how they all went back to the quarry…) Then train…and bitch. But there’s another piece we’d be remiss to ignore, the genesis of bitchiness itself: Zordon!

The filmmakers did indeed take liberties with the original story, but like I said from the get-go, I actually think most of these changes were for the best. They make the story more connected and more plausible within its own universe, and they set the stage for lots of interesting stories to come. But the operative word there is most. Now I’m glad they injected Zordon with some personality; god knows he needed it, and the gentle, fatherly – no wait, grandfatherly – aura he exuded in the 1995 film wouldn’t really match up with the mildly delinquent / rebellious nature of the teens.

But what I can’t abide is the pushy, demeaning, childish, and possibly downright homicidal slew of traits that define Zordon in this reboot. He’s a bully – he’s impatient – and after that whole sneaky thing with possibly letting Jason die so that he could reincarnate, I definitely question his motives and his role as a mentor for the team. He never really seems happy to have found the rangers. Instead, he’s just really upset about Rita and convinced that this is the worst group of 5 people to find the coins. He does finally have a semi-meaningful heart-to-heart with Jason about what it means to be a leader, but again, I find it tainted with Zordon’s near-betrayal. Of course I don’t think it was because Zordon was selfish and wanted life to himself, rather I think he was convinced that no one but himself could do anything right.

It should be noted that Bryan Cranston “played” Zordon, and I think he channeled a little too much of Walter White into the role, especially when he was sort of anxious and confused but nonetheless holding all (or most) of the power in the situation. He just wasn’t likable at all and he should’ve been the glue holding it all together. His role of former Power Ranger make it even easier to put him at the heart of the Power Rangers. The script turns what should’ve been a composed and wise sage-like being into a mouthy, petulant curmudgeon.

Then there’s the other half of the Command Center which is bound to be overlooked – Alpha 5. To be sure, Alpha was an annoying little shit in the show, but despite this he showed a genuine concern for the well-being of Zordon and the Rangers, proving himself to be quite brave, fearless, and totally selfless on more than one occasion. Power Rangers did the right thing by cutting out all the “ay-yi-yi-yi-yi’s” this time around, but substituting them with Bill Hader’s dry-as-a-bone delivery was a misfuckingstake. I mean yeah, he’s a robot, but this thing was a soulless drone who basically served no purpose.

Getting back to something I really enjoyed about the movie was how they worked Rita into the plot. On the original TV program she was just some space goon, but here she has a real connection to both the Rangers and Zordon. In the original show Rita just happened to have the sixth (green) Power Coin, but they take it one step further here – she’s actually the Green Ranger, and she went rogue thousands of years ago, betraying her fellow Rangers. I love the tie in with a) Ranger history, b) Zordon, and c) the Greet Power Coin. And if you caught the post-credits scene you’ll have even more to get excited about as the detention teacher calls role and repeatedly asks for a “Tommy…Tommy Oliver…?” I know I know, jury’s still out on a sequel and it ain’t looking so good, but for what it’s worth I think Power Rangers has set itself up for an awesome second installment. I mean even at the end of the climatic battle, the Megazord bitch-slaps Rita out of the orbit and we’re treated to the ominous shot of her slowing floating towards the moon… (She originally operated from a base on Earth’s moon, in case you didn’t get the reference.)

Rita was a bit of a hit or miss for me. I appreciated that she took the role of “active badass” during the film but she does little more than act on what appears to be instinct during the entire movie. She’s like a caveman, barely speaking, and although we get the general idea of wiping out Zordon and Rangers and “taking over,” we’re pretty much in the dark as to “why,” a question we have ever since she betrays a living Zordon back in the Cenozoic. What’s her backstory? Why does she want to take over earth? What made her snap from being – presumably – a decent enough “person” to be picked as a Ranger to becoming some horrible evil witch thing?

Although Rita’s presence and actions arguably remain too much of a mystery during the film, overall I’m glad that she’s not surrounded by her cartoonish band of goons. Of course Goldar, who’s probably the most deserving of having his own character out of the whole clique, is paid homage to in a strange way. Not as a character per se, but as a giant mass of semi-molten gold that Rita spends her child-like romp in and around Angel Grove gathering. This is all to foster the eventual appearance of the Megazord (which I thought was handled in an interesting and ultimately satisfying way – the zords only combining under extreme duress and certain death), though why “giant monster” couldn’t just as easily stand in for “weird metal golem” is a mystery. A few too many more “why’s” are thrown our way, but eh, whatcha gon’ do?

Some viewers missed the somewhat campy tone of the original, especially as the show progressed. I was not one of them, and I appreciate the darker overtones and more grounded, gritty nature of the story.

New Megazord

It just doesn’t quite look enough like anything to be cool, or menacing, or goofy, or whatever. Looks more like an unfinished version on a “Making of” featurette.

I appreciate the updates to the costumes, zords, and technology, but I wish they had a little more…what’s the word…distinction, maybe?… to them. The “molten rock” look is a big visual theme throughout the movie, but as applied to the Ranger’s costumes, it definitely makes them a lot less human and takes away from the fact that these are just somewhat typical atypical teens. When it comes to the zords, I’m ok with moving them away from their 80’s-esque, Voltron-inspired originals, but I feel like the zords in Power Rangers are a little on the abstract side. I remember thinking this back when I saw the toys and hoping that hopefully they’d translate a bit differently on the big screen. Well they don’t. I mean the zord action is pretty cool, I just have a hard time maintaining visual interest in the zords themselves. I hate to say it…but I think the filmmaker’s could’ve taken a cue from Bay’s depictions of the Transformers. I think it would’ve worked better if indeed the “animals” were abstractions – I think it would’ve been easier watching “some alien ass robots” rather than, “wait, how is that Mastadon!?” I’m tossing the Megazord in the same boat – yeah it’s neat, but it’s just not close enough to anything recognizable and it’s also got too much of that craggy/molten look.

Overall, I give it about a 5 / 10. I think Power Rangers had some good minds and ideas behind it, but I think they got bogged down with certain concepts and could’ve used some outside ideas. The movie definitely has some laudable strengths as far as telling the story of the Power Rangers goes, though in this golden age of super hero movies, I think everyone expected a little more from the super hero aspects. I know that things are looking good for a sequel, but I think with an open mind, a study of modern super hero flicks, and some constructive criticism from Power Rangers fans, a solid and memorable sequel could follow in a couple of years.

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