At about an hour into viewing Power Rangers, the Dean Israelite-directed reboot of the 90’s children’s show of the same name, the realization that the film is not the heartless cash grab you braced yourself for begins to sink in.
It’s true. At the halfway mark of Power Rangers, only one of the film’s five superheroes has even donned a cool, colorful costume and it’s only for the briefest of moments. Instead, the five teenagers with attitude sit around a campfire, unsure how to reconcile their differences while being thrust into a team together. Battered and bruised from failing in their warrior training, the rangers put aside their frustrations and begin to open up to one another emotionally, discovering about each other what we the audience have known all along – they are hurt and lonely.
They need friendship.
They also really need their mighty morphing powers, as an evil blast from the past named Rita Repulsa (played by Elizabeth Banks) has awoken with Earth-destroying intentions.
(Warning: Spoilers below)
As the film’s prelude reveals, during the age of dinosaurs there were once six power rangers who were tasked with protecting our planet and its Zeo Crystal – a barely explained mcguffin. However, the team is betrayed by Rita, a Green Ranger gone rogue. The opening scene of the movie is one of carnage. Zordon the Red Ranger (played by Bryan Cranston), crawling alongside the bodies of his murdered teammates, makes a desperate last-ditch attempt to defend Earth and the Zeo Crystal from Rita and calls in a meteor strike. The plan works, incapacitating Rita and plunging her deep into the ocean. Unfortunately, the resulting blasts leave Zordon, along with five coins that grant the rangers their powers, buried deep beneath terra firma.
Power Rangers then jumps forward to present day Angel Grove where, one by one, we are introduced to our soon-to-be heroes.
The filmmakers make no attempt at giving the small fictitious town of Angel Grove a distinctive look. It’s only memorable feature is the perpetually gray cloudy sky which hangs above it. The dreary and cold setting seems more Manchester By the Sea than colorful superhero film. Though perhaps the nondescript look of the town was by design. It feels like Angel Grove could be any one of the countless small U.S. towns where high school sports reign supreme and being different is met with derision. A place where teens purposefully dream small so as to minimize their disappointment with what life has to offer them later on.
Jason Scott (played by Dacre Montgomery) seems to be one of the few teens of Angel Grove who has it all. He’s smart, good looking and a high school football star. Well, make that former football star. When we first meet Jason he’s in the act of committing a prank that goes horribly wrong. Crestfallen, the former town hero becomes a local pariah. Not only has he been kicked off his team and placed under house arrest, he’s been required to attend detention with Angel Grove High’s freaks and geeks.
In detention, Jason discovers he’s not the only one who feels ostracized, who is struggling to make sense of high school and life in general. He meets popular girl Kimberly Hart (played by Naomi Scott) who has been unceremoniously banished from her peer group after she engaged in cyberbullying – she disseminated a revealing photo of fellow female classmate around school. Then there is Billy, often the target of ridicule, who recently lost his father and is autistic.
In a series of contrived coincidences, Jason and Billy end up at an abandoned gold mine where, after exploding rock in search for treasure, the two encounter Kimberly and fellow Angel Grove classmates Trini Kwan (played by Becky G) and Zack Taylor (played by Ludi Lin). That all five characters happen to be roaming around the same abandoned goldmine at the exact same time as one another is a rare moment of utter laziness in this film’s screenplay.
Now that the five protagonists have been introduced to one another, the characters discover the power-granting coins that were buried millions of years ago.
A good portion of the film involves the soon-to-be rangers discovering their powers granted to them by the strange, glowing coins – overnight they have developed super strength and agility. All five actors do a great job in capturing the mix of fear and excitement of discovering you can crush bathroom sinks with your bare hands and that you can now leap great distances.
Confused and in desperate need of answers for the powers the coins have given them, the teens return to the mine and discover an underground cavern which houses an ancient spaceship. Inside, they are encounter Zordon who is no longer a corporeal being and whose consciousness is projected onto what looks to be the surface of a giant pin impression toy. Also inhabiting the old, alien command center is Zordon’s wise-cracking, diminutive robot assistant Alpha 5 (voiced by Bill Hader). Cranston adds just the right gravitas to Zordon and receives a satisfying character arc. Meanwhile, Hader takes a pleasantly restrained approach to his voice acting. Alpha 5 is not the manic, prat-falling cartoon character he was in the 90‘s show.
The five teenagers are then told of the origins of their powers. That they have been chosen to protect Earth and the Zeo Crystal as the next iteration of the Power Rangers. Their mission? Bond as a team so they can harness the powers of the morphing grid and stop the recently awakened Rita from creating her monster Goldar and destroying the planet with the Zeo Crystal. That’s right, in yet another cosmic coincidence, Rita awakens from her deep sea slumber around the same time the five teenagers discover their power coins.
Elizabeth Banks is delightful to watch as she chews the scenery as Rita Repulsa. Whether gleefully pulling the gold teeth out of a homeless man’s mouth to build Goldar, delivering stentorian orders to her Putty Patrol or snacking down on a Krispy Kreme donut – seriously, this movie may have one of the most extreme examples of product placement ever out to film – Banks knows her role is pure camp and has a blast with it.
This film can’t receive enough credit for what is its biggest accomplishment – it has now set the bar for how Hollywood movies should incorporate and utilize a diverse cast. While it’s great Power Rangers features diversity, that its multicultural characters subvert audiences expectations of how they’ll be portrayed is its real triumph. Billy the geeky tech kid is a black male. The heartthrob bad boy with poor impulse control is Asian. The brooding loner of the group isn’t a male but rather Trini. If she were an X-Men she’d be Logan – if Wolverine did yoga in an abandoned goldmine while listening to death metal. Ex-football star Jason shows nary a sign of white male privilege. He’s thoughtful and kind and sees his title as Power Ranger leader as just that – a title.
With so many recent films and television shows failing epically in providing its audiences with thoughtful and tasteful depictions of diverse characters – I’m looking at you Ghost in the Shell and Iron Fist – Lionsgate Films should be commended for not only providing diversity, but doing so creatively and intelligently.
Because of this, Power Rangers works best when the action-adventure story is put on pause and the characters are allowed to interact with one another. Thankfully, characterization is a large portion of the film’s runtime. However, this will be much to the chagrin of parents who brought their restless children to see what they assumed would be two hours of rainbow-colored heroes karate kicking monsters. Though the kind of action you’d expect in a Power Rangers film does occur, it’s backloaded late in the third act. The Rangers’ battle with Rita and her evil forces is so colorful, hyper-kinetic and fantastical, many viewers may suffer whiplash from the abrupt tonal shift of the film.
While the final showdown between the Power Rangers and Rita and Goldar is fun enough, its the aforementioned campfire scene where five misunderstood teenagers disclose their personal issues to one another that serves as the film’s greatest example of bravery and heroism.
“Are we Power Rangers? Or are we friends?” asks Trini.
They are both, we are happy to discover.
The raw honesty of Zack admitting his hyper-masculine bravado is merely a facade to hide his fear of losing his ill mother, the vulnerability in Trini’s voice when she reveals that she is unsure of her sexuality, and the others accepting them for the flawed heroes that they are, these are the moments in which Power Rangers transcends its shlock source material and becomes one of the most uniquely heartfelt and heartfelt Hollywood blockbusters in recent memory.
Go, go Power Rangers indeed.
Length: 124 minutes
Director: Dean Israelite
Bryan Cranston – Zordon
Elizabeth Banks – Rita Repulsa
Bill Hader (voice) – Alpha 5