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Power Rangers: Teen drama outweighs superhero action

Power Rangers confuses itself in trying to connect and harmonize two sides of the coin—drama and action—before reaching something worthwhile.

What do you get from the de trop combination of two imminent Hollywood trends that are superhero flicks and nostalgia-invoking remakes/reboots? Yes, correct; the answer is a Power Rangers movie in 2017. Starting off as an American version of the Japanese tokusatsu Super Sentai, Power Rangers TV series mainly targeted at young audiences. It has now run for 24 seasons, staying a sweet childhood memory for some generations. Now, after two feature-length flops in the 90s, the franchise finally introduced a reboot (produced by Haim Saban himself) of the Might Morphin Power Rangers series.

The new roster consists of Jason (Dacre Montgomery), a kindhearted high school jock caught up in his trouble with shame, rejection, and house arrest; Kimberly (Naomi Scott), who used to be a popular cheerleader but now gets ostracized after her fallout with friends; Billy (RJ Cyler), an autistic geek with a discovery that will bring them all together; Trini (Becky G), who seems moody and detached before we get to know her later; and Zack (Judi Lin), a bilingual rebel who has to take care of his terminally ill mother.

The new teenagers with attitude

This diverse group of outcasts converges at a site where Billy is searching for a mysterious energy source, then soon find themselves imbued with superpowers after their contact with the Power Morphers. They later come upon a spaceship, which belonged to the original Power Rangers led by Zordon (Bryan Cranston). The mentor, now a digitalized consciousness trapped in the ship’s system, warns the teenagers about Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks)—a terrorist going after Earth’s Zeo Crystal; so it’s now up to the new Power Rangers, mentored by Zordon and his robot assistant Alpha 5 (Bill Hader), to stop Rita from destroying their planet.

A Power Rangers reboot might find itself stuck in a dilemma: despite the over-the-top cheesiness in repetitive monster fights and farcical visual effects, theatergoers nowadays certainly wouldn’t accept this outdated style for a cinema experience. That was the same problem those two Teenage Mutants Ninja Turtles movies bumped into—because let’s face it, these two shows were never that great, even in their prime, if considered in mature movie-making standards. But hey, superheroes in 2017 are still superheroes, so the production required a leap of faith. And here we are; at least the movie gave the Power Rangers an update on their costumes. Instead of spandex armors, the outfits are now streamlined with alien technology, becoming glittery, nanoparticle-based exo-suits with power gems on their chest plates.

Bryan Cranston as Zordon

Aware of the challenge in style, two duos of writers from Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Michele and Kieran Mulroney) and Gods of Egypt (Matt Sazama and Burke Sharpless) went for a bold decision, which was to focus more on the teenagers’ personal lives before their official Morphin’ Time. The story put laudable efforts in character writing to make the story more relevant and feasible in current social landscapes by calling attention to modern psychological issues (sexual orientation, autism, cyber bullying), which need more than just sensitivity to handle on screen. The story, a little clumsy and laid-back at times, singles out one character before showing us the next, and surprisingly, this aspect is enjoyable enough.

To transfer the rather simplistic premise and bland leads from the Power Rangers mythos into a gritty cinematic scheme, the movie also enforces individual personalities by placing a significant amount of attention to their bond. It gives off a Breakfast Club vibe as the kids moderately vent their frustration and hidden guilt to find comfort in each other. Teen angst, followed by their struggles in adjusting to social expectations while staying true to themselves, feels more visceral even though the five characters appear to have been directly pulled out of the archetype textbook at first. This was achieved partly by Dean Israelite’s directing; his experience working with adult-actors-playing-teenagers in his sci-fi Project Almanac proved to be valuable. Upon the chemistry created by the young actors, Israelite considerately built the story to some key moments of earnest feelings, which would be much more fitting and pithy if this weren’t a superhero flick.

Elizabeth Banks as an eccentric, horrifying Rita Repulsa

The five characters were all portrayed by new faces, which is a diverse group enough to fire snarks at previous racial controversies regarding the Black and Yellow Rangers. Even Alpha 5 affirms that the group has “all kinds of colors”. Viewers can tell these young actors really immersed in the roles, with personal experience as a driving force to portray characters. The most remarkable amongst them is RJ Cyler in his scene-stealing depiction of a geeky teen on the autistic spectrum, providing both timely comic relief and poignancy. Once again, their chemistry is captivating, even as duos, trios, or the whole group in energetic training montages, because they were clearly enthusiastic. Montgomery is not even aware of Power Rangers in his childhood, and Scott was not a big fan, so they learned a lot from the other three’s insight. They also did their own jumps through the cliff in that ability-exploring scene, on wires of course, as well as most of other stunts (though the fighting is not too complicated with suplexes and quick kicks). Cranston gave a respectable performance as Zordon, even when his character is not quite a solemn father figure as we might expect, while the comical Hader instilled a more sarcastic, less childish sense of humor into Alpha 5. Elizabeth Banks’ Rita is creepy, but her horrific killings feel out of tune in a movie that is already struggling to secure its tonal consistency.

The severe problems of Power Rangers lie too in the experience regarding action, giant robots, and old-time fascination, for which audiences flocked to the cinemas. The movie shows us separate Zords about halfway in the story, reassuring itself with a sense of blockbuster. However, while the Zords look acceptable with proper upgrades on their weapon systems, the money shot of Megazord coming to life is far from satisfactory. In fact, its texture loses most of the colorful, minimalist design as Megazord is way too influenced by Michael Bay’s Transformers, where the colors seem lost into an alienish blend of silver joints. And don’t even get me started on the theme song: a remixed version of the hook plays for 10 seconds without the classic electric guitar riffs. Moreover, the set pieces don’t seem to match the grander scale of the final battle (with giant Goldar), which is short and inadequate, as the building blocks feel more like distracting obstacles on the narrow streets of Angel Grove.

Goldar, now re-imagined as Rita’s giant monster

Power Rangers sometimes feels unnatural and forced in big decisions. It confuses itself, like the main characters, in trying to connect and harmonize two sides of the coin—drama and action—before reaching something worthwhile. Though personal stories are occasionally gripping, the end result is half-baked. Power Rangers, as a movie, is at its best being a teen drama when the kids are in their casual clothing (which usually matches their Rangers colors).