It really isn’t that weird that someone spent $105 million on a “Power Rangers” movie in 2017. What’s weird is that someone spent $105 million on a “Power Rangers” movie in 2017, and then decided that it should open with a gag about a teenage boy inadvertently masturbating a bull.
Yes, we live in an an infantilizing age of blockbuster cinema that sustains itself by selling people overpriced echoes of the songs they sang as kids. Yes, Hollywood is growing desperate for previously established properties it can exhume, refurbish, and sell back to the public as mega-budget franchises with international appeal. And yes, the studios are starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel, throwing money at anything that boasts even the faintest glimmer of brand recognition (the next few months alone will see big screen versions of “CHiPS,” “Ghost in the Shell,” and “Baywatch”). But “Power Rangers,” which feels so distant from the zeitgeist that it seems like NASA should be forced to hold a press conference every time it comes into view, admittedly makes a certain amount of sense.
Moviegoers old enough to buy their own ticket may not know this, but “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” — a kitschy, brilliantly resourceful kids TV series that debuted in 1993 by wrapping an original story about a fresh-faced team of American superheroes around the oodles of colorful, exaggeratedly dubbed battle footage that it borrowed from a popular Japanese show — is still on the air. And while the program’s current iteration probably doesn’t politicize this point, there’s no denying the timeliness of a saga about a multi-racial squad of high schoolers who can only achieve their true power and transform into a giant robot (Megazord!!) by “putting down their masks” and working together to defeat an ancient evil. And yet, for all of its surprising relevance, “Power Rangers” feels hopelessly lost in time. There is an audience for this movie, but this movie has no idea who that audience might be.
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“Power Rangers” isn’t for adults, who might be hoping for a lovingly ironic approach in the tradition of “21 Jump Street.” It’s not for teens, who grew up with this stuff, and might enjoy seeing their childhood toys repurposed for a gritty reboot that flatters their maturing sensibilities. And it’s not for children, whose parents might let them watch the TV show on Saturday mornings, but may not understand why they’re supposed to laugh during the pre-credits scene in which a high school prank goes awry after a juvenile delinquent admits to mistaking a bull for a cow and yanking its dick until some “milk” came out.
In fact, from the symphonic music that plays over the opening credits to the film’s glacially-paced origin story and the city-destroying robot fight with which it culminates, “Power Rangers” owes far more to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the “Twilight” generation, and Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies than it does its own source material. If not for a handful of scattered call-backs and an amusingly incongruous performance from Elizabeth Banks (who plays the evil Rita Repulsa with such go-for-broke glee that it feels like she’s fulfilling a Make-A-Wish request for a dying fanbase), it would seem as though this movie were embarrassed of its origins.
The basic gist is still the same, even if the new Power Rangers look more like “Riverdale” rejects than than they do the cherubic Disney Channel graduates who populated the original. After a brief, campy prologue that finds Repulsa fighting a dude named Zordon (Bryan Cranston, who has deep ties with the franchise) during the Cenozoic Era, we’re whisked back to the present, where a motley crew of beautiful teen screw-ups are about to meet in detention and form the weirdest Breakfast Club of all time.
Jason Scott (the mannequin-like Dacre Montgomery, who aspires to Charlie Hunnam’s level of lifelessness) is the local football hero who throws his future away when he gets involved in the aforementioned bovine incident. His reasons for wanting to strand a farm animal in the halls of his high school aren’t super clear, but they’re broadly of the James Van Der Beek “I don’t want your life” variety.
He’s joined by newly disenfranchised mean girl Kimberly Hart (compelling half-Indian actress Naomi Scott, destined for better things), quiet rebel Trini (Latina YouTube star Becky G), badass momma’s boy Zack (a charismatic 29-year-old Chinese-Canadian talent named Ludi Lin), and the savant-like Billy, who struggles with sarcasm but amiably self-identifies as being on the Autism spectrum. He’s played by RJ Cyler, who never reprises his famous “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” catchphrase (“‘dem titties”), but does get to articulate his character’s non-neurotypical nature in a monologue about how difficult it would be to “cram a ton of crayons in a butt.”
In some respects, this is an admirably diverse group of characters, a fact that “Power Rangers” emphasizes from time to time, either by digging a bit deeper into their respective cultures or by having an alien machine size them up by exclaiming “Different color, different kids, different color kids!” In other respects, there are some glaring gaps in representation, and these omissions are made all the more pronounced by the film’s overt focus on inclusiveness. Maybe Muslim kids, Jewish kids, or anyone else who doesn’t see themselves on screen can hold out hope for the sequel — more likely, they’ll come to think of their absence as a blessing in disguise.
If this all sounds like a lot of liberal posturing, it’s not as if the movie gives you all that much else to think about. Silly as many of its details may be, “Power Rangers” adheres to the same tired structure as every other effects-driven story about unassuming people who inherit superhuman abilities, defeat the bad guy, and leave us with some canned voiceover about their future adventures. This one leads all five of its heroes to the same mine, where they discover a buried spaceship, become strong, make friends with a chatty robot named Alpha 5 (voiced by Bill Hader), and receive marching orders from Zordon, who is trapped inside the ship’s computer system or something. Meanwhile, the ghoulish Rita Repulsa is terrorizing the good people of Angel Grove and stealing their gold so she can rebuild her (ironically worthless) hench-golem for the film’s only big fight scene.
It’s hard to remember exactly how John Gatin’s screenplay pads out the rest of the film’s 124-minute running time, but there are a ton of training montages, Rita murders a homeless guy for no particular reason, and at one point the Power Rangers are almost undone by a sexting scandal. At least director Dean Israelite — whose “Project Almanac” now seems like a dry run for this — is smart to spend plenty of time on Alpha 5; the robot minion doesn’t have a single clever line of dialogue, but it looks like scrap metal from the set of “Forbidden Planet” and moves with a visual ingenuity worthy of “Star Wars.”
Not that “Power Rangers” would have been improved by trying harder to ape ILM genius with CW talent. What this exasperatingly bland movie needed was more personality of its own — it needed to be made on a budget small enough to afford to fail even harder than it’s probably going to anyway. If not for Elizabeth Banks, some dinosaur-shaped mechs, and the fact that everyone keeps saying the word “Zordon,” this would hardly seem like a Power Rangers movie at all; even the iconic, color-coded spandex suits have been turned into hard plastic nonsense that looks so dumb and lifeless that Zack Snyder might as well steal it for “Justice League.”
The film is a blast during the few brief moments when it embraces the cartoon craziness that’s made the television show into such a cultural fixture, but it sheepishly backs away from every one of these giddy indulgences as if it’s afraid of getting caught with a hand in the cookie jar; why play the series’ unforgettable theme song (“Go Go, Power Rangers!”) if you’re going to cut it off after just a few bars? If only “Power Rangers” had the courage to put down its mask and work with its audience. It may not be possible to cram a ton of crayons in a butt, but that doesn’t mean we should settle for anonymous photocopies, instead.
“Power Rangers” opens in theaters March 24.