By Joseph Walter
The film met with some controversy during production, with the hardcore fanbase lamenting character designs and supposed plot points. Most of that stuff didn't cause me concern, but I admit to being somewhat apprehensive about the final product.
Now that the film is finally out, I decided to tackle it head-on.
For those who don't know, the premise is that an ancient alien named Zordon has chosen a team of "teenagers with attitude" to take up the mantle of the "Power Rangers," a super-powered fighting force that commands colossal assault vehicles known as Zords, in order to combat an ancient alien menace known as Rita Repulsa. And that's pretty much it for both the initial series and the plot of this film.
As a moviegoer, tried to view it both objectively and as a Power Rangers fan, so I could give this review the best of both worlds. In the end, most of my criticisms stem from the fan side of me, but I think those same complaints will also tick-off some of the casual nostalgia-hounds that go to see it as well.
But that said, is it good? Honestly? Yeah, it kinda is.
Knowing that this is a reboot, I expected and understood that the final product was not going to be a 1:1 translation of the wacky television program, but I kinda help but be disappointed in some aspects that were seemingly glazed over. That said, I bet if I was a less-involved fan, or even just a completely casual movie-goer, I probably would have loved it entirely.
So, after the break, I guess it's time to tackle the good, the bad, and the fan-wank stuff.
May the Power Protect Me! (Also, there will be minor, not plot-relevant relevant spoilers, so may the Power protect you, too, if you're sensitive to such things.)
Right off the bat, we are given an exceptionally bad-ass prologue, especially for fans of the show. It fleshes out the Zordon/Rita dynamic and relationship in a highly satisfying way, giving great context to the series and being a pretty awesome mind-blowing twist to the mythos. I'll be frank and admit I shed a tear, as it completely transcended my wildest expectations. This is the "dark and gritty" Power Rangers that the fandom has craved for years, but not in an over-done, over-the-top way. Truly an excellent way to start the film and set the tone. In a way, it reminded me of Man of Steel, which had a similarly high-stakes, high-quality prologue. Alas, just like Man of Steel, it's a bit downhill from there in certain regards (although nowhere that tragic collapse) but we haven't gotten to the complaints yet, so hang tight!
Secondly, the cast and characters are wonderful. The familiar ranger team of Zack, Kimberly, Billy, Trini and Jason are departures from their television counterparts, but fit well within the new film's world. The idea of "teenagers with attitude" was taken quite literally, so each and every one of these characters has gotten a darker, quirkier take. All of them are well-rounded, and there're even some surprising face-turns for characters such as Zack and Trini. That said, the stand-out character was Billy, played by RJ Cyler, and the film knew it, positioning him as the glue that holds the initially-fractious team together.
My only complaint about the characterizations of the main team lie with Kimberly and Jason. Kimberly's personal issues seemed a bit flimsy, and I never got a good sense of who Jason actually was as a person. Regardless, the cast playing them did marvelously, crafting portrayals that elicited both compassion and likability, and they all had a believable chemistry.
Of course, we have the big names of Bryan Cranston as Zordon, Bill Hader as Alpha 5 and Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa.
Cranston before admirably in the role, and much like the aesthetic changes to the world and characters, his Zordon is a decidedly darker take, possibly taking some influence from fan theories (as did the prologue.) However, he was a believable authority figure and I enjoyed his performance immensely. It's also impossible to not be giddy at the likes of Bryan Cranston seriously talking about things such as "the Morphing Grid" or "Rita Repulsa."
As for Alpha, his initial design reveal was met with intense scrutiny from fans, and I'm not a fan of Bill Hader, so I wasn't sure what to expect. I'm happy to report that Alpha was one of my favorite characters, channeling both the original and perhaps a bit of the straightforwardness of K2-SO from Star War: Rogue One. He was funny, likable and caring, serving as sort of the "good cop" to Zordon's comparably "bad cop" routine.
Banks' Rita was creepy behind belief. Her performance legitimately made me uncomfortable more than once. Unlike the Rita from the show, who was still evil but mostly bumbling, this film's Rita is absolutely evil and cruel, combined with a psychopathic streak. A least one kid in the audience was genuinely terrified.
I'd also like to take this time to talk about the Ranger suits, which, like many of the designs, were a subject of ire. I want to say straight up that the suits looked great in action, and their design grew on me immensely. They're very alien, but the detail is outstanding, especially considering that they're not always CGI, and were actually worn by the cast. I still think some of the helmets looks a little pointed or off, but overall, the aesthetic was cool, as was the otherworldly glow of the Morphing Grid flowing through them.
Oh! And I'd be remiss if I forgot to mention that a major battle takes place in a quarry... one of the few locations for monster battles in the original series... it was a nice touch!
The film, for the most part, felt that it could've used a few more rewrites or, in the worst case, was heavily chopped up and re-edited into its current form, avoiding, rewrites, reshoots all together.
The trailers, much like Rogue One, contain some sequences that never made it onto the big screen, and they seemed pretty important (such as a certain make-out scene).
As I mentioned before, Jason and Kimberly weren't as fleshed out as much as I would have liked, and Kimberly's issues seemed just really... really strange and flimsy. Like it was remnant of a previous draft and they just ran with it. As for Jason, he's supposedly a bad boy, but never behaves like one. In fact, he seems like a genuinely cool and kind open-minded dude. Is he just a teen going through growing pains or on a destructive streak? I honestly don't know.
More evidence of a needed rewrite were some intriguingly gaping plot holes and nonsensical character actions. For a good handful of characters, there were multiple times during the screening where I wonder why they were doing what they were doing. This applies to the Rangers, Zordon and, most seriously, Rita. However, as long as the logical part of your brain is checked at the door, you should be able to forgive them.
Less forgivable, though, is that there's also a rampant tone issue throughout the film. I'm totally fine with a dark version of the show, and it was never obtusely grim. That said, the uses of humor to lighten the mood often came at very inopportune times that either ruined big moments entirely, or eliminated the impact that could have been.
A prime example comes during two moments in the Zord battle. A joke is made at the expense of an iconic shot, and almost the same joke is made after the Megazord is formed for the final battle. Now, I have an unfinished review of 2014's Godzilla on this site. One of my chief complaints about that film was that before a big monster scuffle, the camera cuts away and a joke is made at the expense of the absurdity of the visuals. This happens around three times. That's not a good idea.
You have a movie about giant monsters, people in multi-colored suits, robot dinosaurs, etc. You're going to need to sell the audience on these larger-than-life concepts. The last thing you want to do is make a joke about what your movie is about, potentially ruining the suspension of disbelief (in which a hefty amount is required.)
A film like Pacific Rim avoids this issue brilliantly, never shying away from the fact that it's about gigantic robots battling gigantic monsters. That's how it should always be done unless you're making a satire. I mean, hell, even the mind-boggling "Transformers" films know this lesson, and never treat their gigantic, ugly scrap-heaps like embarrassing elements to be made fun of. They're treated seriously and, if nothing else positively can be said about those films, they respect the idea of the Transformers as part of that world and they're respected appropriately.
*steps off soap box.*
Aside from the tonal issues, the biggest technical offenders come from a very boring visual atmosphere, with absolutely anonymous cinematography and direction.
There's even one sequence where, much to belief, there are two characters having a conversation, and each time one speaks, it cuts to a mid-shot of whoever is talking. This is called "talking heads." This happens for a minute and a half, if not more. And this is something you're told not to do in your first class in film school. There were hundreds of ways to make this conversation more visually interesting, but they opted for talking heads. Why.
Each shot is by the books and bland. This is a crime considering that the limited-budget television show managed to find all kinds of ways to spice up their camera work to make things unique and exciting.
Of course, the original show also had the Japanese fight footage to fallback on, which was excitingly choreographed and shot. Alas, once again the anonymous direction and cinematography of this film hampers those few sequences as well. The Ranger fights are generally exciting, but they're far from the martial-arts masterpieces that were front-and-certain during the original show. These just seemed bland in comparison.
Overall, it just seems that the film missed the point. The series has always been about iconic imagery, with comfortable reliability on memorable sequences and spectacle. Despite that pedigree, this movie seemed to actively avoid honoring these traditions. And this bothered me more than I thought it would.
Look, I'm all about reboots to beloved source material changing things up. I'm an enormous fan of the "Castlevania: Lords of Shadow" series, which took a 25 year-old video game series and gave it a facelift while also altering some core plot elements. However, what separates that from Power Rangers did to the original series, is that they maintained all of the critical aesthetic elements that defined the franchise. This movie did not.
Whether it be the Zords emerging, the Megazord combination, or even the basic Morph, we're never given a satisfying, full version. Which is extremely odd considering how iconic the morph sequence and Zord sequences are. They almost seemed purposefully obscured for misguided reasons. It would have been nice to see the elaborate transformations and camera angles that fans of the series have grown accustomed to for over twenty years. That stuff is still cool. This didn't need to try and be "cool" by changing it up. It already is. That stuff still works and has captivated fans for 20+ years on its own. It would have been awesome to see those sequences updated for the film's aesthetic.
While the morph in the film was still a poignant moment, imagine the roar the audience would have unleashed if Jason stared into the camera and commandingly said "IT'S MORPHIN' TIME!" and then we were treated to the team calling out their dinosaur spirits with a stylistic remake of the original sequence.
Heck, even the original Power Ranger's movie did this. And it worked.
When we're finally treated to the Zords, there's no real fanfare for their emergence. It would've been awesome for a modified take on their summoning, with Jason crying out "we need Dinozord power, NOW!"
Imagine how fantastic it would have been to replicate those intricate entrances with modern technology. The worst crime of all in this department, however, is that the Megazord transformation sequence is completely obscured and mostly off screen. Again, why couldn't we see this stuff with a 2017 veneer?
Kids still love it. Adults still love it. So why not? They're inherently cool. There's no need to be "edgy" and not give it its due time. The way it was done, there was no pomp and circumstance, and that's shame.
Another lost icon of the franchise was a total abandonment of gratuitous posing. I know it doesn't make sense but if you ask a kid about Power Rangers, they're going to start going "hi-ya" and mimicking the poses from the TV. In the film, none of the main characters were martial artists, but there could've been a story-element where Zordon explains that when they're able to morph, they'll learn to fight from the eons of experience the Power Coins have. It would have been a nice touch, as the suits and Zords are lightly explained, and this could have given them more depth.
Then there's the design of the Zords. They've taken a page from the ugly "Transformers" family and created overly complicated, barely-comprehensible amalgamations that are supposed to be the fan-favorite Dinozords. They're questionable at best. The most grievous is the "Mastodon," which... uh.. has six legs and does not look like a mastodon. Actually, here's a side note: The fact that the Zords were modeled after dinosaurs was mentioned briefly once, but I don't think they ever once mentioned what each one was, or even explained the dinosaur thumbing of their suits and individual powers. That's weird as hell upon retrospect. And yet another missed opportunity.
Also, to compare it once again to Pacific Rim, it's not that out of place or absurd to have more traditional-looking robot-dinosaur designs for this franchise. Rim doesn't shy away from having verytraditional, Japanese-style mechs, and they do it very well. Power Rangers should take a cue from them and realize that they can do the same, especially considering how well it would fit in considering its own Japanese heritage and the memorable designs from the series.
But aside from all that, the element that could have tied everything together and made the most painful moments work beautifully would have been the music. But, as you may have guessed, that was not the case.
The score, much like the directing and cinematography, is painfully anonymous, and that's the worst fan-focused problem of all, be they hardcore or casual.
The show had iconic (there's that word again) music throughout its initial run, with vocal fight songs, and a hard rock guitar score by Ron Wassermann. And who could forget the legendary theme song?
On the surface, Brian Tyler seemed like the right choice for the composer. His patented orchestra-mixed-with-electric-guitar sound would theoretically be a perfect fit for the franchise. Unfortunately and quite inexplicably, however, the obvious route of adapting "Go Go Power Rangers" as a leitmotif and giving it the orchestral treatment throughout the film was not taken. Instead, Tyler uses vaguely similar sounding ideas, but never pays genuine homage to the iconic score by Ron Wassermann. This bothered more than any other issue. Even the talking heads.
I knew there was going to be trouble when the prologue and lame, indy-styled title-card lacked an ominous performance of the motif (the one featured in the trailers, if we're being particular.)
From then on, I strained my ears hoping to hear the piece of music that so desperately needed to present. And yet, there was none.
Only once during the actual film does the theme play, and that's when the Zords charge into battle. It's a weird, off-putting use though.
1) it's a snippet of the exact same theme remix from the original film. And 2) it seems like this moment was meant to be a gratifying climax. Instead it feels out of nowhere.
If the film was scored with the leitmotif of the original theme, hinting at it repeatedly through various adaptations, this moment could have been phenomenal. At the height of the Ranger's power, their Zord charge is accompanied by a full, fleshed-out version of the song, no longer obscured and morphed (teehee) through the score, but out in the open as an emotionally satisfying use during a critical moment. But nope. Not today, I guess!
But things get even more head-scratching: During the end credits, an awesome, brand-new orchestral rendition of "Go Go Power Rangers" is played, and it exceeded all my expectations. It's clear that Tyler understood how to use this theme and translate it into his grander style, so why wasn't it used adequately throughout the film? It screamed to be part of the morphing sequence, or accompanying the iconic shot of the Rangers' slo-mo emergence from the Command Center in full costume. Why was it relegated to the credits like an after-thought while the rest of the score was buffered with forgettable, Battle: LA-lite themes? Truly bizarre. And while we're on this subject, why couldn't they adapt this for the Zords sequence!?
Couple all that with some odd pop song inclusions instead of a modern take on something like "5-4-1," and you'll have more a reason to stay up at night with painful thoughts of what could have been.
That said, I think it'll be enjoyable for both groups, as long as you can get over some of the quibbles from both perspectives.
I think that the sequel (teased in the credits) will rectify most, if not all, of these problems. Hopefully, at least. We've got a great team with great chemistry, a strong duo of Zordon and Alpha, and an interesting villain in Rita. With a more cohesive tone, more stunning visuals, and a proper adaptation of the music that we need to hear in symphonic glory, they could have a great, fan-pleasing franchise on hand. And one definitely better than its immediate "Transformers" peers, which likes to vomit and defecate on iconic lore to tell stories that no one wants to be told.
I have high hopes for this franchise overall and, like I said near the start of the review, I liked this movie.
It's average at best to someone like me with knowledge of technical stuff and the fan stuff, but I think a typical movie-goer will be pleased with an unusual take on the bloated superhero genre.
Also, for fans, keep an eye out for some fun callbacks, cameos and references! ;-)