POWER RANGERS (Movie Review)

** out of **** 
Rated PG-13 

(for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, language, and for some crude humor)
Released: March 24, 2017 

Runtime: 124 minutes
Director: Dean Israelite
Starring: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G. Elizabeth Banks, Bill Hader, Bryan Cranston

Too edgy for kids, too silly for teens, and too stupid for adults, Power Rangers really needs to morph into something else.

This big budget PG-13 franchise relaunch has altered the kid-friendly 1990s super-teen show quite dramatically, but not necessarily for better or worse, just different. It’s a gaudy mess of shaky cams, grungy visuals, and digital effects excess that makes one pine for (dare I say) the sophistication of a Transformers movie.

Michael Bay’s phenomenally successful space robot series is what Power Rangers is trying to emulate, adding a handful of sexual innuendos and references (and a few more swear words) to its increased violence in the hopes of making its grade school source material more hip and cool. The result: a movie you’d expect to see if executives at the Freeform Channel were given way too much money to pander to their teenage demographic.

At two-plus hours, Power Rangers belabors every bit of what it’s trying to do. The extended setup goes on too long for characters and relationships that are this paper thin; get to the morphing already and stop wasting our time with cliche teen melodrama of bullies, mean girls, detention, outcasts, and being misunderstood by badgering parents with their own set of expectations. (All before they learn the importance of teamwork in the end, natch.)

When it gets to the training, the movie actually flirts with becoming a serviceable origin story…but even that quickly becomes rote and familiar, down to stealing stunts from other movies (Chronicle instantly comes to mind). More problematic: these high schoolers, supercharged with an alien force, become physically capable of almost anything. That invincibility saps sequences of extreme peril of any shock or suspense. These Rangers don’t even have their own form of kryptonite. When everything’s possible, nothing’s amazing.

Also: when everything’s in danger, nothing is. Power Rangers is yet another superhero movie where the fate of the entire universe is on the line. Yawn. Or is it just Angel Grove, the town they live in? The film can’t seem to decide, actually, going back and forth between how the stakes are defined, although it does settle on downtown Angel Grove for the climactic battle (giving Man of Steel‘s wanton destruction of Metropolis a run for its money). Regardless, for something so aesthetically energized, Power Rangers is really tired.

These teen heroes are attractive yet generic while Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Banks are essentially slumming for what were hopefully sweet paychecks, but Bill Hader earns some laughs as the voice of robot Alpha 5. Cranston plays good guy Zordon, Banks plays bad gal Rita Repulsa, and the more a guy named Zordon unpacks the mythology of why a gal named Rita Repulsa must be stopped, the more patently ridiculous it all gets. I wish I could say Banks’s scenery chewing gusto reaches some level of guilty pleasure status but it doesn’t.

The lone standout here is R.J. Cyler, a.k.a. Blue Ranger. He co-starred in the recent indie hit Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, and here he’s even more impressive by making a consistently good turn in a movie so consistently desperate. His comic chops are obvious, his dramatic impulses sincere, and he’s actually created a character that’s fun to watch even as his fellow cast mates mostly pose with an attitude.

Cyler’s character, incidentally, is defined as being “on the spectrum”, and while it’s neat that an autistic kid is portrayed as a superhero, his actual persona is barely Aspergers-lite. It’s hard to say if parents of autistic children will appreciate the validation or if they’ll feel the condition is being exploited for cheap sympathy, so one’s mileage with that will vary, but at least it’s layered into the character that will be everyone’s favorite.

Parents should know there are sexual references and themes that they may not be ready to explain to or discuss with their kids. From references to masturbating a steer (mistaken for a one-teet utter) to teen “revenge porn” sexting (at least it’s played with the overwhelming guilt it should carry rather than flippantly, but still) to one of the Rangers coming out of her lesbian closet, this isn’t the innocent material you may be expecting.

In addition, while not visually graphic, there are elements of suggested horror, scary imagery, and intense violence that could upset kids as well.

To my amazement, there were some cheers and applause as the credits rolled during my public preview screening. They had the vocal pitch of the teen persuasion, especially when the mid-credits bonus scene dropped a hint for the sequel (in what will be the second chapter of – hold on to your power coins – a planned 6 movie arc!). But unless you grew up obsessed with this property or are a total Ranger diehard, trust me, Go Go with something else.

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