On embracing or resisting inherent silliness, the idiosyncratic power of color (and its absence), and the second-worst thing you can find at a Krispy Kreme
Power Rangers Lionsgate
Director: Dean Israelite
Screenplay: John Gatins, based on Power Rangers, created by Haim Saban; and Super Sentai, by Toei Company
Starring: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G, Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Bill Hader and Bryan Cranston
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 4 minutes / 2.35:1
March 24, 2017
(out of four)
They are identified by one thing and one thing only. It is who they are. To the layman, it is their entire identity.
It's their colors, of course! That's the one thing we know about the Power Rangers - that is, to the extent that one might know anything about the Power Rangers at all. It's Thing #1, is what I'm saying. The colors of their ... what's the proper term, costumes? Outfits? Uniforms? I don't know the second thing about the Power Rangers, but if you asked me about them, I could at least confidently answer: "I know there's a Red one, and a Pink one, and a ... Green one? No - Blue!"
You walk up to a Power Ranger. Tell me about yourself, you say. "Well," comes the answer. "I'm the Blue one." Boom - you know all you need to know.
These are characters, and a franchise, defined by color - Red Rangers, Yellow Rangers - and yet this new feature-film incarnation is deathly afraid of it. By the very nature of its characters, Dean Israelite's Power Rangers is bestowed with bold and bright colors to be used and played with and splashed across the screen to its heart's content. Instead, the film gives us the more fashionable (but infinitely more boring) dull metallic versions, to go with the grey, muted, down-to-earth tones of its overall palette. When the Rangers all finally appear in full uniform, they hardly do their chromatic noms de guerre justice. That Ranger isn't Red; it's a vague, subdued impression of red - cloudy spots and shadows evoking red, with heavy pewter accenting and speckled lines of circuitry running through it. Even Zack Snyder's Superman - I repeat, even Zack Snyder's Superman - dons his red, yellow and blue with a slight modicum of pride*. The Red, Yellow and Blue Rangers are ashamed of theirs. To say nothing of the Black Ranger, which for all intents and purposes is now the Charcoal Grey Ranger.
* Hey, I said 'slight,' didn't I?
When they show up on screen, they don't pop; they don't announce themselves. They practically blend in. It's like looking at a used car lot. They're dull pieces of machinery. You walk up to a Power Ranger. Tell me about yourself, you say. "Well," comes the answer. "I'm the one with the vague, subdued impression and cloudy spots and shadows of red with heavy pewter accenting and speckled lines of circuitry. At your service." Not quite the same impact.
The uniforms are tactical rather than expressive - which, the way the movie stresses that the uniforms and their colors come from within, a reflection of each individual, and emerge as a result of a spiritual alchemy between the five as a unit, is a direct contradiction. It's such a wholly misguided creative direction by Israelite, production designer Andrew Menzies and costume designer Kelli Jones that it makes one wonder if they even read the script. I really wasn't joking about the colors being who these characters are; the movie unequivocally makes that very point - even makes it the crux of its narrative.
The film fails its characters even as it seems to believe we're supposed to take their warmed-over teen angst seriously. They're rebellious and angry and passionate and hormonally charged ... but when it come to their superhero alter egos, Israelite decides they should look like rusty power tools?
There's an implicit disconnect here, as if an emphasis on brightness and color would make Power Rangers too cartoony, negating its desire to be taken on somewhat more serious terms. Aside from a bit of snarking between the teen heroes, the film mostly plays it straight, refusing to embrace any kind of comic or eccentric sensibility. There are enough layers of grit piled on to make its ambitions of toughness and emotional earnestness abundantly clear. The wisdom of that ambition is surely lost on anyone paying attention to the details of the story. Throughout the movie, all we keep hearing about are power coins, a magic crystal buried underneath a Krispy Kreme, and a monster made out of gold called ... Goldar. That sounds like something not just made for kids, but invented by kids. (Maybe Robert Rodriguez should have directed?) This is inherently, unavoidably silly material - less charitably, one might call it deeply stupid - and the filmmakers have decided to rekindle the franchise with a straight face. Only Elizabeth Banks, as the scenery-chewing Rita Repulsa, is in on the joke. She's the only one starring in a cartoon; everyone else thinks they're in a CW drama. Those with comic talents as strong as Banks' are often perfect for villainous roles like this. On its own, her performance basically works, while at the same time not really working well for this movie.
The central cast, however, is mostly lousy. Of the five, only Blue Ranger RJ Cyler (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, HBO's Vice Principals) makes much of an impact. Leading manboy Dacre Montgomery - basically a Zac Efron with bad hair and less charisma - brings nothing to the table, either as the official leader of the group (inheriting the Red Ranger mantle) or as the "troubled" star quarterback Jason whose penchant for elaborate pranks has landed him in detention. Ludi Lin, as the Black Ranger, is only marginally better. And finally there are the Pink and Yellow Rangers, played by Naomi Scott and Becky G - or is it Becky G and Naomi Scott? - who I'm pretty sure are pulling a double That Obscure Object of Desire routine for the duration of the film.
Running before the screening of the film was a trailer for the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy, a film that wholeheartedly embraced its silliness - embraced it in every bright, candy-colored frame, every splash of neon - while still managing to get people to invest in its world. I was similarly reminded of the Wachowskis' Speed Racer, which took its cartoon roots to even brighter, more cartoonish heights. And here's Power Rangers, which looks like a Romanian drama by comparison. For a movie with red, yellow, blue, green, black, gold and pink written into the very premise - and the character names - this could've/should've been akin to a 1960s sci-fi fantasy. Instead it's ... this.
I believe it was Power Rangers star Bryan Cranston who once said: "No more half-measures." If only this movie had listened. If you're going to adapt something like this into a feature film, own it. It's silly stuff by nature; go with it! Embrace it! If you want to make something grittier, you've gotta discard most of what the franchise is, and make a different movie altogether. This incarnation of Power Rangers is stuck with what it is, while desperately pretending to be something else.