Brand Rejuvenation: Crisis of Tone in SABAN’S POWER RANGERS

Why am I writing a review of a movie that came out three weeks ago and essentially floundered critically and commercially? A movie to which the best way I could respond was “shrug”? Because I was shrugging at three or four movies. Though we might first scoff at the awkward title, SABAN’S POWER RANGERS is the perfect way to address this beast with so many different heads. Let’s break it down.

This thing is based on the MIGHTY MORPHIN’ POWER RANGERS TV show which has been running since the early goddamn nineties, which was itself adapted from a Japanese show called SUPER SENTAI. It features spandex-clad teenaged space ninjas  with giant robot pets that combine into an even bigger robot. Now, when they’re trying to make a brand spankin’ new version of this cartoon-but-with-real-people, I imagine they want to make it a little less goofy sounding. “Power Rangers” is a fine title. Still comic booky, but elegant and vague enough to convey a grounded approach to the source material. But then they add in this “Saban’s” business. It’s a clear attempt at brand control, echoing MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS. The difference here is nobody knows who the hell Haim Saban is.

The movie starts with troubled teenagers in weekend detention all randomly finding some special rocks in a mountainside, and getting superpowers as a result. They then locate Zordon (played by my buddy B-Cranst), an alien who used to be a Power Ranger but is now just a face in a wall. He reluctantly enlists these “teens with attitude” to save the world from Rita Repulsa, portrayed with uncomfortable relish by Elizabeth Banks. Rita also used to be a Power Ranger and wants to ruin everyone’s stuff with a giant gold monster named Goldar, which she’ll use to dig up the “Zeo Crystal.” Which is located underneath the local Krispy Kreme.

Along the way, they train to become the new Power Rangers and struggle to find themselves and learn to overczzzome their zzdifferences and zzzordszzzzzZZZzzz……

Did I mention it is under Krispy Kreme? Isn’t that funny guys? That the important object in the film is under a recognizable franchise establishment? Krispy Kreme? The donuts.

They use Zords! Big dinosaur robots.

There are about three tones in this movie.

The first is a gritty, troubled teens, sci-fi story. The closest analogue everyone references is CHRONICLE, which makes sense because one of the first drafts of this script was written by Max Landis, who wrote that 2012 sleeper hit. And it’s directed by Dean Israelite, who made CHRONICLE ripoff PROJECT ALMANAC. The characters move about, looking grim, while they are filmed in shaky, quick-cutting, “Indie-scope” and color-corrected to a desaturated demise. Characters’ backstories are wrapped up in dark pasts and mistakes. The Pink Ranger sent out what is basically revenge porn of her friend to the whole school.

But then, it’s also trying to be a fun action movie, with quirky teenaged characters. There’s gotta be jokes, kay. ‘Cause the kids like jokes. That’s why the movie opens in the Cenozoic era and then quickly jumps ahead 65 million years to a joke about a minor giving a bull a handjob. There’s a part where nuns are singing in a car and can’t hear the big loud robot outside. The jokes, see? This is the movie trying to be irreverent and offbeat like the big boys at Marvel. I have a lot of problems with Marvel movies but irreverence is one thing they’ve gotten pretty good at maintaining. SABAN’S NINJA POWER GUYS does not succeed in this regard.

Then, friends, we have the final tone, which is the bland, brand-powered, corporate-sponsored soupy mess that holds the whole thing together. Because, and I totally forgot to tell you guys this, but Krispy Kreme gets a lot of name-dropping in this movie. There’s a part in the training montage where the Pink Ranger and the Yellow Ranger play karate keep-away with a donut in the Krispy Kreme. ANECDOTE TIME: They get into their big Zords at the end and the Red Ranger’s T-Rex steps on a yellow Camaro with black racing stripes. I’m sitting in the theater thinking, “Wow, that was a pretty obvious reference to the Transformers franchise, a little on-the-nose there.” And I shit you not before I could even finish this thought that punkass Red Ranger shouts “OOPS SORRY BUMBLEBEE!”

!!!!

FUCK. Can this movie get weirder and more uncomfortable?? Yup!

By lacing it with heavy-handed and oddly placed psychosexual motifs, of course! You can tell it’s heavy-handed, because even I picked up on it and I’m a dumb brick; and you can tell it’s oddly placed because THIS IS A CHILDREN’S FILM. BASED ON TOYS. Sorry. Got a little fiery there. Sexuality and gender is actually something I’d like to see being explored in children’s entertainment more often, but in this context, what even are they trying to do?? The central conceit here, the main hurtle that the Rangers need to overcome, is their inability to “morph” into their shiny armor. Yeah, like puberty. Only until they are all perfectly in sync with one another can they reach their fullest capacity. I haven’t seen superpowers-as-puberty done this clunky since this. One scene shows Elizabeth Banks hovering over the bed of the Yellow Ranger, who we’ve recently learned is queer. Points to the movie for some LGBTQ representation, but what the hell are you saying when your sexy, male gaze-y villain gets into an intense physical altercation with a teenaged queer Latina and says in her most trying porn-voice: “I used to be just like you” ?

I have too many thoughts on this movie. Too many problems. The acting was hammy. The CGI was gross and murky. The production design WAYYY too alien and simultaneously generic. But you know what?

I didn’t hate it. There are some wonderful, dare I say moving shots. The music’s not bad. The cast, while consisting of badly sculpted characters and performances, somehow manages to give it their all, and I shit you not it works. I didn’t believe a single character but I believed that those characters loved each other. I don’t know if the cast were buddies on set or not but that is my best guess as to how their emotional group scenes worked on me. Bravo. The other thing I liked is actually controversial, because I’ve heard others bemoan it: the pacing. All the real Power Rangers stuff – the suits, the monsters, the Zords, and the Megazord, doesn’t really show up until the last half hour. The movie puts a ridiculous amount of time into setting up the characters and their struggle to work as a unit, in an attempt to give us that satisfying morphing scene in the final act. And I think it functions wonderfully. Too often I walk out of blockbusters these days and feel like movies don’t give us time to feel the circumstances of our heroes, and wold rather gloss over their growth. I’ll admit, when the kids finally get their shit together and morph into those shiny power suits, I got pretty amped.

Still, I honestly don’t think I can recommend this movie. It is soggy, mostly boring, and a visual headache most of the time. It cannot decide what kind of movie it wants to be. It’s three or four or five different movies all smashing and folding together to create a gross monster of storytelling, a mishmash, a chimera, a… Megazord, if you will.

The Winning Move: On WARGAMES and Daring to Be Naive

I didn’t really expect my first post to be, well, so charged. But recent events have got me thinking about my place in this increasingly dangerous world as someone who’s primary obsession is entertainment. Last week, we (the United States) launched dozens of missiles on a Syrian airbase. Say what you will about the motivations involved – whether it was truly in retaliation to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, or if its a veiled dick-measuring contest between a powerful dictator and a game show host played in a war criminal’s yard – this was a direct confrontational action carried out by our new Commander in Chief. An act(ion) of war. But we can’t just posit the effects of that act. The motivations matter.

So let’s talk about WARGAMES. From 1983, directed by John Badham (SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER), and starring young, button-nose, pre-Ferris Bueller Matthew Broderick. The movie sees Broderick playing teenager David Lightman, a nerd with an easygoing attitude towards school and computer privacy ethics. He’s trying to find a videogame company to play some unreleased games, when one day he stumbles upon an unidentified system with a game called “Global Thermonuclear War.” He runs a simulation of total world destruction, and soon discovers that the system he tapped into was NORAD’s newest automated defense intelligence, WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), also known as Joshua. Now David has to escape authorities while also preventing the hyper-advanced computer from starting an actual, world-ending nuclear war.

I first saw this thing in 6th or 7th grade, and I think there’s something obvious and yet poignant about the fact that my understanding of its basic “lesson” has stayed mostly the same over the years. The only thing that has increased is my appreciation of it. It carries a simple message: war is pretty bad.

HEY SPOILERS

Watch this scene.

In order to shut it down before it launches a nuke, David makes several attempts to beat the computer in a game of Tic Tac Toe. It makes sense if you’ve seen the rest of it. But he finds the machine an unbeatable opponent. So what does he do? I LOVE THIS.

He gets the computer to play against itself. It goes rapidly through hundreds of games in a matter of seconds, each time ending in a tie. It is its own perfect opponent. But finally the computer stops and makes a conclusion: “The only winning move is not to play.”

The only winning move is not to play.

But of course! War is bad, and we all win if we’re friends and we don’t fight. Right?

I rewatched the movie in its entirety this weekend and picked up on more of its thematic logic. Joshua’s creator, Professor Falken, played with achingly human sensibility by John Wood, speaks to the one lesson his brainchild never learned, even with all of its hyperactive learning capability: futility. When to give up. When David and his maybe-girlfriend Jennifer (Ally Seedy having more fun than any of us) arrive to Falken’s secluded hideout – in a location he selected specifically to die quickly in the case of nuclear attack – he himself has given up. His wife and his child, Joshua’s namesake, having died a long time ago, he is resigned to his an the rest of humanity’s inevitable demise.

In a wonderful scene, David smacks down Falken’s well-thought-out logic and brashly declares his desire to fight and to live. Falken concedes and helps David and NORAD stop Joshua.

But back to that climax. David gets the machine to give up. It accepts futility. It can’t win. So why keep trying? The same mindset that Falken engaged with at his lowest point is proven to be the only thing that can save us. But rather than mope, alone, waiting for death to come, we should stare death boldly in the eye and enjoy whatever we can while it approaches.

WarGames rides a wonderful line ideologically between action and inaction. What has a greater impact on our fate? Doing something or doing nothing? Another important detail I didn’t notice until now is that the reason they can’t unplug Joshua is that the nuclear silos’ own computers would interpret that as the destruction of NORAD – leading them to activate a failsafe and launch all their nukes. This movie’s NORAD essentially wants to ensure world demise; if NORAD goes down, everyone must go down with it. The movie condemns this form of nihilism. And it’s that nihilism that David convinces Falken of overcoming, so even though the end of the world could come at any time, we do not submit to it.

The action must be for the right reason. You cannot automate a war. We must be human and naive, and be responsible for being those things.