The endless parade of toy commercial cartoon nostalgia reboots has reached the 1990s. That's a kind of progress, right?
Anyway, if nothing else good comes out of the Power Rangers movie, at least I learned a new word. (Yes, dear reader, I do research. Shocking, I know.) The word is tokusatsu, a Japanese term that literally means "special filming." It refers to a genre of live-action, effects-heavy fantasy and sci-fi films and TV shows, including the Toho Studios kaiju films from the 1950s and '60s like Mothra, Ghidorah, and Destroy All Monsters. TV tokusatsu includes Ultraman and the incredibly long-running Super Sentai series, which has been serving up color-coded super-team action since 1975. The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which became an American kids TV sensation in 1993, was originally an adaptation of season 16 of Super Sentai, which reused all of the original Japanese special-effects sequences with new English-language teen-drama scenes filling in the gaps. (This is the same scam that turned Gojira, a dark, angsty film that recalled the horrors of Hiroshima and the firebombing of Tokyo, into Godzilla, a silly monster movie where Raymond Burr stands around passively watching things blow up.)
One of the defining features of tokusatsu is people in rubber suits playing monsters. For a movie like Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, the man in the suit would go tromping through miniature cityscapes to create the flimsy illusion of a giant monster on the rampage. By the time the 16th season of Super Sentai rolled around, they weren't bothering with the little buildings any more. The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers usually fought the monster of the week in a quarry, or perhaps a state park. Tokusatsu is all about doing it on the cheap.
- It had to happen eventually — the color-coded, high school-aged heroes are back.
If it sounds like I'm making fun of this stuff, well, I am. But it's respectful mockery. There's certain integrity in cheap, gonzo monster movies. The appeal of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was all about what outrageous villain our teen heroes would fight each week. From Scorpina, the human-scorpion hybrid, to Lokar, the floating blue demonic head, the poor saps with no budget tasked with creating increasingly weird rubber suits carried the show for a decade.
Sadly, in this, the third Power Rangers movie, the crass exploitation is in full effect, but the anything-goes spirit is nowhere to be found. Our color-coded heroes are played by moderately priced TV actors, or, in the case of the Yellow Ranger by Becky G., a 20-year-old YouTube star. At least she's vaguely age appropriate. The Black Ranger, Ludi Lin, is a 29-year-old playing a high school kid. Naomi Scott, the Pink Ranger, is the Jean Grey to Dacre Montgomery, the Red Ranger's Cyclops, if I may mix my super-team metaphors. The only actor to leave any sort of impression is Me and Earl and the Dying Girl's RJ Cyler as the Blue Ranger, the autistic brainiac whose nighttime excursions to the small town of Angel Grove's gold mine uncover the alien power coins buried during the Cenozoic era, transforming our Breakfast Club of misfits into all the colors of the wuxia rainbow. Their chief antagonist is fallen Power Ranger Rita Repulsa, played all the way to the katana hilt by Elizabeth Banks. Subtlety was never a Power Ranger virtue, and Banks seems to be the only person on screen who understands how camp works.
After her 65 million-year-old corpse is dredged up from the sea bottom by the Red Ranger's dad (Angel Grove apparently being that rare town that has both an open-pit gold mine and a deep sea fishing fleet), Rita Repulsa's plan is to collect enough gold to build her giant monster Goldar and dig up the long dormant Zeo Crystal, a mystical artifact she will use to destroy all life on Earth, or something. In the most brazen act of product placement in recent memory, the crystal is located beneath a Krispy Kreme.
Instead of leaning into the tokusatsu and challenging our heroes with a wide array of modestly budgeted yet totally outrageous monsters, Power Rangers opts for the Marvel Third Act (TM) move of throwing a bunch of identical, grayish cannon-fodder aliens at them. Even Goldar, the boss fight, is a letdown, looking like he was stolen from the virtual set of Gods of Egypt. I know this is exploitation, and that means cheap knockoffs of whatever is popular in the big budget world right now, but I think that fat, Krispy Kreme money would have been better spent putting the stunt men in better costumes. This is not the time for restraint. This is Power Rangers.