A close textual analysis of the 1995 Power Rangers movie

Feature Stefan Mohamed 25 Mar 2014 - 05:42

Sartre, existentialism, and the power of teamwork - Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie's got it all

I am nothing if not an objective, dispassionate observer, borderline Spock-like in my capacity to ruthlessly apply cold rationality and irrefutable logic to dissections of popular culture. So when I call Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie* not just one of the finest entertainment experiences of all time, but a poignant exploration of the meaning of heroism and identity in an increasingly alienating and unfamiliar world (i.e. the 1990s), you can be sure that I am operating without bias.

I have no agenda, no axe to grind. My judgement is not impaired by the rosy tint of childhood memories, emotional connections or nostalgic associations; and even if I had been seven years old when this film came out, and an absolute Power Rangers fanatic, and had been walking through London with my dad, and spotted a cinema showing it, and almost combusted with excitement when my dad said we could go and see it, why would that have any bearing on my ability to analyse it now, as a grown human in my mid-20s? What does it matter if, for example, I had been more excited about the appearance of free movie-related toys in my cereal than I had been about my last set of Christmas presents? Who are you to judge me?

No one, that’s who. So - children, adults and teenagers (preferably with attitude), gather round, don your colour-coordinated outfits, power up your all-encompassing platitudes about believing in yourself, and let’s jump outta this plane.

Together.

“Smells like… teenagers.”

Picture the scene. It’s 1995. Halfway through the 1990s. Ten years previously, Marty McFly travelled back to the future. Ten years later, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith would finally draw a curtain on the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Suffice it to say, we’re halfway through a 20-year period in which very little happened that was good, or at all. Bill Clinton supported Oasis at Knebworth with a set of free jazz. Sunny Delight arrived in the UK, and was later renamed SunnyD.

Another beloved TV series, Tom And Jerry, got the film treatment (Tom And Jerry: The Movie), except this adaptation was godawful rubbish, mostly because the titular duo conversed like people, and before you say they talked in the TV show sometimes let me pre-empt you by shouting NOT LIKE THIS THEY DIDN’T and violently slamming the door on any further debate on the subject.

Enter the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. The heroes we needed right then, if not the ones we deserved, although I definitely deserved them. The series premiered in America in 1993 and concerned five (later six) teenagers granted incredible powers, snazzy colour-coded spandex suits and giant battle robots by Zordon, an extraterrestrial head who lived in another dimension (or something) and was assisted by a hyperactive robot given to exclamations of “aye-yi-yi-yi-yi”, which was rarely helpful. Together, the five (later six) Rangers, along with their dinosaur-themed (later animal-themed, and later who cares because I stopped watching) robots (or Zords), fought terrible (in more ways than one) monsters sent by the evil Rita Repulsa (and later her boss / arch-nemesis / husband / body horror nightmare Lord Zedd). It’s exactly as good as it sounds, i.e. brilliant.

The series always maintained a certain tacky charm, not least because most of the fight scenes (in fact, pretty much any scene in which the Rangers had their helmets on or piloted their Zords) were pinched from Japanese sentai series like Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger. These shows were a goldmine for production company Saban Entertainment, as all they had to do was shoot linking scenes with American actors and splice them (often awkwardly) together with footage recycled from elsewhere.

When the movie came about, however, there was to be none of this recycling business. Having made approximately ninety bajillion dollars through the series and related merchandise, Saban Entertainment and distributor 20th Century Fox pulled out all the stops when assembling the feature film, and for all its flaws (it has few, if any), it is undeniable that the film looked good on the big screen. From the sweet re-designed non-spandex suits to the re-recorded theme song, this was no cheaply thrown-together feature-length episode. This was a movie, damn it.

Morphenomenal!

So why is it great, you ask? Well, that suggests that you haven’t watched it. In which case you should go and watch it now. Except that if you didn’t watch it when you were younger, you may come to it with too much pre-existing bias, and will therefore be unable to appreciate it objectively. So maybe you shouldn’t watch it.

So why is it great, you ask? Or, to be more accurate, why is it morphenomenal? Well, it starts with a skydiving sequence soundtracked by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ cover of Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground, featuring some of the most face-chewingly righteous slap bass in the history of ever. Actually, before that it has an epic expository narration that adds a real mythic weight to proceedings. Then it has skydiving and slap bass. Boom. If my seven-year-old mind was blown, how exactly could anyone else’s mind not be?

Then there’s the villain, Ivan Ooze, a purple sorceror played with sadistic, pantomimic glee by Paul Freeman. Yes, Belloq. I know, right? One of his first acts upon release from his 6,000-year imprisonment is to trap Rita and Zedd, the franchise’s nominal villains, in a snow globe, and while some might argue that he should have killed them, I feel it’s much more effective that he reduces them to ridiculous figures, embarrassing them in front of their minions. It instantly establishes a new status quo: this will not be a run-of-the-mill Power Rangers outing. The game has changed. Our heroes are up against a villain so uncompromising and badass that he imprisons the previous bad guys, then breaks into the Command Centre and BLOWS IT UP. Seriously. All of it. Zordon is left to die beneath a manky blanket, and the Rangers are left without power or hope. And that’s, like, 20 minutes or so into the film.

These are what we call stakes, people. Specifically, high ones.

At this point, it seems appropriate to bring Sartre into proceedings. John Paul Sartre was two parts Beatle, one part French magician, and he revolutionised the teachings of existentialism, a philosophy whose underlying point is that we shouldn't worry, because we mean nothing in and of ourselves, and therefore if we mean nothing, then there's nothing to worry about. In the wrong hands, this is a bleak and nihilistic philosophy, and at first the movie seems to wholeheartedly embrace its darker undertones, suggesting that without their powers, the Rangers’ lives are essentially meaningless - if a de-powered Ranger does unnecessary acrobatics in a forest, do they make a sound? This theme is initially presented as a study in futility, and the film does not retreat from its terrifying implications; and while Sartre's idea of 'meaning' may not have involved teleporting to a distant planet, meeting a hot witch in a green bikini and fighting a load of rock monsters to regain one's lost power (in a natty ninja ensemble, naturally), the parallels are undeniable.

Ultimately, in a sly satirical poke at some of Fred Nietzsche's more outré moments, the Rangers redefine their own existences by becoming supermen (and women) again, thoroughly inverting the Nietzschean archetype. We may be born without inherent meaning or essence, but we can make our own essence, find our own meaning. Zordon may have chosen the Power Rangers, implying some form of predestination or even a theistic interpretation of human purpose, but here they choose to fight, and to regain their abilities – abilities that, crucially, are exponentially more badass once they return to Earth to defeat Ivan Ooze. In its own way, Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers: The Movie is as pure a portrayal of Sartre's humanist existentialism as you could want.

Drop dead Fred

Now, in the interests of balance, I will address some of the movie’s flaws, which, while major, are still not major enough to derail it. In actual fact, the film has exactly one flaw: Fred Kelman.

Fred Kelman is the Rangers’ kid friend. He wears a backwards baseball cap, has daddy issues, and eventually leads the kids of Angel Grove to rise up against their zombiefied parents, first with an inspirational speech, then by driving a train, and finally by operating a fire hose. He’s also shit. And awful. And rubbish. He is the Scrappy Doo of this film. It's Godzooky. It's lil' Ani Skywalker. I hated him when I was seven, and I hate him now. After watching this film, who did I want to be when I played Power Rangers in the playground? Maybe the Red Ranger, although he was better when he was Jason. Maybe the Black Ranger, although he was definitely better when he was Zach. But more than likely Tommy, the White Ranger (don’t call him the White Power Ranger because it’s distinctly un-righteous).

Guess who I didn’t want to be? Fred Kelman, that’s who.

I'd rather be Bulk or Skull. Or Ernie, come to that, at least he makes a bangin' smoothie. In fact, if you could find me one child in the entire universe who wanted to be the Rangers’ cocky firehose-totin’ buddy, then I will happily beat them up, even if it means sacrificing the principles of fairness and not-being-a-bully that the Power Rangers taught me. Nobody wanted to be Fred. We didn’t need him. We’d already spent years with these superheroes. We loved them. It's not a stretch to say that we worshipped them. We did not need some kind of crowbarred-in audience identification figure. Fred stank of studio interference, of soulless, coke-snorting execs who think that children need to have children in films in order to like films. He represents everything that is wrong with the contemporary blockbuster movie paradigm; he precipitated its decline, in many ways. He is just the worst. He is worse than the trailer for the new Postman Pat film (although he’s probaby not as bad as the full film; I’ll never know, I ain’t watching it).

“It’s morphin’ time!”

Like all great stories, at its heart, Power Rangers is about fighting. Casablanca may be one of the greatest movies ever made, if not the greatest, but it’s not quite the greatest because it has no fighting.

Power Rangers, however, has loads of fighting, including a superbly atmospheric pre-morphing dust-up on a construction site; an even superblier atmospheric post-morphing slime-down in some dank underground place nearby; a crunchy ruckus on the shores of an alien ocean; the aforementioned rock monster melee; a CGI giant robot smack-fest as awesome as anything in Pacific Rim; and a climax in which the Megazord KNEES IVAN OOZE IN THE BALLS, SENDING HIM SPINNING INTO THE PATH OF A COMET TO DIE. I know, right?! No intergalactic prison for this villain. You fuck with the Power Rangers, your ass gets vaporised. Need I say more?

No. I need not.

Go go Power Rangers!

A cursory glance at the film’s Wikipedia page yields troubling results. It received 'a mixed reaction' from critics, apparently. Roger Ebert, in possibly the only misstep of his otherwise triumphant career, gave it one out of four stars. Caryn James of The New York Times said the film was “loud, headache-inducing and boring for adults, but that children would enjoy it”. Is that supposed to be negative? Also, why did The New York Times review this film?

Luckily, Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times redeems the discipline of film criticism, praising the “barrage of spectacular special effects, a slew of fantastic monsters, a ferociously funny villain – and, most important[ly], a refreshing lack of pretentiousness”. He’s obviously cool, and I’d like to hang out with him.

So there you have it. A near-flawless (I’m looking at you, Fred Kelman) cinematic adaptation of a kids’ favourite, which translated everything good about the show to the screen in a slick, exciting fashion and pumped the awesomeness into overdrive; a moving meditation on the power of power and the hero’s identity; a nuanced exploration of Sartrean dynamics; loads of cool fighting. In the words of Tommy Oliver, the White Ranger:

“8-ball, corner pocket!”

*while the series and film spell it Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, I have chosen to add an apostrophe to “morphin”. Why? BECAUSE APOSTROPHES ARE IMPORTANT, THAT’S WHY.

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