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film review

The new Power Rangers film is almost galling enough in its misplaced confidence that it must be seen to be believed.Kimberley French

A little more than a year ago, a short film titled Power/Rangers made its way online. In the 14-minute spot, the kiddie franchise that you might remember from your sugar-fuelled Saturday mornings (or from your children's sugar-fuelled Saturday mornings) is reimagined, with little regard for copyright, as an ultradark, gory and vulgar brand, complete with nostalgic appearances from the stars of other bygone diversions, such as James Van Der Beek. Directed by Joseph Kahn (of music-video renown, but also the brilliant features Detention and Torque), the clip marries crass modern Hollywood instincts with self-knowing satire to create an intellectual-property fever dream. If the original Power Rangers had to be rebooted, Kahn's version would be the platonic ideal.

Well, it turns out that as Kahn's fan film disseminated itself across the Internet, Lionsgate was indeed hard-ish at work on a legitimate remake of the series – and embracing every instinct that Kahn so deftly avoided. Whereas Power/Rangers acts as both a legitimately thrilling piece of entertainment and a lacerating takedown of the industry's obsession with exploiting bottom-of-the-barrel franchises, the new, industry-minted Power Rangers is a work of soulless indifference. It is not so much a movie as an exercise in how to wring the life out of even the most lifeless of properties – grave robbing writ large, except the ostensible corpse was never more than a worthless bag of bones in the first place.

Some background on the franchise, first: The original Power Rangers was the brainchild of producer Haim Saban, who sold Fox television on taking clips from the old Japanese show Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger – in which a bunch of colour-coded masked warriors battled foam-suited space aliens – dubbing them in English, and grafting on a cheap narrative about American teenagers who band together to save the world.

Despite outcries from parent groups that the footage was too violent, Power Rangers was an enormous hit, and is still going strong 23 years later, with more than 800 episodes across 20 various series to its name, and billions of dollars in merchandise sales.

It was only a matter of time before a movie studio picked up Saban's toys to play in a manner befitting the current "cinematic universe" trend. And with Lionsgate struggling to find a successful cash cow to call its own (what with Hunger Games having run its course, and its Divergent series flatlining), the partnership makes a certain amount of financial sense. Ostensibly, a splashy big-budget reboot would lure fans across quadrants, and even create a few new ones along the way, given how modern audiences are conditioned to latch onto anything involving shiny alien battles and even shinier teens.

Yet just as the original Power Rangers was a cheap, irredeemably dumb American diversion pasted on top of another cheap, irredeemably dumb Japanese diversion, so, too, is the new film merely a facsimile of a facsimile of a film. Directed both with too much and too little effort by Dean Israelite, this updated Power Rangers is almost galling enough in its misplaced confidence that it must be seen to be believed – but don't mistake that for an endorsement.

Reworking the thin narrative of the original 1993 series, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Israelite's film focuses on five plucky, ethnically diverse high-schoolers who stumble upon a spaceship, and in the process accidentally awaken a millions-year-old space witch named Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks). Before Rita destroys Earth, the sexy superheroes must shelve their various personal adolescent problems (which range from coping with autism to accepting their sexuality to, um, sharing sexts), listen to the disembodied head of alien Zordon (an embarrassed Bryan Cranston), and band together to "morph" into an elite intergalactic fighting unit known as … okay, you can imagine what happens next. Or don't! It will literally make not one lick of difference.

Just know that nearly every frame is painful to watch, from Israelite's needlessly elaborate opening – which suggests he saw the car-chase scene in Children of Men one too many times – to the final CGI battle involving robotic dinosaurs named Zords, which looks like it cost $650 to film. (The fact that the movie carries a price tag of $105-million [U.S.], with no major stars necessitating huge paydays, demands that a forensic audit be launched.)

Unlike recent franchise resurrections such as Kong: Skull Island, there is no artistry on display here, no sense of entertainment or even a genuine reason for existing outside the obvious financial considerations.

The film's only saving grace, with the exception of an unintentionally hilarious recurring product placement for Krispy Kreme, is Banks. As the slitherly Repulsa (all right, Saban, you get points for that name), the actress doesn't merely chew scenery but unhinges her jaw to swallow it whole. Banks is having the time of her life here, summoning rock monsters from the ground and whipping around a golden staff, so much so that it's puzzling why the rest of the cast doesn't follow her lead. Instead of embracing the cosmic ridiculousness of such an endeavour, everyone from Red Ranger Jason (Dacre Montgomery) to Pink Ranger Kimberly (Naomi Scott) treat their roles as burdensome chores, with Israelite failing to coax an ounce of charisma from the lot.

By the time the inevitable postcredits stinger arrives, hinting at, or more accurately threatening, further Power Rangers adventures to come, it is hard not to wish Repulsa had won her battle. Earth, or at least an Earth that sees nothing wrong with this depth of cynical brand extension, doesn't deserve to exist. Do your worst, Rita – we've earned it.