I suppose I should begin this review with the mandatory statement that despite dabbling in some of the old TV episodes of the marionette-centric Thunderbirds, I am not – to use the modern vernacular – an ardent ‘fanboy’ for whom the very idea of a Thunderbirds remake is outright blasphemy. Truth be told, you don’t need to have any great affinity for the old TV series to find this asinine remake a numbingly painful viewing experience: the film manages that quite nicely by itself.
The plot isn’t really of any great significance; it’s more of an excuse to justify a group of irritating kids frolicking around in spaceships and other assortments of automobiles whilst occasionally attempting to utter some sublimely banal dialogue. However for the sake of posterity here is a synopsis: the story revolves around the Tracy family who run ‘international rescue’, which basically gives them license to jet around the planet in gaudily coloured aircraft/spaceships/submarines and rescue hapless civilians who scream incessantly before gratefully proclaiming ‘Thank you Thunderbirds! You saved my life!”. Whilst the rest of the family are out and about being suitably bland do-gooders, young whippersnapper Alan Tracy (Brady Corbett) has to (sigh) remain at school where he is cruelly picked on by a teacher and just for good measure is bullied by one of the other pupils – not that it matters much since they never reappear after the opening ten minutes.
Alan longs to be a Thunderbird but of course his ‘my way or the highway’ dad (Bill Paxton, as insufferable as ever) will have none of it. The logic for this decision is that Alan is too young and besides, they need to get the plot moving and create father-son tensions that can be neatly resolved in an eye-wateringly clichéd scene near the end of the movie. Alan is ostensibly twelve years old, despite being played by obviously adolescent and muscular Brady Corbett, so the reasoning isn’t exactly watertight. The fact that the rest of the Tracy brothers seem similarly underage and juvenile is never elaborated upon, probably because they’re essentially inter-changeable with one another, each wearing the same laughably naff uniform and each bearing the same generic (and faintly Aryan) good looks. Imagine the Hitler Youth dressed as ice cream salesmen and you’ll get a pretty vivid impression of how the Tracy family attire themselves.
Onto the proverbial ‘meat’ of the narrative; arch-villain with ridiculous name, The Hood (a bored looking Ben Kingsley), seizes control of the island whilst the rest of the Tracy contingent are in space and proceeds to tell everybody his diabolical plan: rob the bank of England with Thunderbird 2 and incriminate the Thunderbirds. Unsurprisingly it’s down to anodyne Alan, Tin Tin (the token chick) and nerdy Fermat (Soren Fulton) to save the day, foil the baddies’ plans and attain the admiration of their respective families. Along the way, veddy posh and pink-fixated super-spy Lady Penelope (Sophie Myles) and her faithful manservant Parker (Ron Cook) lend a helping hand and a solid dose of cheap one-liners, all of which seem to have been culled from just about every American stereotype of the British, whilst Alan petulantly bosses everybody about and ignores them even when they offer comparatively sage advice.
Facetious pot-shots at the movie aside, this is a genuinely dissatisfying film that continually piles on the corn until it almost collapses under its own gargantuan weight. There are good elements - indeed the movie is perfectly viewable despite its infrequent descent into true awfulness – the colourful décor is certainly eye-catching and the animated opening credits are nothing short of superb, promising a genuinely innovative and sly main feature. It’s therefore a pity that these hopes are dashed as the insipid script finally resorts to kids shooting emerald goo at inept flunkies of The Hood in a desperate bid to thrill the under-ten age demographic the film is trying to appeal to. Kingsley’s performance is rather flat and dull, as though the ignominy of having to wear a red kimono and ridiculous face paint was enough to send him into a semi-catatonic state of weary indifference. If Kingsley merely is dull, then Anthony Edwards (of ER fame – he played the perpetually miserable Dr. Green) seems downright embarrassed even to be in the film, spending every scene looking as though he’d gladly bolt for the exit were he not under contract.
Regrettably the child actors don’t fare much better. In truth, all have them have been lumbered with the typically thankless roles that actors of their age group generally receive and they do the best they can with the limited material they’ve been given. Only Brady Corbett slightly grates; true, the part is ham-fistedly scripted, but Corbett’s performance does occasionally border on the obnoxious whilst his hyper-chaste love sub-plot with Tin Tin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) is tediously superfluous. By contrast, Sophie Myles and Ron Cook both escape the film unscathed, each of them having given surprisingly creditable performances. Whilst other cast members either take the proceedings far too seriously or simply look awkward, these two give very knowing and tongue-in-cheek performances and even deliver some authentically funny lines.
I read an article shortly before the film was released where Bill Paxton gushed that the movie ‘was all about finding your vocation in life’ and proceeded to heap praise upon the it, declaring that the visual artistic style was comparable with that of Kubrick's work. Bold words for sure, but you’ve got to give the man brownie points for managing to compliment a film in which he’s burdened with the worst dialogue and the most unbelievable goody two-shoes of a character since Haley Mills’s role as the titular Pollyanna. Make no mistake: this is a sub-par film, but at the same time it’s one that is so earnest in its intentions that it’s difficult to truly abhor it. It may not go down in the annals of cinema as a plausible rival to the Spy Kids films, but it might manage to go the Showgirls route of becoming revered as a gloriously kitsch camp classic
An unsurprisingly solid package, though the only extra feature to have subtitles is the audio commentary.
Menus – I’m all for originality in this field, but I prefer it not to compromise my ease of accessing the disc options. Styled like the cockpit of a Thunderbird, there are five different screens for each thunderbird, each of which contain a disc option and are accessible by pushing the buttons on the steering wheel. As well as the options, one is given the opportunity to press the ‘launch’ button (which shows the specific Thunderbird taking off) and the ‘facts’ switch which gives some yawn-inducing information about that particular thunderbird. The Thunderbird 2 ‘fact’ check-list is just about worth it, but only because of the presumably unintended double-entendres (“she’s big and she’s mine!” Virgil Tracy enthuses about his green machine).
Picture – Very little to gripe about, the anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 transfer is excellent, making the most of the film’s rich hues and vibrant colour palette.
Sound – Again impressive, there are good bass levels, the sound is pleasingly thunderous during the action sequences and there’s excellent clarity for the dialogue (which can either be construed as a good or a bad thing depending on your opinion).
Extras – Neither as plentiful as you’d expect nor as interesting as you’d hope, everybody is blissfully unaware of the film’s impending box-office downfall and there’s not a dissenting voice among them.
Jonathan Frakes Commentary – Despite his promisingly acidic opening line “Hi, I’m Jonathan Frakes, the alleged director of this movie”, Jonathan Frake's commentary is generally very praising of the cast and crew and even mentions the possibility of a sequel. Obviously the commentary was recorded before this $57 million movie made a miniscule $6 million at the USA box office.
Creating the Action – An inside look into the special effects of the film that’s probably over-simplistic for techno-buffs but is perfectly watchable for those who like myself know only a limited amount about CGI.
Tracy Island Revealed – Pretty much what you’d imagine: a look at the set design and a few snippets of interviews with the cast, who don’t really say anything of worth (and in the case of Brady Corbett, seem half asleep at the time).
Lady P and Parker - Fun & Stunts – Behind the scenes on the fight sequence (very short, barely even three minutes).
FAB1: More Than Just a Car – A short look at the designing of the car.
Lady Penelope's Pink World – Despite being only about three minutes in length, this is actually worth watching as it at least gives some opportunity for Sophia Myles and Ron Cook to talk about their characters.
Busted ‘Thunderbirds Are Go’ Music Video – It’s a music video. By Busted. Need I say more?
Game: Hood Vs Thunderbirds – For the kids only: about as inane as DVD games can get. The press release states:
“A multiple choice story book game. User can play as both the Hood and as a Thunderbird. Using a series of multiple choice options the player decides how to respond at key moments in the story. Their decisions determine the flow of the story and its final outcome.”
DVD also includes trailers for: Shrek 2, Billy Elliot the Musical, The Land Before Time 10 and Balto: The Wings of Change.
I can only begin to imagine the anger and humiliation Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson must have felt when he was forbidden to have any involvement with the film; however it looks as though he’s had the last laugh as Thunderbirds stands as 2004’s biggest box office turkey. Still, it might appeal to the pre-pubescent sub-set of society and the film is most definitely – as Mary Whitehouse would say – ‘good clean fun’.