05 June 2011

Sci-Fi Review: Thunderbirds (2004)

After watching through the Thunderbirds series on blu-ray, we are left with three movies to finish up the saga completely. Two of them are the familiar marionette versions and the most recent is a live action version that was released in 2004.

I had seen the live action movie once before and because of the negative review I posted back then, I thought it might be a good idea to watch it first out of the three remaining features so we can end on a high note. Yet still, I thought perhaps my initial review might turn out to be a bit harsh and much like some of the episodes of Star Trek The Original Series, maybe a re-watch could change that opinion.

I was wrong...

I think it might be best to start with what they did right with this movie as it will take less time!

Tracy Island and the Thunderbird machines are modernised and a decent enough representation from the original series. Thunderbirds 1 and 3 have the most common resemblance to their 1960's counterparts, with TB1 featuring adjustable jet nozzles (like a Harrier jumpjet) for it's vertical take-off and landing purposes.

Thunderbird 2 resembles the original enough, but has a different, much wider, frog-like shape, more streamlined engine 'pods' down the side but still features the pod carrying abilities, twin-boom tail and forward swept wings. My nitpick would be that it uses a 'crawler' to head out to its launch runway instead of its own wheels and the wings look way too short and therefore, way more unable to actually keep the machine in the air!

Thunderbird 4 is much smaller, for two people only who lie down to control it, while Thunderbird 5 looks more like a space satellite, but retains its circular appearance.

Ben Kingsley plays a decent 'Hood' in that he looks the part, but that's about it. Casting for Lady Penelope and Parker isn't bad and I dare say I could have warmed up to the other casting choices if it weren't for how horrible this story played out in the end.

Ben Kingsley plays a more sinister Hood
Ben Kingsley plays a more sinister Hood.

So... the rest.

Thunderbirds was never really about one person in particular, it was always about the team, yet the movie has decided to focus on Alan Tracy - who isn't even the astronaut of Thunderbird 3. He's going through school with Fermat. Who's Fermat? We find out he's Brains' son. Yes, Brains has a son. Alan's having trouble in school and at the end of term gets picked up by Lady Penelope (often referred to as Lady P in the movie) for a lift home. Parker and Penelope offering a taxi service? Very nice of them.

The pink 6-wheeler of choice isn't a Rolls Royce but in fact a hideously madeover Ford Thunderbird. I'm not kidding or being harsh here, it's a horrible looking car and I'm a Ford fan. Based on their concept car from the time, they added the extra axle, tapered off the rear and placed a glass bubble on top. The producers couldn't come to an agreement with BMW (owners of Rolls Royce) to provide a car for the movie, so Ford came to the rescue and I guess a Thunderbird is a fitting replacement... or is it?

See? I wasn't kidding!

But there's more, FAB1 can FLY. A point they keep showing throughout and later on we see it has hydrofoil capabilities as well - we kinda knew that from the series... but I just don't like this FAB1 at all... lets move along...

Parker, Lady Penelope and her pink Thunderbird FAB1
Parker & Lady Penelope with the Ford FAB1

The Hood stages a fake emergency on an oil platform that Thunderbird 1 and 2 are able to tend to. On their return journey, one of the rescued workers fires a tracking 'goo' onto TB1 which allows the Hood to trace them back to Tracy Island. He launches an attack by firing a missile at Thunderbird 5... how he knew TB5's location I'm not sure.

TB5 sends a distress call to Tracy Island and Jeff, Scott, Virgil and Gordon all head off in TB3 to assist John in the space station... yep, all of them. Jeff never went on a mission in the series, he always coordinated things from the island while the boys took care of things, but he leaves the island in the hands of Brains, Kyrano, the maid, Alan, Fermat and Tin-Tin.

Alan, Fermat and Tin-Tin work to save everyone, outwitting the Hood and his goons and saving TB5 but not before the Hood takes TB2 and the Mole to London to drill into and rob the Bank of England.

Alan, Fermat & Tin-Tin saving the day
Tin-Tin, Alan & Fermat work to send a signal to Thunderbird 5.

All the Thunderbirds descend on London to stop the Hood's plans but first they have to rescue some passengers on a CGI monorail that was conveniently placed across the River Thames for the purpose of this movie. There's a final showdown in a bank vault before everything's hunky dory once more.

Thunderbird 2 arrives at London
The Hood takes Thunderbird 2 through Tower Bridge approaching London

So, after all that you might be wondering what I didn't like about the film?

Throughout the film everyone, including the Tracy's themselves refer to them as 'The Thunderbirds'. All through the series, they were always International Rescue, with the 5 machines used in missions referred to as Thunderbirds. It almost seemed pointless to have International Rescue and IR badges in the movie because the term was never used. Oh, and W.T.F. is "Thunderize"?! Alan Tracy says this just as he hits a button to open a hole in Thunderbird 1's silo, it sounds lame. I wanted to find a video clip of that moment but it seems no one on YouTube wanted to torture us with it either.

Alan, Fermat and Tin-Tin save the day. Ultimately, the producers made this a childrens movie (inspired by Spy Kids?) instead of one that would and could be appreciated by long time fans of the original. The machines look great on the outside but inside they look like something from a kids after school game show, everything has a plastic look about it and are way too colourful to be taken seriously.

Jeff and umm... those two in Thunderbird 3's plastic cockpit
Jeff and whoever those two are getting comfortable in TB3's plastic cockpit.

Adding to this, there are some fight scenes in the film, but all of these are trivialised by poor choreography of Lady Penelope doing cartwheels all over the place, the Goons falling over each other more times than we can count and horrid sound effects to emphasise things like 'The Parker Haymaker'.

The Tracy's themselves are trivialised with the constant focus on Alan, Fermat and Tin-Tin. I couldn't point out Scott, John, Virgil or Gordon in the movie because they're sent off to pretty much die in TB5 for most of the film. Bill Paxton might've made a decent Jeff Tracy, but he does come across a little differently from the character established in the series.

The Tracy Bros, The Thunderbirds
The Tracy's about to launch.

Character traits aren't always spot-on, but most notably, Brains and Fermat both share their stuttering speech impediment, to the point of annoyance. In the series, it was kinda cute and almost unnoticeable, in the movie, it's just annoying. The producers also decided to give Brains a last name, Hackenbacker. Sure, this is from the series, but it was only ever used as an alias.

Brains has an over-exaggerated stutter and a last name.

Oh, and product placement! I mentioned before that I'm a fan of Ford, don't get me wrong, but when every car featured in the film is a Ford and proudly displaying the blue oval, it gets a bit much. We know FAB1 was a Ford Thunderbird, but we find out Lady Penelope has a collection of at least three pink Ford's at her manor, then the Goons use an ATV which is a Ford and in one of the last scenes where the crooks are apprehended, there are at least three Ford Police cars on the scene!

Lady Penelope's Pink Fords
Lady Penelope has a collection of pink Fords.

What could have saved this film? A little bit of seriousness might have been a good start. I'm not sure if they just had a horrid script to start with or if Jonathan Frakes might be to blame as director of the project. But Frakes can direct, after successful outings in the Star Trek franchise with First Contact (1996) and Insurrection (1998) what went wrong?

Gerry Anderson has distanced himself from the film as much as possible, partly by his own doing, but he was eventually dropped from the consultation team when this movie was being put together as the studio figured they had enough people working on it. In a radio podcast I remember Gerry Anderson being asked if he was 'consulted' about the movie, Gerry's answer was 'was I insulted?' with a laugh of agreement.

In review of the film, Anderson said "It was disgraceful that such a huge amount of money was spent with people who had no idea what Thunderbirds was about and what made it tick." and added that it was "the biggest load of crap I have ever seen in my entire life.

Thunderbird 5 takes a hit
Thunderbird 5 takes a missile hit. Someone should have done the same to this movie.

I'd have to agree with him. It wasn't the fact that it wasn't shot with marionettes (which Team America would do later in the same year) but that the story was just awful and didn't grasp anything from the original series except the characters and the machines.

A remake of one of the iconic episodes from the series would have been a better way to start out but this is what we got.

Overall Rating: 0.5 stars.

My original stance remains unchanged. I give the film 0.5 of a star for the effects and save the remaining 4.5 stars for when a decent remake is put together.

There's good news on the horizon with Gerry Anderson reportedly working on a new Thunderbirds series... While it's not a new feature film, we can hope this will be something to be appreciated by all generations of fans and bring in new ones as well!

Some information provided in this entry has been taken from the Thunderbirds 2004 movie Wikipedia entry.

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