A mixture of excitement and apprehension greeted the news early last year that the long-awaited movie of Thunderbirds was finally going to start shooting. The live action version of Gerry Anderson’s seminal 60s puppet show had been on the cards for years, but had never been able to get off the ground (no pun intended) until now.
Any prospective makers were faced with two main difficulties in making the film. The first was the deep level of affection the series has in Britain. Thunderbirds has been part of popular British culture ever since it first appeared, one of the very rare children's show to have genuine cross-generational appeal. It is a testament to how well the show was made and put together that even today's youngsters, who are used to so much more sophisticated fare than their predecessors in the 60s, embrace the show whole-heartedly. (Who can forget the fuss on Blue Peter a few years back when a make of Tracy Island nearly brought the studio to its knees, with hundreds of thousands of requests on how to make it.) For the generations that saw it in earlier years, the show is deeply engrained in the cultural consciousness, which is why we still see the show referenced on everything from commercials to comedy shows. It is that rare thing, timeless, and with all such things the nation takes a proprietorial interest. Strict scrutiny would be given to who was cast in the iconic roles of Lady Penelope and Parker, and if they were not up to scratch there would be hell to pay. Over the years the favourites have included Kristen Scott Thomas for Lady P (not enough warmth), Bob Hoskins as Parker (perfect) and, heaven help us, the Baldwin brothers as the Tracys.
This latter casting idea reflects the second problem makers of the film had. How to sell to America? When Gerry Anderson conceived the show, he was given instructions by Lew Grade, the famous media tycoon who ran ATV which produced the series, to appeal to the American audience. This is why all the Tracy brothers are American and there is a strong transatlantic flavour to many of the rescues (although it's hard to say exactly what message was being sent in the episode where the Empire State Building collapsed). Unfortunately, it didn't work, and America is the one big overseas market that has never responded to the show. For a big screen film to be successful it would have to have a lot of money put into it, and for that to happen the American market was crucial. To this end Working Title, the Brit-hit makers extraordinaire who finally gave the greenlight to the film, hired Jonathan "Commander Riker" Frakes as director, Anthony "Dr Green" Edwards as Brains and retooled the series to make it more skewed towards the Spy Kids market. The heroes of the film were not to be Scott, Virgil et al but a fourteen year old version of Alan who, with the same aged Tin-Tin and a slightly younger boy called Fermat (a new character), would take on the Thunderbirds' regular nemesis The Hood. All this retooling did not please Gerry Anderson, who was controversially snubbed by the film makers and not involved in the film's production at all. But is change necessarily a bad thing?
The film opens with Alan attending a Massachusets boarding school with Fermat. Chomping at the bit to grow up and become part of the rescuing team, Alan gets his chance when the Hood strands the other Tracys on the orbiting ship Thunderbird 5 and seizes control of Tracy Island, planning to use the remaining Thunderbirds to rob the richest banks in the world. With all the others prisoner, it’s up to Alan, along with Fermat and Tintin, to strike back and save the day.
Eyebrows were raised when the film began shooting as it became clear that the film was “aiming young”. This is a bit of a silly criticism, as, lest the dads in the audience forget, Thunderbirds was always a children’s show and nothing more. The decision appears eminently sensible, given the recent upsurge in movies aimed at the pre-teen market. And with the girls having their pick of the latest Lindsay Lohan or Hilary Duff vehicle, why shouldn’t the boys have something to fill in the gap left by the ending of the Spy Kids franchise? It might be a blow to those who grew up with the show and have yearned for a proper film version of it for years (and I count myself among them) but on its own it’s not a bad idea. It would be perfectly possible to make a movie that appeals to youngsters but at the same time has enough in it for the more mature audience member.
Which makes what we got so much more frustrating. Instead of getting a story with several exciting rescue set pieces, interspersed with some overall story about the Hood trying to destroy International Rescue, we get ninety minutes of a teenage Alan running around Tracy Island, escaping from the Hood’s comedy goons. The story is not so much basic as non-existent, with the middle part of the film bizarrely feeling like padding, with nothing happening at all to further the plot. To fill in the time, we get Alan learning important life lessons while the Hood tries to convert him to the dark side, scenes of the Tracys slowly expiring up in space, and a running gag with one of the Hood’s minions fancying Brains. This latter made me feel rather uncomfortable, the joke that the minion is outrageously ugly sending a rather dodgy message to the target audience (although I admit I chuckled on her first appearance). The script as a whole is a lame duck, going for obvious messages about responsibility – Alan is conflicted as the Hood reveals that Jeff left him to die during a rescue mission, together with his own feelings of bitterness about not being allowed to be part of the team – that are driven home with a sledge hammer. It’s simplistic stuff, not particularly well done, which only picks up in the last twenty minutes when the script ditches the messages, and Tracy Island, and actually goes in for some proper Thunderbirds rescuing action in London.
For Thunderbirds purists, it’s all a bit of a nightmare. Changing bits and pieces here and there would have been perfectly understandable (it is hard to imagine that Virgil’s method of getting to Thunderbird 2 would have looked anything but ridiculous in real life) but almost no aspect of the series isn’t tampered with to some degree. The most famous of these is that FAB 1, Lady Penelope’s famous pink car, is no longer a Rolls Royce (utter sacrilege!) but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Listing them all would be pedantic but among the more prominent crimes are Jeff Tracy going on missions himself, the fact that Lady P doesn’t travel around in first class but flies in FAB1 instead and the ghastly conceit of having the Tracy brothers calling themselves Thunderbirds. Oh, and incidentally, since when did Brains have a son?
What is got largely right is the look given to the film. With the exception of FAB1, all the Thunderbird crafts are copied faithfully from the show, with the odd tweak here and there, and all look extremely good on the big screen. Similarly, Tracy Island’s exterior is well thought out, being the right mixture of retro design and futuristic leanings that it needed. (The island is also arguably made more attractive than in the series, with its larger area and dense, tropical forests being most appealing). It is also nice to see several of the more famous rescue vehicles brought to life – the Mole, in particular, is very good and used very well. There is a scene near the end with it and Alan that is so frustrating, an imaginative use that makes you wish the rest of the film matched up. There’s even a new craft that could easily have come from the series, a craft that shoots out concentrated bolts of electricity, only let down by its silly name the, sigh, Thunderiser. Futuristic London looks remarkably like present day London with a monorail (another nice nod to the series) running alongside the Thames, but its inclusion is gives the film some much-needed visual variety (as well as paying homage to the show’s origins) and we even get to revisit the scene of one of the more famous episodes, Vault of Death.. The interiors are not quite so good, looking a little sparsely populated for their size – it’s as though all of the money has been spent on other things and there wasn’t enough left over to fill the insides up. The one exception is the large Thunderbird 2 loading bay, an impressively big set that Frakes doesn’t make the best of.
If there was a suspicion after Star Trek: Insurrection and Clockstoppers (which, I admit, I never saw) that Frakes was a bit of a mediocre director, this film more than confirms it. There is no visual style or flair at all, and the big money moments are all squandered. The first time we see the Thunderbirds launching should have been a magical, thrilling moment, bringing a sense of awe, and excitement. Remember the sequence in Star Trek: the Motion Picture where Scotty flies Kirk around the ship? That’s what it should have felt like. In the series, the launching of the ships was the moment viewers knew things were about to happen – to quote Anderson’s sister series Stingray, “Stand by for action!” There’s none of that here – the first time we see the ships they are already flying, and heading to a rescue. Even when we do see Thunderbird 2 launching, the sequence has none of the grandeur about it that it needed. His pacing feels off, too – the dialogue scenes are slow while the action sequences too fast, giving a disjointed feel to proceedings.
The film does feel as though it’s made by people have very little understanding of what made the original series work (Frakes himself admitting that before filming started he was not familiar with the show). This is well illustrated by one of the film’s gags. The Hood takes control of Brains using his telepathy to get him to activate something or other. Brains then walks in a jerky motion that is evidently intended to be a parody of the general conception of how the Thunderbirds puppets used to walk. In case there are any terminally stupid people in the audience who might miss the brilliant subtly of this gag, the Hood then explains that he’s “like a puppet on a string.” Now not only is this underlining of the joke superfluous and irritating, but the joke itself is based on a misnomer. As anyone with even a basic knowledge of the show will tell you, ninety percent of the time the puppets were filmed from waist up, to avoid any silliness in the way they walk (this is why so many of them float around on hoverbikes or whatever). It’s only in the intervening years (and sketches like the famous and amusing Pete n Dud one) that the idea that the show is full of ridiculous walks has built up. (Having said that, a similar gag with a puppet’s hand is rather better). The opening credits sequence is bizarre too, a completely irrelevant cartoon rendering of the ships with silhouetted allusions to various episodes. Feeling nothing like Thunderbirds at all, you can only suppose it’s meant to capture the same 60s style that Catch Me If You Can’s did, which is daft. (although the theme is pleasingly faithful to the original).
However, the biggest clue to the production team’s lack of understanding of the source matter is in the rescues, or lack of. There are only two, both of which are rushed, with no build up or pay off to speak of. There’s no counting down to disaster, there’s no palpable thrill as the seconds tick away to doom, no last second escape highlighted by Barry Gray’s fantastic “We’ve done it!” fanfare. Missing these ingredients misses out the heart of the original series, the entire point. The rescues themselves are based on classic Thunderbirds set ups – the oil rig, in particular, generates a moment of excitement the first few seconds we see it, as it looks exactly right. Interest quickly dissipates to disappointment, though, as it’s squandered away with an incredibly easy rescue. It’s as though the makers have seen pictures of original episodes and produced carbon copies, looking the same but with none of the essence.
As mentioned, casting a film like this was always going to be difficult. The most attention, naturally, was on who was to be Lady Penelope. Sophia Myles is a little younger than the character she plays, but certainly has the look (particularly in a scene in which she sports a very Lady P-like beehive) and glint in her eye that the character needs. What she lacks, however, is the look of having been a secret agent for many years. She's too young, too unexperienced for that. She doesn’t quite work for me, but she makes a good stab at it, even when saddled with dialogue that seems to insist she says “boys” at the end of every sentence. I also warmed to Ron Cook as Parker, her valet, as the film wore on, but this was more because he just comes across well than for any similarity to Parker. Parker in the series adored his mistress, and we don't get to see that here. But he's okay, and could have been a lot worse. Who could have been a lot better, however, is Ben Kingsley who, as the Hood, drifts through the entire film on autopilot and is rather disappointing.
Of the three young leads, meanwhile, the best is the youngest, Soren Fulton as Fermat, who brings across much more personality and likeability to his role than can be found in the script. Vanessa Anne Hudgens as Tin-Tin isn’t too bad either, although she does spend the entire time smiling her head off, even in scenes where it really isn’t that appropriate. Brady Corbet, who as Alan has the lead role, is okay but, like his onscreen brothers, is a bit too bland. It’s very easy to see him popping up regularly over the next few years in teen soaps and films. The five Tracy men, including Bill Paxton as Jeff, are just featureless, and make no impression at all, other than that they are all terribly smug about being in International Rescue and all use way too much hair gel. To be fair, they aren’t given a chance to distinguish themselves from each other (I don’t even remember Gordon getting a name check) but it is saying something that in a charisma contest they easily come off second best to a bunch of puppets. Anthony Edwards does a little better as Brains, hampered only by a silly haircut that is too mannered to be convincing. The scenes showing his affection for his son are nicely done, and provide some rare warmth to proceedings.
As a diehard Thunderbirds fan who has waited his entire life to see this movie, I wanted to be able to come out of the cinema and say that I absolutely hated it. But I can’t. It is so unlike the series, both in character and story, that it leaves me with no great emotion other than weary disappointment. From the very beginning of shooting it was clear this was not going to be the film that we were hoping for, but the fact that it’s so far off the mark, so misguided about what its source material actually was about, that you could almost feel sorry for it. For non-fans, meanwhile, there's not enough in the story to warrant much interest, and I rather suspect it may look the tiniest bit cheap and artifical to hit big in America. There are just too many flaws in it to make it worthwhile, Sadly, it seems, with the fact that the film has been in the pipeline so long there is the impression that in the end people just wanted to get it done and out of the way. It must be heartbreaking for Gerry Anderson to see (although his ex-wife Sylvia has given her blessing), but there is a sneaky suspicion that, given the final result, he's probably very glad he didn't go near it. A waste.