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SECOND LOOK: Thunderbirds (2004)

Oh, boy, oh, boy, oh, boy. If you are a British nerd like myself and this website’s Assistant Editor Fred, a quintessential part of your childhood might have involved the classic Supermarionation sci-fi Thunderbirds, created by the late Gerry and Sylvia Anderson.  The iconic rescue vehicles, the memorable characters, and the fun action scenes created through puppetry and miniatures made Thunderbirds a beloved part of British culture. So some bright spark in America decided to try and bring it over to their audience and turned into Spy Kids. So let’s get those palm trees down and take off for a Second Look at Thunderbirds.

5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1…Thunderbirds are a no-go!

Presented as a semi-prequel or alternate take on the TV series, the film was directed by Jonathan Frakes of Star Trek fame. I like Frakes and his film commentary on the DVD is a good listen, but he only really captured the visual iconography of the movie rather than the characters and thrills of the original. In this world, there is a top secret organization called International Rescue, formed by Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton) and his numerous sons. As you might guess, they rescue people using advanced and frankly awesome aircraft and other vehicles called the Thunderbirds. They are further aided by British spy Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward (Sophia Myles), her butler Parker (Ron Cook), and genius and designer of the Thunderbirds, scientist Brains (Anthony Edwards)

After rescuing oil drillers from a burning rig, the Tracys are lured into a trap set by the evil criminal known as The Hood (Ben Kingsley) who traps them on the orbiting Thunderbird 5 and conquers their island home to use their machines to rob banks and destroy the reputation of International Rescue. Standing against him are the children left on the island, Jeff’s youngest son Alan (Brady Corbet), Brains’ identical son Fermat (Soren Fulton), and Tin-Tin (Vanessa Hudgens). Yeah, like I said, Thunderbirds becomes Spy Kids. All the adults are captured, leaving the children to take the lead and use the flashy gadgets to save the day. And it could be a fun ride, if our leading protagonist wasn’t so dislikeable.

A major problem with this film is that Alan Tracy is such a whiny brat. I get he wants to be a member of the team and pilot a Thunderbird, but his defining trait is his whinging. He doesn’t shut up. He is also arrogant, kinda dumb, often bullies his own friends, and thinks his stupid decisions and incessant whining should allow him to pilot his family’s extremely top secret flying machines. Early on in the film, he and Fermat decide to go on a little joyride in Thunderbird 1, which I should point out is a hypersonic rocket plane, and nearly jeopardise their family’s entire operation with their stupidity. And then Alan has the nerve to whine at his father for holding him back. What a twat.

Fermat and Tin-Tin don’t offer much to the story either. I like Fermat but he is essentially a smaller version of Brains down to the dorky glasses and stutter. And what kind of name is “Fermat”? And Tin-Tin, well, she gains psychic powers in the film because the Hood is her uncle, so I guess it runs in the family. It might also explain why she has zero flaws, is skilled in everything, and has no personality beyond being the token chick. And we have to follow these three around for the whole film.

Alan is meant to be a doe-eyed guy who is just nuts about his family’s legacy, but his negative traits are so overwhelming it makes it difficult to cheer for him. Anthony Edwards is okay as Brains, but his own stutter sounds really forced. Bill Paxton is fun as Jeff Tracy but the rest of the Tracy brothers Scott, Virgil, Gordon, and John, are all paper thin.

As for everyone else, holy mackerel, are they brilliant. Sophia Myles was born to play Lady Penelope. She nails the character inside and out, has real gravitas on screen, and is probably the film’s saving grace. Ron Cook is amazing as Parker too, capturing the comedy of the character. Ben Kingsley is clearly having a blast as The Hood, even if the character started off as a Japanese man. The Hood also gets two minions called Mullion (Deobia Oparei) and Transom (Rose Keegan) who are great fun, leading to an amusing slapstick fight between them and Lady Penelope.

The film’s story is quite the mess. Characters deliberately make stupid decisions, for being a top secret organization, the Tracys have the worst security systems I’ve ever seen in a film, and everyone forgets that the Hood has psychic powers. And why put a clamp on the Hood’s powers that drain him throughout the picture?

Not to mention Tin-Tin’s out of nowhere powers only serve as a deus ex machina to defeat the Hood easily and make Alan look like a heroic character even though he openly admits he’d rather let Ben Kingsley get chewed up by the spinning drills of the Mole. They didn’t even include Gerry Anderson to help out as a consultant, believing they already had enough people on the payroll in the creative department…apart from the creator of the show. Gerry wrote the film off as, and I quote, the “biggest load of cr*p [he’d] ever seen.” His wife was a bit more kinder to the movie.

But, you know what, it isn’t all that bad. Visually speaking, the film is phenomenal. All of the Thunderbirds resemble the show’s versions with some minor redesigns. Tracy Island is a living, breathing location and all of the launching mechanisms are copied down to the letter. All of the action and rescue scenes are beautifully shot, and even the hand-to-hand fights are pretty fun.

As for Lady Penelope’s own vehicle, FAB-1, well, it’s not exactly the same. See, Rolls Royce, whose car model inspired the TV version of the car, did not want to be involved in the movie, so Ford took on the job and redesigned the car into a more futuristic limo with an ability to fly. No entirely accurate but I do like the take on it. Too bad Ford when a little overboard and plastered their brands all over the film if you look close enough. I expected to see “Manufactured by Ford” to appear on the side of Thunderbird 2.

I also love the film’s theme song sung by Busted, who some people might remember amidst the ocean of pop groups that exploded during the early 2000s. It is very catchy and ironically had better success than the movie. So, yes, Thunderbirds isn’t exactly the greatest of adaptations, but isn’t all that bad, visually remains loyal to the franchise, and I watch the film occasionally if I feel like watching a silly movie.

Are you a Thunderbirds fan and what did you think of the film version? Should Jonathan Frakes stick to directing Star Trek films in the future? Sound off below or leave a message on our Twitter feed. F.A.B.

About the author

Mark Russell