"I felt that I'd been on a wonderful Thunderbirds adventure."
Did the remake of Thunderbirds (2004) fly with fans of the original series?
It's a rare FAB FRIDAY appearance and hopefully for many long overdue. So let's return to the universe of all things wonderful from the mind of the late, great Gerry Anderson (1929-2012) as well as Sylvia Anderson. This may be a first since the loss of the great creator following his passing the day after Christmas in 2012.
We loved you Laura Spencer (Genie Francis).
Unfortunately, it's hard for me to get too excited about today's entry other than putting keyboard to electronic interface. This film certainly doesn't rise to the level of the Gerry Anderson greats and, of course, he had little to do with this in the strictest, purest sense of the word. This is an entirely different creative group reinventing the classic series for a new generation. Did this Thunderbirds go? Better yet, what went wrong with a property gift-wrapped for any generation to put on film?
Well, gone is the Supermarionation replaced with flesh and blood humans, and while the performances aren't stiff here, they have nothing on the wonderful character infusion of those traditional marionettes.
The key to enjoying this film is watching it with young children of which I did recently. My six year old nephews, put simply, thought it was "awesome." One nephew was as torn as the faithful to Gerry Anderson's original television series when it came to picking a favorite craft. "I love Thunderbird 1, oh no, maybe Thunderbird 3 is my favorite, no, no, Thunderbird 2 is just so awesome." He went back and and forth throughout the film while peppering me with occasional questions of concern. "Is he dead?" "Is he going to be okay?" "Is he still alive?" I told my nephew his concern and caring for the characters was a wonderful character trait and to rest assured that everyone was going to be okay. They were going to be just fine. If anyone was in trouble it was me cringing to this rendering of my beloved Thunderbirds. I think I enjoyed watching the film with the boys more than I enjoyed watching the film. The film is generally a complete disaster, but having young family members around gave me a chance to see it again through their eyes and my own more critical ones.
Let's take a closer look. To begin with I'm a massive fan of Jonathan Frakes in general, both as an actor and any effort he puts forth in film (Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Insurrection, Falling Skies plus episodes of the various Star Trek franchises), so I love to see the positives from his efforts. Frakes owned the role of Number One in Star Trek: The Next Generation and he captured our attention with his steady commanding presence the moment he took the helm of the Enterprise-D in support of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Lesser men might have been overshadowed by the great thespian Patrick Stewart, but not Jonathan Frakes whose star shone brightly and uniquely all its own for seven seasons. So all of these considerations in place one would think Thunderbirds should just go and work.
Sadly, Thunderbirds was given the Spy Kids (2001) treatment of a sort only with the critical drubbing and reception of later installments of that franchise. This film is a CGI, child-filled candy treat with bright colors and very, very high energy. Without question, the PG-rated Thunderbirds aims squarely at the kids set and, gosh, that kind of makes sense considering we loved the original Thunderbirds (1965-1966) when we were young boys. It was all about the kids.
On the one hand, my much older jaded self would certainly be expecting a more mature, adult-leaning affair. Is that unfair? Maybe and maybe not. But, if you're looking to reintroduce the world of Gerry Anderson to a new audience then this explosive child-centric Thunderbirds film might make logical sense as the way to go.
On the other hand, the original, classic series never dumbed down its stories in an effort to speak to children. It told the action adventure tales honestly and respected a child's ability to filter certain aspects of violence and jeopardy accordingly. In other words, the stories played rather straight with elements of humor, but it never got silly. The kids employ the use of the Firefly and the pod vehicles against the evildoers, and as I mentioned, it's pure Home Alone (1990) comedy. There's very little sense of jeopardy or danger of any kind for the kids and the whole thing ends up as explosively goofy fun.
Thunderbird 3 and Thunderbird 1 are the best of the bunch because they resemble the originals.
The villains in the new film are played as buffoons as if excerpted from the bumbling and preposterous antics of child comedy and sprayed with generous, heaping amounts of Nickelodeon-like green foam. About the only think missing is a bucket of green goo for these inept baddies. (Sigh).
For the faithful and loyal who have been watching and still watching the original since the beginning perhaps we were looking for something else with which we could sink our hungry teeth. If that is the case, that's an entirely different film - a film that never happens here. Maybe one day a proper reboot is possible.
Further, we grew up with puppets and strings and Supermarionation. Jonathan Frakes' version is more Disney and high pop culture gloss than Gerry Anderson. That's not to say Frakes doesn't pay supreme homage to the series he no doubt loved as well. It would be unfair of me to speak or think to the contrary. Seeing the extras, which are equally horrendous, there is no doubt a great commitment from Frakes. But watching our childhoods pillaged in this way is a little hard to take.
There's even a tribute moment when two hands reach for the control console of Thunderbird 1 as International Rescue takes flight and one of those hands is wooden and connected by strings in the neon fluorescent sheen of this new and shiny digital Thunderbirds. It's a sweet, sincere tribute. Unfortunately, the film, generally speaking, lacks the heart of the original series.
It doesn't end there. An opening sequence pays direct homage to Thunderbirds, Series 2, Atlantic Inferno, as International Rescue come to the aid of oil workers and must save lives in jeopardy.
What the heck is that mustard yellow bull-dozer with spikes? Oh, the new Firefly. I missed the label on the front. What have they done with that original gorgeous creation?
Actor Bill Paxton is always terrific, but here lies yet another issue further magnifying the kid-friendly effort. You have a wonderful actor in Bill Paxton as Jeff Tracy, the patriarch of the Tracys on Tracy Island yet he's all but relegated to a supporting role in favor of the Nickelodeon circuit.
Actors like Vanessa Hudgens (in very pre-Sucker Punch form and more in keeping with her Disney origins), as Tin-Tin Kyrano, and other child actors lead the charge of the film against the villainous The Hood.
Drats those kids and their green foam!
The Hood, played by Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley, is terrific too. Kingsley is fearless in tackling different roles even when they land disappointingly in lemon films like this one or the equally horrifying Peter Hyams' picture A Sound Of Thunder (2005). You have to give Kingsley props for having fun and perhaps a respect for Gerry Anderson. The man can slide between the satyagraha or non-violent leading Ghandi (1982) to vicious sociopath Don Logan in Sexy Beast (2000) at the drop of a hat. Even in a disappointing picture like Thunderbirds he always gives everything of himself to a role offering his convincing best.
Actress Sophia Myles is also sensational as Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and is criminally under-supported by this terrible approach. Her faithful sidekick Aloysius "Nosey" Parker is also credibly played by Ron Cook even if he offers a slight variation on the character as an ass-kicking action man in support of his beautiful secret agent. The duo sometimes steal the show.
Vanessa Hudgens in the Thunderbirds version of High School Musical.
Child actor Brady Corbet plays Alan Tracy, but to further underscore the problems, Virgil, Scott, John and Gordon Tracy are non-factors in the film as are the actors who play them. Do you even know why they were? How do you make a Thunderbirds film and not spotlight Virgil or Scott (voiced by the great Shane Rimmer and David Holliday respectively in the original series)? The focus is on the son of Brains, Fermat, and the alarm bells continue. But the age of the Tracy brothers and their respective roles are placed within an entirely different reality here. The film completely breaks from Thunderbirds cannon and alter the mythology and these aspects are too many to note here.
FAB 1 as a Ford. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
The problems with Thunderbirds are plenty and compound one another to paint the overall picture, but they don't lie with the cast, but rather the approach in tone to their respective characters. Anthony Edwards (Zodiac, ER, Miracle Mile) is a splendid actor and is perfect as Brains, but again characters are given to sometimes silly approaches and ill affect. Brains stutters to comic affect, but was always taken seriously on the original series.
Seeing Myles and Paxton on screen more and the kids on screen far less would have worked much better for me personally, but I'm clearly not the target audience. If the film was looking to balance between both worlds it mostly fails. Thunderbirds really would have been a much more successful film though had it reached out to the faithful in a more faithful adaptation.
On the design front, Tracy Island is magnificently-realized and probably the best creation in the film. The bulk of the story takes place there as The Hood takes over the island, outcasts the adults to a semi-destroyed Thunderbird 5 linked to rescue craft Thunderbird 3 so the film can concentrate a focus on its three young child actors. Still, much of the charm is missing from the original look of the island set. And we have no evidence of the pilots and their boarding process to their respective vehicles.
Anthony Edwards as Brains. Fortunately, David F-F-F Fincher's Zodiac (2007) was just around the corner.
One of the reasons the film fails for me is seeing Tracy Island held hostage and under siege and resting the story squarely on the shoulders of its teenage stars. It's a little hard to swallow. These are not the Tracy brothers saving the day. These are not the boys I believed would lead International Rescue to victory. Furthermore, it was unsettling to see our beloved Tracy Island quickly taken hostage. The message to young viewers is fine enough - that even the young and untested can become truly heroic.
The film, through Frakes, delivers hover bikes, the Mole, the Firely, all of the International Rescue vessels and Tracy Island. It tries to do an awful lot in a short amount of time. Beyond that, the designs are generally atrocious to anyone who loved the work of Derek Meddings (1931-1995). Maybe it was better he never lived to see the unintended machinations to his machines.
As I say, an equally big problem for Thunderbirds - is, by God, the Thunderbirds themselves. They are a generally disappointing design disaster. Thunderbird 1 and Thunderbird 3 come closest to the originals. Thunderbird 2, a Meddings craft of sheer genius and perfection is modified egregiously and to detrimental effect here. The changes are so significant it loses its perfection. In fact, that's just it. The original vehicles were designed to perfection by Derek Meddings and others. There was absolutely no need for modifications. That was a major mistake. Thunderbird 4, to use an expression, is sunk. What a mess. It looks nothing like the simple, sleek designs of the aquatic original. Lady Penelope's pink FAB 1, a Rolls-Royce in the original, is now a Ford (for permission reasons) or a CGI creation, but that tells you something. It's different. Thunderbird 5 potentially looks the best as redesigns or modifications go, but it has changed dramatically as well.
These radical or even marginal redesigns do little to enhance the classic creations of the past. They bear none of the charm and affection that was bestowed on the originals with their tangible, hand-made crafting. The new ships are merely cold, CGI creations and lacking that special something that gave the originals their lasting appeal or longevity.
Did anyone want to purchase their accompanying toys? Do people long for new releases of their re-imagined designs? Will there be endless new molds or castings in the Japanese toy market? What does this tell you about monkeying with a classic or perfection? What does this tell us about the approach on the film? It merely reinforced the fact that efforts to change past glories for a new audience rarely works. That lesson has been learned many, many times and Thunderbirds further underscores such ill-conceived plans. And there was indeed effort here. It paints me to knock it.
Additionally, the CGI work is rough and more often than not it is too fast or mildly blurred. The shots rarely freeze on closeups of the vehicles for any length of time, though I've made every effort to capture as many cool images for this post as I possibly could. But the truth is, those vehicles were always the star of the show along with the characters. Those vehicles were important and as important as the Eagle Transporter was to Space:1999 (1975-1977). The craft here needed more attention and better shots – the kind of loving attention that was given to them in the original series. The kind of subtle technical modifications applied to a series like Star Trek: The Original Series or Star Trek: The Next Generation on Blu-Ray would have been more convincing and appropriate. those vehicles need to be closer, especially the ever adored Thunderbird 2 here.
Thunderbird 2 is an abomination. Why the unnecessary changes? Why mess with perfection? The original Thunderbird 2 is positively beast as my son would say. They make model after model, garage kit after garage kit, diecast after diecast of that design to this very day. I recently purchased a lovingly detailed green and metallic green version of the original from Revoltech Japan. Thunderbird 2 never gets old. I mean don't touch that stuff man. The design set for the film was horrendous. It was bad the day it was designed and it still looks bad. And again, what they did to Thunderbird 4, the Firefly and especially The Mole are unconscionable. That poor Mole. Ultimately, what's missing from the craft here and the film is the heart of the original Thunderbirds lovingly detailed in its model work by the likes of the beating muscle, blood, sweat and tears of Gerry Anderson, Derek Meddings and others. It's entirely absent I'm afraid.
It's no wonder this turtle made just 28 million following a 57 million budget.
On a personal note, as a kid, in a strange turn, the boys in my neighborhood became huge fans of the Luke and Laura years on General Hospital. The creators, especially the late Gloria Monty (1926-2006), had done a splendid job modifying the soap opera to attract younger viewers with sci-fi storylines and action drama including a role for the late John Colicos (1928-2000; Battlestar Galactica, ST:TOS). Well as a boy I was smitten with Genie Francis and always envious that Jonathan Frakes married her so I was thrilled to see Frakes give Francis a cameo in Thunderbirds as a newsreporter. And, I report, sadly of course, even my affection for Francis can't save these Thunderbirds.
Ultimately, Thunderbirds isn’t terrible and it’s certainly an entertaining, if mind-numbingly forgettable action film for young children, but the thing that always worked beautifully about the original Thunderbirds is that it never dumbed down its material. The original series never behaved with a silly edge. It took its threats and bad guys seriously. There was a real sense of danger and lives were genuinely hanging in the balance. And it the classic series was infinitely re-watchable. This Thunderbirds doesn’t feel like the threats are real and just doesn’t pay the kind of respect to the stars of the series it should have from the Tracy boys to the vehicles. It’s a significantly missed opportunity.
Still, my six year old nephew peppering me with questions like “Is he a bad guy?” or “Is he going to die?” made it fun. So apparently it was threatening enough to the very young. Fans from my age group hardly felt Thunderbirds was F-A-B. I really wish I had a higher opinion for it given Frakes involvement on Anderson's beloved franchise, but like Godzilla (1998), alas Thunderbirds did not go where original fans might have hoped.
What the heck is that?
Not convinced of its troubling approach, look no further than the accompanying pop theme song, Thunderbirds Are Go!, by a teen band called Busted. The teeny boppers took the track to number one in the United Kingdom and won Record Of The Year in 2004 there. That group became defunct shortly thereafter or, put simply, busted up. It is pure pop garbage to accommodate this equally lively but surprisingly lifeless film.
Director Matthew Gratzner (long tied to a live action version of UFO) lent his thoughts about the Thunderbirds film in FAB Issue 65. Gratzner and others assured fans of UFO that his group were working to retain a faithful adaptation of that aforementioned Gerry Anderson series property. He pointed to the Thunderbirds film remake as a reference point.
"I know they had specific intentions when they made the Thunderbirds movie. I spoke to someone from the visual effects company that worked on it in its early days, and it was originally intended to be a very serious picture, but then with the success of Spy Kids and a couple of other family films they changed direction."
And that is precisely what they got. This is an evident point because in the end Thunderbirds is very much a film that has been jammed into a Spy Kids blender. Fans of UFO were concerned about such a treatment and Gratzner was doing his level best to assure fans his work would remain true to the series. Thunderbirds was sorely maligned by the producers and that is unfortunate. Imagine the picture that might have been for a moment.
Opinions on the film varied, but in keeping with the spirit of FAB FRIDAY, the focus on Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's responses are telling, as much on disparate opinion, as a referendum on their own differences when they were a creative partnership and married. Gerry Anderson, originally a consultant on the film was then optioned off the payroll. What does that tell you? Anderson spoke to the BBC in October 2008 and his statement was revealing.
"Four weeks before the premiere I got a call from Universal Pictures saying they would pay me $750,000 (£432,000) for me to attend and I turned it down. I could've done with that, but I couldn't bring myself to accept it and make false reports about it. I didn't go to see it, but about three months after somebody gave me a DVD and I watched it on my own. I thought 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."
By 2009, Gerry Anderson refused to mince words speaking to The Guardian noting the Jonathan Frakes' film "did not enhance the brand at all. In fact, it was the biggest load of crap I have ever seen in my life. It was made by an American company who didn't know anything." The film is self-evident.
Sylvia Anderson took a more vivacious approach in her acceptance of the film. "I felt that I'd been on a wonderful Thunderbirds adventure. If we had made it ourselves... we could not have improved upon this new version." Really? Was she dating someone on the film? One can appreciate Sylvia's enthusiasm for her property but it deserved better. Gerry Anderson clearly knew it. Everything else was just spin.
The original Thunderbirds exists and that is all the proof required for quality control, because there simply is no comparison. Someone positively pulled all the wrong strings on this picture.
Thunderbirds: D (but passable, unintelligent entertainment fare for a young child).
Next Week: More images from the Jonathan Frakes film that could not make it into this post. I've made every effort to capture the best images from the film and though some of the shots actually look pretty good, the film is a disaster in need on International Rescue.