SATURDAY AFTERNOON B-MOVIE CRAPFEST: "Thunderbirds" (2004)

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What can I say about this movie that hasn’t already been said? Ebert puts it pretty succinctly when he mentions that, “This is a movie made for an audience that does not exist…fans of a British TV puppet show that ran from 1964 to 1966.” He goes on to quote David Rooney from Variety for some basic info on the show because, as Ebert himself says, “I had never heard of the series, and, let’s face it, neither have you.”

In fact, owing to my mad geek creds I *have* heard of the TV show, and even watched it a bit. It’s not a fond memory from my youth which I was greatly attached to, rather I first saw it when Sci-Fi ran repeats of it and other Gerry Anderson “Supermarionation” series in their morning block of children’s programming in the early 90s. I watched it when getting ready for work in the mornings, not because it was particularly interesting, but mainly to catch the cool miniature work done by the late great Derek Meddings. It was never my favorite, though. I much preferred “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterions.” Though never a fan, there is some part of me that can’t help but have some misguided affection for marionettes who have love lives, and shoot each other.

Evidently the same is true of Trey Parker and Matt Stone of Southpark fame, as they stumbled across a Thunderbirds episode on TV, and instantly decided they wanted to make a big-screen theatrical version of the show. Of course they wanted it to be a marionette movie, but when they were trying to figure out who owned the rights to the show, they discovered that a live action theatrical version was already in the works. A live action version of a puppet show? They were stunned, and later told Ain’t It Cool News that, “We were like, ‘why the f*ck would you make Thunderbirds without the one interesting thing about that show?’…It’s a lame concept, but at least the puppets made it all look cool.”

Agreed. People punch and shoot and make out with each other all the time, nothing special there. It’s at least novel when creepy-looking puppets do it. Despite the fact that live action undercuts the basic appeal of the series, the idea of doing just that has been banging around for at least a decade. Recently I read David Hughes’ basically terrible book, “The Greatest Sci Fi Movies Never Made.” A typically crappy chapter in that crappy book is all about the various failed attempts to bring “Thunderbirds” to the big screen, concluding that it’d probably never get made.

Sadly, Hughes was wrong, and Ebert, Parker, and Stone were right. This is not at all a good movie. Nor, sadly, is it a delicious train wreck of a movie. It’s not good enough to even warrant cursory attention, but neither is it bad enough to really point at and laugh. It’s just there, a great big silvery turd sitting immobile in the Cineplex.

The concept is lifted straight from the series: International Rescue is a secret organization that operates out of a secret location and rescues people from various disasters, then vanishes. This is not a bad idea, though I admit I‘ve never been clear on why it has to be a secret. “Ok, we‘ll put out fires in people‘s homes, but we can‘t let anyone know we‘re firemen, nor where our firehouse is located.” In fact, given the normal shoot ‘em ups and collateral damage we see in summer movies, it’d be sort of refreshingly nice to see high-tech impressive machinery being used to save lives for a change. Alas, you get very little of that in the film. The only real ‘rescue’ takes place at night, and is hard to see.

Anyway the Thunderbirds are evidently quite popular – their rescues are mostly covered on live TV - but not so popular that anyone appears to have put any real effort into finding out who they are. Characters have loud conversations in public about being in the secret organization, and zip around in pink convertibles which occasionally fly, so they ain’t exactly keeping a low profile. No one seems to have figured out that the organization is, in fact, the billionaire Tracy family: Jeff, the dad, and his sons, Gordon, Virgil, John, Scott, and Alan, who just coincidentally happen to live on a large private island in the pacific.

In the TV series, all the Tracys were retired astronauts, but here only the dad is mentioned as having been one. The movie chooses to center on Alan Tracy, who in the series was about 25, but in the movie is about a decade younger. In short, Alan wants to be a Thunderbird, but he’s a rule breaker and a screwup in school, always on thin ice with his dad. His older brothers are portrayed as Top Gun style jerks who want little to do with Alan. Why? This movie has obviously decided to skew young for ‘tween audiences, so why are they loading the family up with dysfunction? How is that fun, or entertaining? Anyway, the bad guy – played by Ben Kingsly, who must have had a balloon payment on his mortgage coming up or something to be slumming in this flick – launches an attack on Thunderbird 5, the privately-owned space station where John Tracy is cooling his heels. (Just a moment: They have a private space station? And no one knows who they are? They didn't just fly up in a shuttle or a Soyuz or a Shenzhou one day and say "Hi, we brought you a fruit basket. Welcome to the spacefaring club. By the way, who the hell are you?")

Dad and the elder brothers fly up in another Thunderbird to rescue John, and thus walk into Ben Kingsly’s trap: they’re stuck up there, and death is certain. Kingsly’s forces quickly take over the island. At this point, about 23 minutes into the movie, the story comes to a screeching halt, and focuses entirely on young Alan, his friend Fermat, and love interest Tin Tin, as they attempt to foil Sir Ben, re-take the island, and rescue the senior Tracys.

They do this mostly by running around for 45 minutes or so.

The entire middle-third of this movie is one long, boring, chase sequence: chased on foot, chased on a hover-bike, chased through tunnels, chase chase chase. What makes this particularly annoying is that none of it comes to anything: they all get captured exactly 60 minutes into the movie so that the final third can begin. In short, the second act of this film is nothing but filler. There is a lot of filler in this movie. As in the TV series, there’s a female British spy who works with the Tracys on occasion: Lady Penelope. As in the series, she travels around in a tricked out, futuristic James Bond-styled car. Unlike the series, it’s not a Rolls Royce – it’s a ford T-bird. (Get it? Lots of product placement by Ford in this movie, including a fairly nifty dune buggy. Also unlike the series, she’s not at all interesting.) She briefly provides something of a love interest for Bill Paxton, but nothing that’s ever acted on, and becomes something of a de facto mom figure for the younger kids. She’s pretty and all, but she looks too much like Reese Witherspoon in the Legally Bland movies, and she’s just too prim and clean cut to be interesting. She has extensive scenes in the movie which seem to be leading somewhere, but in fact, come to absolutely nothing, there’s no payoff for them. In the end, she’s in the movie only because she was in the TV show, but not for any substantial reason. The same is true of her butler, Parker.

The oddly unfocused climax comes when the Thunderbirds foil Ben Kingsley’s attempt to rob the Bank of London. Again, a lot of running, punching, and shouting, all of which really isn’t terribly involving because by this point we don’t care about any of these people, and they aren’t in any real jeopardy, nor do we get any windows into their souls. It’s just a big video game, complete with an irritating magical dues ex machina ending. There’s also a half-hearted setup for a sequel: I could have promised you in 2004 that there wouldn’t be a sequel, and I can promise you in 2010 that I’m still right about that.

The movie was directed by Johnathan Frakes, better known as the actor who played “Commander Will Riker” on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’m not a fan. I have nothing against him, personally, and he seems amiable enough, but his directorial style with this movie can properly be said to be wooden. Case in point: early on in the movie, Fermat and Alan watch the thunderbirds on TV doing a rescue, and their hands unconsciously move imagined controls corresponding to the movements of the ships they see on TV. Without fully realizing they’re doing it, they’re imagining that they’re flying the things. This is a nice, subtle idea, which, in the hands of a competent director, would be a nice subtle touch. Frakes beats us over the head with it. He also adds in completely gratuitous three stooges-styled sound effects – ‘doinks’ and ‘boings’ and ‘twangs’ and such – whenever someone gets hit, falls, whatever.

There’s an utterly pointless expositional scene where Brains demonstrates a mind control machine to Fermat, but why is this in the movie as the machine is never used later on? There’s a couple scenes where people talk for a minute or so about how they’re gonna’ punch a person before they actually get around to punching them, and all the while, the person – listening to them talk – does nothing to prevent it. Aggravating. This is a film completely without subtlety, or even coherence, and evidently it’s missing 40 or so pages of the script as well.

The cast is surprisingly good – Bill Paxton, Anthony Edwards, Ben Kingsley – but they’re really only in 25 minutes or so of the film. Sophia Myles, whom I’d never heard of prior to seeing this in the theater, but who's since gone on to better things, plays Lady Penelope in a manner that made me feel a bit embarrassed for the actress, particularly during what can only be described as the worst, most badly filmed, most pointless fight sequence in the history of movies. It makes the infamous ‘Just put on the damn sunglasses’ fight from “They Live” seem marvelous by comparison.

Thus the movie falls to its child actors to make or break it. Vanessa Anne Hudgens - from the "High School Musical" flicks, and more infamously, of the barely-legal naked photos she sent her boyfriend - is just sorta’ there as Tin Tin, with nothing to recommend it, nor to really gripe about either. It’s a Disney Channel-level performance. Soren Fulton is a bit wooden as Fermat, but I found myself kind of liking him anyway – he’s a cute kid, short, a genius, good at math, stammers, and wears glasses that are a crime against humanity. Oddly, everyone in the movie mispronounces his name – it’s Fer-MAT, but they all say “Fermit” like the frog with an “F” instead of a “K” – which made me want to scream by the hundredth time they did it. It’s one thing to pointlessly name a character after a famous mathematician, it’s entirely another thing to do it when neither the director nor cast or seem even remotely aware that there was a famous mathematician by that name in the first place.

Brady Corbet, who plays Alan, is just awful. I got the uncomfortable feeling that he got the part because he looks a bit like the late Jonathan Brandis, and not for any particular acting skills. He’s got the kind of face that probably sold a lot of copies of Tiger Beat and Teen People, but I wouldn’t expect his acting chops to sell a lot of tickets. Evidently I'd have lost that bet, though, as IMDb informs me he's still working consistently. Still he’s young, this is his first movie, I’ll cut him some slack, maybe he got better. Still, when you get better acting out of marionettes than you do out of people, you have to wonder how much effort the casting director was really putting into this turkey.

Finally, we come to the look of the movie: Everything looks pretty much identical to it’s 60s puppet show counterpart. Tracy Island is identical, right down to the mod 60s furniture, and the pictures on the walls. Likewise the Thunderbird Vehicles themselves all look pretty much the way they’re supposed to. It’s odd to me that they’d show such slavish – but welcome – devotion to recreating the look of the series, but then they’d all-but-ignore six of it’s main character in favor a younger version of just one of them, and a new character - Fermat - who wasn‘t in the original show. He is simply a retread of Anthony Edward’s shamefully underused character, Brains. He does Brains sort of things in a Brains sort of way, but he’s a kid. I guess they didn’t feel the movie would play as well if a 45 year old bald guy with a combover was the best friend? Who knows. It’s odd that they felt the need to make it look exactly like the series, but also felt free to play fast and loose with the characters, or ignore them entirely.

But why skew the movie so young anyway? The original show was aimed at kids, but lacked any children characters. Why? Because, in Joe Straczynski’s words, “Kids don’t want to be kids, they want to be adults. They don’t like kid characters on their TV shows.” It’s true: look at Boxey from Battlestar Galactica, or Wes from Next Generation, or Lucas from Sea Quest – all characters cynically designed to lure in youthful viewers, all of whom were annoying, and actually tended to drive kids away, in spite of the actor's own talents. It’s the same thing here.

In conclusion, this was a movie doomed from the outset to fail. It pleased neither fans of the original series, nor new audiences. It was faithful to the original in places where it should be distinct and distinct in places where it should be faithful. The story is unimpressive and flat, and mostly takes forever to get nowhere in particular. The characters thin and poorly drawn, the humor is base and unfunny, the direction is of After School Special quality, and it won’t appeal to adults or children, not even the kinds of kids who get beat up a lot for liking SF in the first place. This is a textbook example of how not to make a film.

So of course it was a perfect one for us to review here, right?

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