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Thunderbirds (2004)

Coming To The Rescue

Directed by:

Jonathan Frakes

Rating: 4/10

Running Time: 0 minutes

US Certificate: PG UK Certificate: PG

Country: United Kingdom, United States

Call it babyboom nostalgia, call it a creativity deficit, or call it a postmodern reflex, but in the last ten years Hollywood has been turning back to old TV shows for its inspiration. There have been cinematic reimaginings of crime shows (Charlie’s Angels, Starsky and Hutch, SWAT), sit-coms (‘The Brady Bunch’), cartoons (‘The Flintstones’, ‘Josie and the Pussy Cats’, ‘Scooby Doo’), even sci-fi (Lost in Space) – and now once again we are being taken back to the future with a new film version of television’s ‘The Thunderbirds’.

Where in the 1960s the future was literally dangled before us in the form of Gerry Anderson’s distinctively stylised ‘supermarionation’, today’s ‘Thunderbirds’ is a live-action affair, enhanced with CG wizardry so that there are no strings attached – and the focus is less on the International Rescue missions run by Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton) and his team of adult sons than on a newly invented younger son Alan (Brady Corbet) – who just happens to be the same age (and sex) as the target audience – and his attempts, with the help of two equally young friends, to save his family from peril and prove himself to his father.

This plot, combined with the island setting and the electronic gadgetry, makes ‘Thunderbirds’ seem more akin to ‘Spy Kids’ than to the TV series (only without as much inventive charm as Rodriguez’s film) – but diehard fans of the original ‘Thunderbirds’ will be relieved to know that the members of the Tracy family still say ‘FAB’ all the time, are preppily clean-cut, and relentlessly fetishise their equipment (unsurprising, given the lack of women to pull the strings in the Tracy household). The problem, however, is that the blandness of these characters, while acceptable when they were just puppets, is less so when they are fleshed out. Alan’s brothers are cloned jocks distinguishable only in name, Alan’s friend Fermat (Soren Fulton) is an exact carbon copy of his father Brains (Anthony Edwards) – both are stuttering, allergy-prone caricatures, a rôle which Edwards at least has been playing since ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ – and the lessons which Alan must (and does) learn about becoming a team player seem designed to strip away the last shred of individuality afforded to any of the Tracy males. Even Jeff’s arch nemesis, ‘the Hood’, is not so much a person as a walking special effect (his eyes change colour), so that even the great Sir Ben Kingsley seems to be serving his accountant here more than his art.

Only the permanently pink and plucky Lady Penelope (Sophia Myles) is able to bring some fresh air into the lockerroom of these identikit boys-with-toys, offering a much-needed female perspective, introducing a hint of knowing sexuality, and getting all the best lines – but the Tracys, locked in eternal adolescence, want a mother rather than a lover, so in the end Penelope prefers the services of her butler Parker (Ron Cook) – and who can blame her?

From his earlier experience at the helm of films in the ‘Star Trek’ franchise, director Jonathan Frakes brings to ‘Thunderbirds’ an interest in internationalist do-gooding – and his long-running turn in ‘Star Trek: the Next Generation’ as Commander William T. Riker has given him an affinity towards robotic men well-suited to this film. Certainly the retro-futurist design of ‘Thunderbirds’ is impeccable – it is just a pity that within all these bold primary colours, the film’s events seem so lacklustre.

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It's Got: A fabulous animated pop-art opening sequence; Lady Penelope saying "I am an undercover agent, so please try to be discreet", before stepping up to her giant pink 6-wheeled car; the Hood using mind control to manipulate Brains "like a puppet on a string"; a hilarious joke involving the wire in Penelopes underbra; the spectacle of Thunderbird 2 landing at the London Eye; funky design standards; and some truly shameless promotion for a certain car manufacturer.

It Needs: To decide whether its characters are puppets or real human beings - and for its action to be more thrilling.

Alternatives:

Spy Kids

Summary

The strings have gone, but so has much of the charm, in this fab-looking blandfest.

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