Directed by Jonathan Frakes. Starring Bill Paxton, Ben Kingsley, Brady Corbet, Soren Fulton, Vanessa Anne Hudgeons, Sophia Myles, Ron Cook. (2004, PG, 104 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 30, 2004
This live-action version of Gerry Anderson’s inscrutably popular mid-Sixties television show that was populated entirely by marionettes is a solid argument against such things: Flesh and blood the intrepid Tracy clan may now be, but captivating they are only sporadically. Part of the problem lies in the too-literal translation of show to screen. You’d expect wooden acting from Anderson’s wooden actors, but transposing the stiffness of the television program’s "Supermarionation" characters onto human beings is just plain wrong. Granted, the steady tread of time and a surplus of makeup has in the past few years resulted in Paxton’s appearing more and more preternaturally xyloid (to use a Thunderbirdian term), but here he appears to have stepped out of that old Twilight Zone episode with the mannequins. As Jeff Tracy, Paxton and his all-male brood rush about the planet – and sometimes beyond – saving the lives of the hapless via a fleet of superpowered vehicles they’ve dubbed the Thunderbirds. Their International Rescue operations have brought them fame and respect (and patched the hole somewhat in widower Jeff’s heart), but Tracy keeps his family close on their hidden island paradise from which they scan the world for news of disaster like flat-hunters eagerly scanning the day’s obituaries. The order of the day is fun and adventure for everyone, except youngest Alan (Corbet), who is judged too inexperienced in the finer points of hovership-to-oil-derrick rescue operations to have earned his very keen and terribly official Thunderbirds lapel pin. Until, that is, the telekinetic villain, the Cloak (Kingsley), arrives to make everyone’s life just a wee bit more interesting. With his family in jeopardy and his pals Fermat (Fulton) and Tintin (Hudgeons) – plus family friends Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward (Myles) and her man-at-arms Parker (Cook) – by his side, Alan enthusiastically rushes into action determined to prove his mettle under fire. With its eye-popping color palette and surreal sense of ever-heightening melodrama, Thunderbirds comes across as Spy Kids’ poorer British cousin. Series creator Anderson, who would go on to brainstorm the far more interesting U.F.O. and the marginally less irritating Space: 1999 (featuring a post-Hitchcock, pre-Oscar Martin Landau), knew what kids wanted, that being nifty gadgets and outrageous terrestrial and extraterrestrial craft. Much of that aspect of the program is replicated to fine effect here, particularly in the design of the Tracys’ island home, which looks as though I.M. Pei had washed ashore with a belly full of ecstasy and plenty of building materials. But everywhere else the transition is an awkward one, made more so by the fact that in this age of animé and manga, kids are as likely to sit still for the televised derring-do of puppets as they are to floss after every meal. Without foreknowledge of the Tracys’ original outings, then, younger viewers may well wonder what all the fuss is about. Thankfully, the film moves at just shy of warp 9, as befits its director, and it’s so cluttered with oddball touches that adult Thunderbirds virgins can get a kick out of watching the former Gandhi renounce nonviolent protest in favor of evil for evil’s sake while the resplendent-in-pink Myles practices her karate chops and utters exclamatory statements such as, "That’s not cricket!" every now and then. Silly, yes, and with a creaky script to boot, but like Lady Penelope’s peaches and crème perfection, not without its charms.