Everything old is new again. That's the motto in Hollywood as the powers that be in the suits would rather take an old idea either in the form of a movie or a comic book or a TV series and remake it for modern audiences. Sometimes these ideas work out well and other times they don't. In the case of Universal's Thunderbirds, a modern update of the 1960s BBC television series about a family of superhero-type characters who rescue the world from certain disaster in their very powerful Thunderbird machines, it doesn't. In the 60s this was a cool concept, and the show was made up of puppets playing the various roles. Now in 2004, puppets are outdated and instead computer-generated special effects are in. However, the series is so dated and unappealing to modern youth that this film finds itself smack dab in the middle of a rock and a hard place. Too different from the original series to attract those fans as audience members, and too boring, unexciting, and unknown to attract the younger audience.
The basic idea behind Thunderbirds is that billionaire and single father Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton) and his four sons are the Thunderbirds, an elite team that fights to save the world from various different geological and environmental disasters. If there's a typhoon, they are there to rescue the people stuck in the middle of it. A nuclear power plant is on the brink of exploding? They're your guys. Wherever there's trouble on a world-level, the boys and their wonderful machines are there to save the day. Tracy has another son, the youngest Alan (Brady Corbet), who despite his best efforts has not proven himself tough or smart enough to be a part of the family tradition. Instead he attends a boarding school with his friend Furmat (Soren Fulton) and only sees his father on school breaks. During one such break, he returns home, and not too long after, his father and the rest of the team are kidnapped by a super villain known only as The Hood (Sir Ben Kingsley). The Hood possesses some interesting powers, like the ability to read minds and cause intense pain with a simple glance. Knowing that this is his chance to prove his worth to his father, Alan â€" along with Furmat and their lady friend Tin-Tin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) â€" begin to develop a plan to regain access to the Thunderbird vehicles and thus prevent The Hood from carrying through his disastrous plans of robbing a number of banks. The only problem is they can't do it alone. So with the help of Lady Penelope (Sophia Myles), a friend of his fathers, and her man servant Parker, they launch a counter attack... but will it be too late?
Thunderbirds is the latest film from director Jonathan Frakes (Riker from Star Trek and director of the fun but flawed kids movie Clockstoppers from a couple of summers back). Here he's no doubt going for a sort of Spy Kids motion picture, but instead of replicating the tremendous creative nature, look, and feel of that series of films, we are instead left with a boring, uninspired adventure that instead of keeping me glued to the screen had me glued to my watch. Frakes' directorial choices are anything but inspired and he stages the film in a rather straightforward and boring fashion. Characters are not developed, the storyline is as thin as my monthly paycheck, and the special effects â€" while visually impressive in a few spots â€" are as a whole rather digital and fake-looking. Working off a screenplay by William Osbourne and Micheal McCullers based on the TV series by Gerry and Slyvia Anderson, one would hope that Frakes would have something to go off, but he just gets lost in the shuffle. If that wasn't enough of a problem, the film has a very weird vibe to it. There's an odd sexual tension present in many of the scenes involving the children and it just made me, as a 20-something straight man, feel a little uneasy. It didn't help that I was surrounded on all sides by an audience predominately made up by children under the age of 10.
All the blame, however, should not be put on Jonathan Frakes. After all, he certainly isn't given anything to work with as the acting is laughably bad, even from the usually rock solid Ben Kingsley and Bill Paxton. Kingsley, who was so good in Sexy Beast and more recently The House of Sand and Fog, looks as though he's so desperate for money that he did the role so he wouldn't starve. I really don't know what he was thinking here. His villain isn't even good in a camp sense. Bill Paxton doesn't do much better in his limited scenes as the Thunderbirds leader. In terms of the acting from the children, Brady Corbet, who was alright in Thirteen, has shown that maybe that role was a fluke and more a creation of that film's strong screenplay. Soren Fulton and Vanessa Anne Hudgens are adequate, but I don't see either of them having a future in acting. Sophia Myles is the highlight as Lady Penelope, but that's likely because she's the only character that really appealed to someone of my age and gender. Let's just summarize the acting as a whole in the film as being nothing to write home about.
Thunderbirds finds itself opening in the midst of a market place that is already overcrowded. Released the same week as the highly anticipated remake of The Manchurian Candidate as well as M. Night Shyamalan's latest The Village, it's a film with limited appeal and a limited number of available screens. Fans of the 1960's version of the series will likely hate it for being different than what they remember, and some kids may enjoy it due to it's Spy Kids look and feel but ultimately most of them will be left disappointed when the film doesn't deliver. Some of the special effects are cool, including Lady Penelope's car and boat, but the vehicles have been done before and done better. Bill Paxton and Ben Kingsley should be ashamed for signing on to appear in such a boring and uninventive movie. It's not that Thunderbirds is an awful movie (I've seen far worse this year) but it's just awkward and not worthy of any praise. I guess if you're desperate for something to hit up this weekend then you could see it. Otherwise, I'd stick to some of the other family fare out there or revisit the marvellous Spy Kids films on DVD. For this critic, Thunderbirds are NOT go and not recommended.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.