STARRING: Brady Corbet, Bill Paxton, Ben Kingsley, Sophia Myles, Anthony Edwards

2004, 84 Minutes, Directed by Jonathan Frakes

Growing up in Canada, we had a unique mix of British and American television programming. One of my favorite childhood shows was The Thunderbirds, a British action/sci-fi adventure series that was unusual as all the characters were marionette puppets.

Though the show launched in the 1960’s, it was in perpetual re-run. Producer Gerry Anderson went on to create UFO and the better known Space: 1999 with Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, but it was The Thunderbirds which caught my imagination with James Bond-like gadgets and great spaceships and vehicles.

If movies like Princess Diaries tap every girl’s secret fantasy to be a princess, than flicks like Spy Kids and Thunderbirds were for the boys’ inner astronaut/hero. So it was with more than a bit of nostalgia that I caught the serviceable Thunderbirds, directed by Star Trek’s Jonathan Frakes (he directed Clockstoppers and Star Trek – First Contact).

Adapted for the big screen and the Spy Kids audience, Thunderbirds’ premise has changed a little. American billionaire Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton) and his sons form the Thunderbird Team of International Rescue. With a secret island base, logically called Tracy Island, the Tracy’s conduct search and rescue missions around the world.

However, the youngest son, Alan Tracy (Brady Corbet), is a teenager stuck in school and he aches to join his famous family in adventure. When bad guy ‘The Hood’ (Ben Kingsley) seizes control of Tracy Island and leaves the Thunderbird team stranded on the Thunderbird space station, it’s up to Alan and his two friends Fermat (Soren Fulton) and TinTin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) to rescue his father and brothers.

"As this summer’s Spy Kids type of movie, Thunderbirds is adequately entertaining."

First of all, director Jonathan Frakes is no Robert Rodriguez. Thunderbirds lacks the sparkle and delirious delight of any of Rodriguez’s movies. The opening scenes – an oil rig rescue – are so murky that you couldn’t tell if you were watching something new or an old Thunderbird re-run. It would have been nice to have a more capable director bring the Thunderbirds to the big screen, which has always had cult status in England.

And with even the Sci-Fi Channel showing off competent special effects on their made-for-TV movies, there’s no excuse for the painfully obvious miniatures in this movie – unless it was some sort of homage to the original 1960’s TV series. (There is one fun homage to the series with a stringed marionette hand!)

Another odd choice in this movie – while the good Starship Enterprise has been steadily updated for each successive movie and series, each Thunderbird vehicle looks exactly like the original 1960’s design. Why not a proper update? Though some designs have weathered well – Thunderbird 2 comes to mind – the rocket ships look particularly dated.

There are the same mixed choices with the cast of the movie. Bill Paxton leads his brood of sons with a few well-barked lines, “Good going, son!” while the other Tracy brothers barely get a line each. The star of the movie, newcomer Brady Corbett is cheerful enough though he bears a disturbing resemblance to the recently deceased teen idol, Jonathan Brandis.

But it’s Sophia Myles who steals the movie as the very proper and dryly droll Lady Penelope, the upper class secret agent in pink who monitors crisis situations from her bubble bath, orders around her chauffeur – in a highly modified Thunderbird convertible, of course – and can kick ass with the best of them. Ever seen the Orbit Gum commercial where the Englishwoman does her “dirty mouth” pitch? That’s a spoof of the Lady Penelope character.

As this summer’s Spy Kids type of movie, Thunderbirds is an adequately entertaining flick. Demographically calculating with the teen set – and some in-your-face Ford product placement, Thunderbirds fulfils any teenager’s dream to be a hero. But for more serious sci-fi fans who fondly remember the old series, there could have been a better update. The Hans Zimmer technofication of the old Thunderbirds theme music just isn’t enough.

- Harrison Cheung



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