Review: Thunderbirds (dir. Jonathan Frakes, 2004)

Review: Thunderbirds (dir. Jonathan Frakes, 2004) July 30, 2004

Say what you will about the Spy Kids trilogy and its sometimes wildly incoherent storylines, but at least those films had an infectiously childlike spirit that felt very age-appropriate. Watching them, you got the impression that director Robert Rodriguez and the children in his employ had a blast playing with their toys in the cinema sandbox. As with all things successful, the Spy Kids movies spawned a number of imitators, and the dullest and lamest of the lot so far may be Thunderbirds, a live-action remake of the televised marionette show from the mid-1960s. Once again, regular children have to save their super-agent parents from some sort of villain, but Thunderbirds has nothing to offer in place of the surrealism and Latino cool that made Spy Kids so much fun; instead of a playful romp, the film has the workmanlike feel of a project that everyone did just for the paycheck.

Thunderbirds is directed by Jonathan Frakes, who certainly knows his way around science fiction movies based on TV shows, having directed his castmates in two of the Star Trek films (one of which, the Borg-battling First Contact, was easily the best Trek flick of the past dozen years). However, his strengths in this area may actually be a liability when it comes to this film; the high-octane special effects, and the deadly serious way in which he directs certain scenes of peril, work against the film’s efforts to be a whimsical night out for the family.

Fans of the original series may be dismayed to find that the Thunderbirds rescue team itself is largely shut out of the story; as with the first Mission: Impossible film, so here: a movie based on a classic show about a team basically ditches the team so it can focus on a single protagonist. All of the Thunderbirds, including billionaire-astronaut patriarch Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton) and his four eldest sons, are trapped aboard their space station following a missile attack by a psychic villain known only as The Hood (Ben Kingsley). With the Tracys trapped in orbit and running out of oxygen, The Hood takes over their island and puts in motion a plan that will make him rich while sullying the Thunderbirds’ reputation forever.

Ah, but there is, of course, one Tracy he overlooked. Alan (Brady Corbet), the youngest of the Tracy boys, is home on spring break; his father won’t let him join the family business, as it were, but the current crisis gives Alan an opportunity to prove that he has what it takes to be a Thunderbird himself. So, with help from Fermat (Soren Fulton) — the geeky, bespectacled son of his dad’s geeky, bespectacled assistant Brains (Anthony Edwards) — and a girl named Tin-Tin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), he proceeds to steal components that The Hood needs very badly, and to evade The Hood’s typically ineffectual henchpeople. (These are the sorts of bad guys who stand and wait, with dumb expressions on their faces, while a couple of good guys discuss which particularly vulnerable male body part to kick.)

The film is credited to three writers, none of whom have particularly promising pedigrees: Michael McCullers co-wrote the scatological Austin Powers movies; William Osborne co-wrote Twins and The Scorpion King; and Peter Hewitt, before directing the Garfield movie, previously worked on a film called Thunderpants, which was apparently about a boy whose gift for breaking wind helps him to become an astronaut, or something like that.

There is nothing quite so lowbrow in the similarly-titled Thunderbirds, thank goodness (though one boy does employ a word that rhymes with “bird” when mocking the group). But the film does occasionally flirt with things that might prompt parents to arch an eyebrow or two. For example, because Brains has a stutter that is frequently played for comic relief, he gets to say things like, “What the he- he- devil is going on?” and, when The Hood orders him to do something, “Fu- Fu- No way!” I suppose it’s possible he meant to say something innocuous like “Forget it,” but that wasn’t how it sounded to me at the time.

In addition, the film indulges in a fair bit of titillation — again, most of it played for comic effect, but still. It’s one thing to depict kids taunting each other over their underwear when they dry off after a swim, but it’s something else entirely to introduce a female character from a male character’s point of view, by bringing the camera in tight on her rear end; the fact that the woman turns out to be buck-toothed and, um, not conventionally pretty is an amusing enough payoff, but still, the film does encourage the audience to leer along with her male co-worker. This same woman, being the resident geek among the villains, is then drawn to Brains by his “stimulating” intelligence, so she tries to get physical with him, telling him, as he squirms, what a “sizzling” couple they’d make. One of the heroes, meanwhile, is Lady Penelope (Sophia Myles), a prim-and-proper British dame whose bubble-bath scene and willingness to pluck a wire from her bra (so that one of the boys can hotwire something) are certainly tame by James Bond standards, but still may be a little much.

The script, the performances, and the direction are lacking in many other areas, too. The plot abounds with holes (the Thunderbirds are supposed to keep their identities secret, yet no one blinks when Jeff Tracy, a presumably identifiable billionaire astronaut, walks around London right after he lands one of his ships there), and the dialogue is often delivered in a bland, perfunctory manner. Bill Paxton, who was quite enjoyable as a loony side character in the last two Spy Kids films, here puts on his serious face so that he can dispense suffocatingly earnest life lessons to his son. (It doesn’t help that Paxton already taught the key lesson, that you can’t save everyone, to Matthew McConaughey in U-571; in this, as in other things, Thunderbirds has the feel of a stale retread.) It is especially disheartening to see a talented actor like Ben Kingsley stoop to such dreck as this, and so soon after his powerhouse role in House of Sand and Fog. The one saving grace among the actors is Ron Cook, who plays Lady Penelope’s manservant; he does a very game job as this film’s comic relief, but everyone else comes off stiff and wooden — you know, like a marionette.

1 star (out of 4)

Talk About It
Discussion starters

1. Jeff Tracy says you can’t always save everyone. Is this true? Then how do you choose whom to save, and whom not to save — whether physically or spiritually? Who saves people, and how? What is our role?

2. Fermat says “everything can be explained by science.” Do you agree or disagree? What are the limits of science? Is there anything that cannot be explained by science? Can such things be explained at all? How?

3. Fermat tells Alan, “We make quite a pair — it’s hard for me to talk, it’s harder for you to listen.” How important is communication? How do keep the channels open between us?

4. What do you make of the fact that the Thunderbirds themselves don’t do much in this film? Do you think this film strikes a good balance between teamwork and individual efforts?

The Family Corner
For parents to consider

Thunderbirds is rated PG for “intense action sequences and language.” Brains, in particular, uses mild four-letter words like “damn.” The violence is mostly of the exploding-machinery kind, though there are scenes of peril in which a monorail car is trapped underwater, a person dangles above a giant mining drill while someone steps on his hand, etc. The island is also populated by dangerous animals, such as scorpions and hornets. There are also occasional references to the underwear of various characters.

— A version of this review was first published by Christianity Today Movies.

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