As time goes on, fewer and fewer people remember the TV series that shared its name with our theme topic this week. I sure don’t; I was born a couple of decades after it was banished from the airwaves. What I do remember is the 2004 movie that shared its name. And unlike the original television show, this actually had some Thunderbird-related content.
British readers may be more familiar with the TV show of course. Using a technique calle “Supermarionation”, a mix of marionette puppets and scale model effects, Thunderbirds tells us the story of the fantastically wealthy Jeff Tracy and his family. After Mrs. Tracy’s untimely demise and an unfortunate air crash, the (presumably) incredibly bored Mr. Tracey decided to put that wealth toward good use, and set up the International Rescue organization–sort of a family-run A-team with fewer Vietnam veterans and guns, and more Giant airships, rockets and puppets. The series lasted a total of two seasons, with 32 episodes aired from 1965 to 1966.
It wasn’t sold in the US, but back in Blighty audiences loved it, and it seems it seems to have distinguished itself as the best show that had been produced using Supermarionation–so successful, in fact, that the BBC re-ran the show no less than 8 times between 1993 and 2006. And a new series, “Thunderbirds Are Go!” is returning to TV in 2015. In the middle of this, Universal decided that it had been such a hit that they would turn it into a live-action movie.
I’m sure I won’t get any flak by saying that Thunderbirds: The Movie was a bad film…or perhaps not so much bad as painfully average. When you look at the cold numbers you have a very solid case to call it a bad movie. It didn’t even came close to making back its fifty-seven-million dollar budget, and nobody apart from Co-creator Sylvia Anderson seemed to enjoy it either.
I watched it some years ago and I’d love to tell you that it was so good that it made me want to watch it over and over again. Or that it was a movie so decidedly awful that I would much rather sit through a six-hour dissertation on why the telenovela “Reina de Corazones” (8/7c on Telemundo) is the best television show ever conceived by mankind as told by a twelve-year-old YouTube commenter.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid to conclude it was neither, based on the fact that absolutely anything having to do with it apart from its existence has been removed from my memory. But don’t take my word for it; one Mr. Roger Ebert said, “A movie like this is harmless, I suppose, except for the celluloid that was killed in the process of its manufacture–but as an entertainment, it will send the kids tiptoeing through the multiplex to sneak into Spider-Man 2.”
It had some star power behind it too, with the likes of Bill Paxton (Apollo 13, Twister) and Anthony Edwards (Top Gun, Zodiac) in front of the cameras. Behind them Hans Zimmer, known for the soundtracks of Inception and The Dark Knight saga, had a hand in the music. But of special note, we had Academy Award winner Sir Ben Kingsley, CBE, playing our lead antagonist. It seems after Gandhi and a knighthood he now chooses his performances based on just how much fun he can have doing them. I expect him to turn up in an Adam Sandler film any day now.
Around the same time, Ford seemed to be dumping massive amounts of money in making sure that at least one Ford product would be seen in every movie screen at any given time. The 2002 Bond flick Die Another Day was perhaps the biggest offender, as everything from 007’s Aston Martin to The Villains XKR was related in one way or another to the blue oval. And what did the Bond Girl drive this time? Why, a Ford Thunderbird, what else?
Meanwhile, back in Universal, production of Thunderbirds had reached a small problem. In the original show one of the characters, Lady Penelope, was driven in a very tricked out six-wheel, hot pink Rolls Royce. Called the FAB1, it came with such commodities as machine guns hidden behind the grille and hydrofoils. But now that Rolls is owned by BMW, they decided they’d much rather skip on the whole movie and keep their intellectual property to themselves. Presumably lots of people panicked over that. At least until someone said, “Say, doesn’t Ford make a car actually named Thunderbird?”
And Bam! The New FAB1 saw the light of day. And it somehow made a pink Rolls-Royce with hydrofoils look sensible, practical and not at all conspicuous. 2004 was a time of hip-hop, conspicuous consumption and bling in the world of pop culture, so it actually fit the landscape pretty well. Best of all it was actually fully functional and road-legal, with four-wheel steering to make it actually go around corners.
The FAB1 was just the most obvious product placement. It seems Ford milked the contract for all it was worth. It ranged from everything to background vehicles…
…To baddie cars…
…to subtle touches. The exhausts on the redesigned Thunderbird 2 look suspiciously like the taillights found on a T-Bird sedan, don’t they?
The plot was…nope, can’t remember a thing. Ben Kingsley wants to rule the world for some reasons that are no doubt evil. And instead of a hunger strike he uses his mental powers. Then he wants to rob the bank in London and then it turns out that one of the Tracy kids also has mental powers. They defeat Kingsley but don’t kill him, so I guess Batman had given them some pointers and they live to save the good, Ford-driving world again. Or something.
It really was as bland as Wonder bread served with nothing but a glass of lukewarm water. Similar criticism could be used when talking about the final-generation T-bird, so in a way there really was no better movie than Thunderbirds to give it some big-screen recognition. It’s just a shame that neither of them could really live up to the hype.