Back in the sixties, it made sense to cast an entire movie with marionettes. Sure, today we have our share of wooden leading men, like Keanu Reeves and Steven Seagal, but you would never cast an entire movie with them. Thunderbirds Are GO! was the first big screen adventure for the Tracy family of International Rescue, late of the successful British TV show Thunderbirds. Every week the Tracy family, aided by a huge fleet of unlikely vehicles, would rescue people in high-tech distress. The show was kind of fun, especially if you like model spaceships and gratuitous explosions. Most Godzilla fans qualify.
Thunderbirds Are GO! starts with the preparations to launch the Zero-X, a manned Mars explorer which is "the most expensive project in human history." We're pretty sure they're just talking about the score that accompanies the rollout. The Zero-X is modular. First there's a large main unit, which looks kind of like a 2x4 with engines. Then two detachable flying wings dock with it to allow it to reach space. The cockpit is a separate unit, which also has to be lowered slowly into place, which means entire minutes of screen time devoted to lumbering cranes and the sounds of hydraulic presses as the pieces come together. Finally, a nosecone attaches to the front of the whole monstrosity. Watching this display, you begin to see why Britain never had much of a space program. Personally, we would prefer to have the spaceship built before the morning it is due to launch.
Don't let your 747 overeat.
To make a long story short, the spaceship is sabotaged by the Thunderbirds' nemesis, known only as the Hood. What the Hood was trying to do is a little unclear, because he gets his foot caught in a piece of machinery, and he drags himself and his bloody appendage to a hatch and ejects. He must have done some damage though, because the ship crashes anyway. The humor of a boot's instrumentality to a sabotage attempt (the word "sabotage" is derived from the French word for shoe) did not escape us. We wonder if the same was true for the filmmakers, but they fail to make the explicit joke. The British: subtle, or just clueless?
A commission investigates and finds evidence of the sabotage. ("Hey, can anyone find a mention of a severed foot in the Zero-X manual?") Then they vote on whether or not to launch the Zero-X again. The voting is accomplished by pushing buttons and waiting for the results to appear on a display. Despite the fact that this is supposed to be 2056, the whole process takes enough time to make the Florida Elections Commission look like the drive-thru at Checkers. To forestall any more sabotage, the Thunderbirds are asked to keep an eye on the new launch.
Angry about not getting the part
in "The X-Men," the Martian
rock creature attacks.
The Thunderbirds leap into action. Or would leap, if they weren't marionettes with immobile legs. Using sophisticated vehicles, complicated plans, and the help of their ally Lady Penelope and her pink Rolls Royce, they stop the Hood's second attempt to sabotage the ship. It seems a bit much. We could figure out who the Hood was just by poking everybody in the area with a hatpin. Whoever says "ouch" with a foreign accent is the Hood in disguise.
Afterwards, some of the members of the Thunderbirds go to a club called the Swinging Star with Lady Penelope, leaving Alan Tracy behind on Tracy Island. For some reason this seems to give Alan a major self-esteem issue. Does this seem likely? Alan flies the Thunderbird 3, a ship that can achieve orbit unassisted. If anybody should have esteem problems, you would think it would be Gordon, who pilots Thunderbird 4, the submarine. How often does he get to help in an international crisis?
When the Bubble Boy wanted to
go skydiving, the Make-A-Wish
Foundation was there!
Scene: Tracy Island
Jeff Tracy: All right boys, a Supersonic Transport carrying the President and his family is on fire!
Gordon Tracy: Well...
Scott Tracy: I'll get right on it. At 15,000 miles an hour, I'll be there in a flash!
Jeff: Radioactive space monkeys are attacking the International Space Station!
Gordon: I could...
Alan Tracy: I'm on it!
Jeff: The city of Denver needs tons of the new super vaccine!
Gordon: Is there a river near there?
Virgil Tracy: Thunderbird 2 can be there in an hour!
Jeff: Gordon, Mrs. Edna Weezil of 795 Toffee Street, Surrey, England dropped her glasses into her aquarium. Think you can get those for her?
Gordon: Sure dad, I'll fish them out for her... Please God, why am I so lame?
Jeff: Even a champion racehorse needs an ass, son.
That night, Alan dreams about Lady Penelope. Eew, puppet dreams! Alan dreams that he goes to the "real" Swinging Star, a nightclub in space. Entertainment is provided by Cliff Richard Jr., cleverly voiced by the "real" Cliff Richard. The song Cliff sings harks back to a more innocent time, back when pop music was wholesome and singers expressed only respect and love:
A shooting star will shoot you
Mars will go to war
The man on the moon will jump on you
If you don't love me no more
"I went to Wayne Newton's garage sale!"
The Richard marionette sings these songs while dancing on a giant guitar that flies through space. Brings a tear to your eye, don't it?
Alan wakes from his slumberland fantasies with a thump as he falls out of bed. Had you been present during our screening of the film, you would have been privy to all sorts of off-color jokes regarding wooden puppets and nocturnal emissions, but as this is (mostly) a family web site, you'll just have to make up a few of your own.
Although we are great Thunderbirds fans from way back (well, as far back as we can go, anyway), this movie makes it obvious that Supermarionation is a process best reserved for television. While puppets and spaceships zooming around screen supported by the sheerest of plots are novel enough for an hour-long show, stretching it out to feature-film length wears through that novelty. The only real plot here is the one involving Alan's esteem problems, leaving the action sequences (such as the battle between the Mars astronauts and the Martian rock snake-monsters) as mere window dressing. All of the trials and tribulations of the intrepid Mars explorers are meant to get us to the point where Alan can save the day and resolve his feelings about his perceived inadequacies. Is this a futuristic spy movie or a soap opera?
"Say, is this a Rolex? Nice style, son!"
Thunderbirds devotees will find all the familiar faces: Lady Penelope the en-chahn-ting British lady spy and her right-hand man/chauffeur, Parker, Tin-Tin, and of course the full Tracy family. As mentioned before, they even manage to squeeze archenemy The Hood in there, although why he would be interested in sabotaging a Mars mission is never explained. Take it on faith, Thunderfans: he's evil!
Let us not forget the Thunderbirds vehicles, our favorite of which would have to be Penelope's six-wheeled pink Rolls Royce, complete with radar detector, anti-aircraft guns, and an amphibious hydrofoil mode. There are also Dick Tracy-style communicator wrist-watches, flying planet rovers, and radio signal lapel pins galore. However, these can only partly make up for the tedious scenes of puppets pretending to walk, eat, or hold meaningful conversations, or for the dated attempts to appear hip to the intended teenaged audience. The most blatant example of this is that most mysterious of Thunderbirds expressions: "F.A.B.," which the IR operatives use in place of "roger" while communicating. F.A.B., it turns out, is just sounding out the letters of "fab," that 1960's expression that was so hip they coopted it for a laundry detergent.
Yes, there is enough gadgetry action going on here to make James Bond weep bitter tears of envy, but the gaps between amazing mechanical feats may well leave you snoring. Thunderbirds are go... to... sleep....
Lady Penelope is one of our favorite characters so incredibly over the top, so cool and collected. Amazingly, she's one of the only characters in this Britsh-produced TV series with a British accent! Pictured here is her faithful manservant, Parker, who is not only a top-notch chauffeur, but also quite handy with a hood-mounted machine gun. Go back!