Although I love Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi TV series from the 60s and 70s, the one series that I haven’t bothered re-watching for years is Thunderbirds. Possibly because I just watched too much of it when I was young. And surprisingly I’d never seen the 1966 movie version, Thunderbirds Are GO. An omission that I’ve now rectified.
Making a feature film starring puppets was possibly an even bolder step than the TV programs. Whether it was a good idea or not is hard to say. The biggest problem seems to have been that Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who wrote the script, weren’t really used to writing for the cinema so what we get feels a bit too much like a standard 50-minute episode of Thunderbirds padded out to around 90 minutes.
The model effects are superb of course, but another problem is that the crew (and the movie was made using the all the same technical people as the series) had become so good at doing the special effects for their TV programs that the movie doesn’t represent a huge step forward. And to make a movie version special it needs to offer something more than the TV version.
That’s not to say that the movie isn’t fun in its way. The plot is a stock-standard Thunderbirds plot, but with even more explosions than normal. The first manned mission to Mars falls victim to sabotage. The spaceship, the Zero-X, is rebuilt and another attempt is to be made. This time International Rescue will be on hand to make sure nothing goes wrong. Thanks to International Rescue’s glamorous secret agent Lady Penelope a second sabotage attempt is foiled, but this is Thunderbirds so you just know something is going to go wrong eventually.
The most enjoyable parts of the movie are two sequences in the middle, both involving Lady Penelope. The first of these sequences has Lady Penelope and her faithful butler/chauffeur Parker pursuing one of the saboteurs. Lady P’s famous high-tech pink Rolls-Royce turns out to have some surprising capabilities, but more interesting is her ruthlessness. This is something I’d either forgotten, or perhaps this quality was downplayed in the TV series. After shooting doe the bad guys’ helicopter and watching it crash into the ocean Lady P remarks casually but with considerable satisfaction that, “I don’t think there’s any point in looking for survivors.” Then she and Parker have a bit of chuckle about this. This woman is a total badass.
The second fascinating sequence is a strange dream interlude. Alan Tracy is peeved to hear that after the launch of the Zero-X his brothers Scott and Virgil went off night-clubbing with Lady Penelope. He’s the baby of the Tracy brothers and he tends to be sensitive to implied slights and he also tends to feel left out. He dreams about a fabulous night of clubbing with Lady P. The dream sequence includes an odd but engaging musical number by Cliff Richard and the Shadows (represented by puppet duplicates of themselves but performing themselves on the soundtrack).
A musical big production number is certainly unexpected, but even more intriguing is the implication that Alan may be nursing a bit of an unrequited love thing for Lady P. With definite hints of some sexual fantasies as well! The Alan-Lady P thing gets even more disturbing later on - one can’t help feeling he’d happily give up piloting Thunderbird 3 to be her toy boy!
Despite a few weaknesses the movie is generally entertaining. And it’s a must if you’re a fan of the TV series.
The Region 4 DVD release includes a terrific commentary track done by Sylvia Anderson (who produced as well as co-writing the screenplay) and director David Lane. Apart from offering some great insights into the process of making such a film Sylvia Anderson has some amusing anecdotes, including one about Stanley Kubrick trying to poach the Thunderbirds technical crew for a new movie he was planning called 2001: A Space Odyssey.