Zero-X, a manned exploration mission crashes during lift-off on its maiden flight. Two years later an investigative committee finally concludes sabotage, and decides to call on the services of International Rescue to oversee security at the impending second launch. The second Zero-X successfully reaches its destination, but encounters unexpected hazards, ultimately leading to another call for assistance on its return to Earth. International Rescue respond, and once again Thunderbirds are GO!
Gerry Anderson's famed children's TV adventure show 'Thunderbirds' was a couple decades before my time, and I don't recall seeing it in syndication during my own childhood. A later, goofier Anderson series called 'Terrahawks' premiered right around the time I was of an age for such things, but the little I watched of it didn't make much impression on me. As an adult, 'Thunderbirds' does not hold any special nostalgia in my memories. Nonetheless, I find myself fascinated by its richly detailed, elaborately constructed fantasy world and Anderson's innovative (if a little creepy) "Supermarionation" puppetry process. When the series was released on DVD in the early 2000s, I couldn't resist the lure of its retro charms.
The appeal of 'Thunderbirds' for kids is pretty obvious. The program feels like it must have sprung directly from the mind of a child. Watching an episode is like watching a roomful of toys come to life. This is what children see when they play. Unfortunately, for an adult viewer, the series fares less well as scripted entertainment. What should have been a tight half-hour show was bloated to hour-long episodes that were very slackly paced and repetitive. Honestly, I never made it all the way through that DVD box set, despite trying on a couple of occasions.
Regardless of these issues, the show was enormously popular in its native England, enough so that Anderson and his producers (including his wife Sylvia and financier Lew Grade) felt that they could bring it to the big screen with a pair of feature films: 'Thunderbirds Are Go' (1966) and 'Thunderbird 6' (1968). Expectations for the first movie ran so unreasonably high that Grade reportedly boasted that 'Thunderbirds' would outgross James Bond. He was woefully mistaken. Audiences of the day were not accustomed to paying movie theater prices to watch what amounted to glorified episodes of a TV show they already got at home for free. 'Thunderbirds Are Go' was a box office dud. Although distributor United Artists was willing to try again with the sequel, that one bombed as well.
If anything, the movies distill the essence of 'Thunderbirds' down to a more manageable package, and are a reasonable entry point for a casual viewer interested in the program but daunted at the prospect of slogging through more than thirty TV episodes first. The storylines are self-contained enough that no prior viewing is required. All you need to know is the basic premise: One hundred years in the future, retired millionaire astronaut Jeff Tracy and his five sons run a humanitarian relief organization called International Rescue from a fabulous secret headquarters on an uncharted island. After conventional rescue attempts have failed, they can deploy a fleet of five high-tech vehicles for emergency operations on land, sea, air or even space.
In 'Thunderbirds Are Go', the IR team branches out from rescue missions and agrees to provide security for the launch of a space vehicle called the Zero-X, which is scheduled for a mission to Mars. In addition to foiling sabotage efforts from dastardly villain The Hood, they'll have to save the ship's crew during a bad re-entry on the return trip. In between these two bookends, the space crew arrives on Mars and encounters snake monsters with bazooka mouths simply for the sake of adding an action scene during a lull.
After the first film's failure, the sequel 'Thunderbird 6' takes a lighter, more comedic tone. Convinced that International Rescue desperately needs a sixth vehicle to compliment its fleet, Jeff Tracy commissions inventor genius Brains to design another craft – yet he has no idea what this new vehicle should be or do (nor who will pilot it, unless he plans to adopt another son), and shoots down all of Brains' ideas. Meanwhile, half the Tracy boys and their British liaison Lady Penelope take a world tour on the maiden voyage of a new luxury airship called Skyship One, which happens to have also been designed by Brains. When the ship is hijacked and threatens to crash onto a missile base, the only chance of rescue comes from an unexpected source.
Both movies are essentially extended TV episodes and feel heavily padded to reach their 90-minute lengths. 'Thunderbirds Are Go' opens with a nearly interminable scene that shows every detail of the Zero-X launch in exhaustingly slow detail. The turgid pace does not combine well at all with the deliberately affectless acting from the puppets. Around the middle of the movie, the plot takes an interlude for an extended dream sequence in which young Alan Tracy dreams about going to a space nightclub and watching a puppet band (based on a real, if obscure, British group) perform an entire song. As if that weren't frustrating enough, almost the entire first hour of 'Thunderbird 6' is pointless filler material during which nothing of note happens.
Of the two, 'Thunderbirds Are Go' is overall the better movie, even though its story is very silly stuff and the Thunderbirds themselves are underutilized with insufficient screen time. However, by the time 'Thunderbird 6' finally kicks into gear, it climaxes with a fairly exciting (if not terribly logical) rescue operation that's more satisfying than anything in the first film.
'Thunderbirds Are Go' and 'Thunderbird 6' are both very flawed productions, but undeniably still have some charm as artifacts of a unique and idiosyncratic vision. For as unnervingly close to the Uncanny Valley effect as the puppetry gets (especially whenever jarring close-up shots of live action hands are intermixed with the puppet work), it's transfixing to watch and contemplate how much effort was necessary to sell the illusion – all for the noble goal of inspiring the imaginations of children.
The double feature of 'Thunderbirds Are Go' and 'Thunderbird 6' comes to Blu-ray from Twilight Time, under license from MGM Home Entertainment. All Twilight Time releases are sold as limited editions with a pressing run of only 3,000 copies. Both movies have been authored onto a single Blu-ray disc with static and rather boring menus.
The Blu-ray is packaged in a standard keepcase. A booklet inside contains an essay praising 'Thunderbirds' by Twilight Time employee Julie Kirgo. Sadly, no attempt has been made to replicate MGM's "International Rescue Edition" DVD box set from 2004, which included cardboard cut-outs of the Thunderbird vehicles and magnets for the characters. That was a gimmick, sure, but a gimmick that suited the content well. The DVDs also had flashier animated menus.
In order to differentiate the 'Thunderbirds' feature films from the TV series and to showcase their grander big-screen ambitions, producer Gerry Anderson and director David Lane decided to shoot both movies in a "scope" widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Unfortunately, they did not (or could not) do so using the premium CinemaScope or Panavision formats of the day. Instead, they photographed both movies in a lower-cost and lower-quality alternative format called Techniscope. (The supplements on the Blu-ray claim that technical issues involving the model and miniature special effects prevented the use of anamorphic lenses on the cameras, but I suspect that it was really a budgetary matter.)
Unlike its competitors, Techniscope achieved its widescreen ratio by simply reducing the height of each frame of 35mm film down from the 4-perf standard to only 2-perfs. This meant that the image was captured using a much smaller area of film, which was then blown up to the standard 4-perf size for the release prints and projected onto huge theater screens. As a result, Techniscope photography is typically very grainy and rather soft, traits that are clearly in evidence here. Heavy graininess is a predominant feature of both films, neither of which exhibits the startling clarity of 35mm at its best.
Nevertheless, considering the limitations of the source, the respective 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers on the Blu-ray look about as good as I would assume these movies can look. Neither appears to be molested with adverse digital processing to hide or wipe away the grain. The amount of detail in the imagery is pretty good for Techniscope, and definitely a noticeable improvement over the old DVD editions. The production team took great pains to hide the wires holding up the puppets, but they're quite clear every once in a while. (I consider this level of transparency to be a good thing.) Dirt, scratches and other age-related defects are minimal and rarely distracting.
In direct comparison, 'Thunderbirds Are Go' is a little crisper, more vibrant and colorful. The colors are quite striking, in fact. 'Thunderbird 6' is often even grainier, as well as a little drab and dull. Again, I assume that this is endemic to the source material, not a problem with the disc transfer. I doubt that many viewers will fire up either movie as home theater eye candy demo material, but the Blu-ray video quality is respectable and respectful of the content.
Each movie on the Blu-ray includes two lossless DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, one in the original mono and another with a 5.1 remix. They've been authored with a significant volume difference. The 5.1 tracks are much louder than the mono. Any attempted comparison will require compensating for that.
The 5.1 remixes are still mostly monaural and centered. When they occur, attempts to spread the music and sound effects out to the sides and surround speakers come across as very gimmicky and distracting. Rather than sound like a true stereophonic presence, the entire soundstage will often shift to one side or the other, leaving the opposite end empty. I found this very annoying. Additionally, the 5.1 tracks have been heavily rolled-off on the high end and sound quite dull. On both movies, I preferred the mono tracks, which are a little more lively and a lot more focused.
With that said, fidelity is dated and weak on either audio option. Both tracks are shrill and constrained, with thin music and no low end. They're listenable (particularly the mono), but keep your expectations in check.
The majority of bonus features are recycled from the 2004 DVD box set.
'Thunderbirds Are Go'
It stands to reason that viewers who grew up watching 'Thunderbirds' may still regard both the show and these two movies with great nostalgia and affection. Those fans should be very pleased with Twilight Time's Blu-ray double feature of 'Thunderbirds Are Go' and 'Thunderbird 6', which presents the movies with respectful video transfers that showcase the elaborate and intricate puppetry much better than DVD could.
Newer viewers may be put off a bit by the program's inherent corniness, but the two films provide a good demonstration of why the franchise still has a devoted cult following almost five decades later.
All Twilight Time Blu-rays are limited to only 3,000 copies, and I suspect that the 'Thunderbirds' fan base will want to scoop this one up before it's gone.