Thunderbirds are Go
Blast off into interplanetary adventure with the first feature-length film starring the International Rescue team: millionaire ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy, his five stalwart sons, the fabulous secret agent Lady Penelope and, of course, their incredibly futuristic fleet of Thunderbird rescue ships!
When the mighty spaceship Zero X is sabotaged on its first take-off for Mars, International Rescue is summoned to provide security for the second launch attempt. But after the ship successfully reaches its destination, it is attacked by rampaging alien life forms! Once again, the brave and resourceful International Rescue team is called into action. Can the team help the damaged ship re-enter Earth's atmosphere and prevent a crash-landing with devastating consequences?
The Tracy team are back in action in another riveting adventure! This time it will take all of their combined effort - and the cunning wit of their colleague Lady Penelope - to defeat an international ring of terrorists, who've targeted International Rescue for destruction!
While on the maiden voyage of the fabulous new passenger vessel Skyship One, Lady Penelope is shocked to discover that the original crew has been killed and replaced with a ruthless gang of hijackers who want to use her to obtain classified information about the International Rescue team! As the hijacked super-plane circles the globe on a collision course with catastrophe, Penelope must outwit her captors and send an urgent SOS to get help from her fearless cohorts...before it's too late!
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 the real British group Cliff Richard & The Shadows) 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 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 was first released on Blu-ray in 2014 as a limited edition of 3,000 copies from Twilight Time. That disc eventually sold out and went out of print. Now that Twilight Time's exclusivity agreement has expired, new distributor Kino Lorber has licensed the movies from MGM Home Entertainment for a Blu-ray reissue.
In many respects, the Kino package simply copies the prior Twilight Time release, right down to carrying over an audio commentary by Twilight Time founders Nick Redman and Jeff Bond. However, rather than consolidate both movies onto one dual-layer Blu-ray, Kino has opted to separate them onto two single-layer discs. Kino wasn't able to obtain all of the prior bonus features, but attempts to compensate somewhat by adding a new exclusive commentary on Thunderbird 6. Although the MSRP of the Kino edition is, technically, the same $29.95 that Twilight Time's copy went for, the Kino version is not a limited edition and will benefit from reduced pricing at retailers.
Aside from authoring the two movies onto separate single-layer discs instead of together on one dual-layer disc, Kino is clearly using the same video masters provided by MGM that Twilight Time did for the 2011 Blu-ray. They look identical in most respects, including the amount of detail and grain in the picture. However, the Kino Blu-rays are a hair brighter on both movies for some reason. If forced to choose, I'd say that Twilight Time's contrast looks a little more natural. However, the difference is small enough that I wouldn't have noticed it without a direct screenshot comparison. The experience of sitting down to watch the movies is hardly affected. As such, Kino gets the same video rating from me that Twilight Time did.
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. Allegedly, technical issues involving the model and miniature special effects prevented the use of anamorphic lenses on the cameras, but I suspect that budgetary concerns also played a part in the decision.
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 Blu-ray encodes look about as good as I would assume these movies can look. Neither film 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.)
Of the two movies, Thunderbirds Are Go is a little crisper, more vibrant and colorful. In fact, the colors are quite striking. Thunderbird 6 is often even grainier, as well as rather drab and dull in many scenes. 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.
Kino offers the same audio options as Twilight Time did. Each movie includes two lossless DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, one in the original mono and another with a 5.1 remix. The 5.1 tracks 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 and hollow. 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.
Kino has ported the majority of the bonus features from the Twilight Time Blu-ray over to the new edition. Unfortunately, several didn't make the transition. The ones that did are:
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. Many of those fans may have already purchased the double feature of Thunderbirds Are Go and Thunderbird 6 when it was released on Blu-ray by Twilight Time in 2014. If so, this reissue from Kino doesn't offer much enticement to upgrade, other than one new commentary on the second movie. It's a pretty good commentary, but is that worth buying another copy for? Kino's disc is unfortunately missing some other bonus features that Twilight Time had.
On the other hand, any Thunderbirds fan who either failed to buy the previous Blu-ray before it went out of print, or refused to pay Twilight Time's asking price, will find the Kino edition a very appealing substitute. It has basically the same video and audio quality as well as most of the same supplements, and it can be found at retail for a lower price.
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 five decades later.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.