Yes indeed, it’s time at last for a review of the first big screen adventure for the boys in blue from International Rescue! From 1966, it’s Thunderbirds Are Go!
Two years after the disastrous first attempt of the Zero X rocket mission to Mars, Earth is in a suitable position to try again, only now with an International Rescue escort to ensure nothing goes wrong. Following a successful launch and six weeks in space, the heroic astronauts and scientists of the Zero X mission explore the surface of Mars, before having to beat a hasty retreat after something goes wrong. Then, when a communications error causes renders the re-entry and escape pod systems of the Zero X inoperable, International Rescue must again race to the aid of the Zero X before the ship crashes and the crew are killed!
Framed like that, it’s hard to believe they had an hour and a half of material to fit into a film, and harder still to believe they actually left quite a lot of footage on the cutting room floor! The reality is that the film is fit to burst with tedious filler. It’s almost 19 minutes before International Rescue are on the scene, and about 25 before a Thunderbird machine is seen in action. During this half hour, we have the exciting opening titles. Then, we have the turgid assembly of the Zero X rocket. (I can’t deny, for the music and sheer beauty and cleverness of the model-work I adore this scene, but it is also incredibly tedious). Fortunately, series villain The Hood is aboard the Zero X, sneaking some photos of the internal workings. He accidentally fouls up the lift control, causing the rocket to crash spectacularly into the sea. This leads into a conference in the single most amazing conference room you will ever see in your life.
A lot of important men argue about what precautions should be taken around the second launch. Most of these puppets are Thunderbirds background characters who have received significant promotions – how did Cass Carnaby go from lounge pianism to this? Finally we cut to Tracy Island and shortly after there’s a very smooth and polished new set of launch sequences, for which we have the larger budget from United Artists to thank. There’s a car case, then there’s a dream sequence, and some aliens (not in the dream but on the Zero X mission) and then the final rescue. Cut the first half hour and the dream sequence out and you have yourself a standard-length episode of Thunderbirds that wouldn’t make any less sense.
There are a lot of issues with this film. To start with, the character development isn’t even consistent. Gordon gets passed over for the initial escort of Zero X, and we see a shot of him watching, downcast, as Thunderbirds 1-3 fly off. Just as we think we’re going to get a bit of development for Gordon, inexplicably the Tracy Family aspect of the second act then focuses on Alan. He throws a tantrum after being refused permission to go and party and then has a psychedelic dream sequence where he is seduced by Lady Penelope, and Cliff Richard and the Shadows (itself strange because Alan already has a love interest in female support character TinTin) in a space nightclub and then falls back to Earth. The jerk even appears to have had his pet alligator from “Attack of the Alligators” murdered and stuffed (look carefully at the back of the shot after he falls out of bed). He is toasted at the end of the film as “the hero of the day” whilst Gordon doesn’t even get a line. The only acknowledgement of Gordon’s little arc is an excited “Yes sir!” when Jeff appoints him as Chief Grappling Hook Man during the Zero X rescue. For crying out loud, Gordon held two severed electric wires back together with his BARE HANDS in the cargo hold of the Fireflash in “Operation Crash Dive”, so why does Alan get to be fired into the equivalent compartment aboard the Zero X to do almost the same thing BUT WEARING GLOVES. I’m not the only Thunderbirds fan who hates Alan, which is why I find it baffling he is the centre of attention here and even more so in Thunderbird 6. I demand justice for Gordon!
Other minor incongruous details include the fact that it seems the inclusion of Lady Penelope in the Zero X protection mission was an afterthought. Considering she ends up being the entire reason the Hood’s plot to sabotage the second attempt fails, this seems like an oversight by Jeff. She’s rather bloodthirsty here, though – declaring a desire to shoot down a helicopter and subsequently deciding shoe doesn’t “think there’s much point looking for survivors.” Still on Penelope – she is obsessed with handing out St Christopher medals with hidden tracking devices. Five are distributed here, plus a sixth in an episode of the TV series. This is so delightfully British, and uniquely Thunderbirds as I can’t think of where else in pop culture I’ve ever encountered St Christopher medals.
Ultimately the film suffers from being a montage of cool ideas that fail to mesh effectively. This failure to mesh plagues every Gerry Anderson work; bad character development, continuity, and half-finished ideas are hallmarks of his series and the criticism levelled for this is well deserved.
But honestly, when movies and TV shows look and sound this good, who the hell cares? Thunderbirds Are Go is 90 minutes of non-stop coolness. The Zero X is the finest model the Century 21 Studios team ever put on film, and it was so large that even extra-wide aspect ratio Techniscope was not wide enough to accommodate it. The art direction is utterly magnificent, and bears the responsibility for my love for the Barcelona sofa that continues to this day…
– plus the aforementioned conference room is splendid.
The puppets are more convincing than ever (though some of them have hands that are just slightly too small in comparison to the oversized heads, see Space Col. Harris at the head of the table, above). The voice work is brilliant – Penelope’s evil laugh during the dream sequence stands out, and Virgil’s anguished cry of “Now, Scott! Now!” when Scott has to flick the switch for the Zero X escape pod is possibly the best delivery of any Supermarionation line. Charles “Bud” Tingwell, the legendary Australian actor, also makes his Supermarionation debut here and it’s delightful to hear his velvety tones. The Zero X rescue in the final act still has me on the edge of my seat every time; most recently when rewatching I realised after the ejection of the escape pod that I’d been holding my breath!
Resident Anderson composer Barry Gray was absolutely in his element here with a 60-piece orchestra. The music for this film is amongst his finest work. It’s a delight to hear those wonderful themes realised by a full symphony – the opening titles alone are worth the price of admission. It’s been mastered with a bit of an echoey reverb, but as the film was in mono this has the effect of making it sound like it’s in stereo. There are some splendid stings – nobody does “shock”, “light-hearted pursuit” and “foot crushed in a hydraulic system” quite like Barry Gray. You know those annoying memories of your childhood that you can’t crush even though they’re internally embarrassing? One of mine is pompously declaring at age 11 that Gray’s music for the Zero X assembly sequence is “one of the greatest musical sequences ever in a movie” and being told off, thereby learning the difference between ‘widely-held opinion’ and ‘baseless assertion’. Embarrassing though that memory is, I stand by it. It’s a wonderful piece of music in a film full of them.
The BluRay was released through a company named Twilight Time which specialises in limited run prints of classic films. I was fortunate enough to get my hands on one (staying up extra late one night waiting for ordering to go live) and may I say, this is how Thunderbirds must be watched. Even though the film has not been remastered, the high definition scan came from excellent film elements because it contains nary a flicker of dust nor hair, and only two minor discolourations on the left of the frame during the last 30 minutes. There’s a lot of film grain, but this is inherent in Techniscope films because each frame is literally half the height of a standard 35mm film frame which unfortunately leads to lower quality. Even so, the picture is so clear you can pick out the tiniest little details in the set design that wouldn’t have been seen in years. Lady Penelope’s radio teapot is monogrammed, the Zero X’s landing gear tyres were supplied by Firestone, the production invented a limited liability company that produces the proprietary Supermarionation “rocket launch countdown” clock and put its name on the prop, and Jeff Tracy’s book collection consists of multiple copies of the Collins Gem Dictionary in several different languages, plus some alphabetised directories of which he only seems to have L-R and S-Z – frustrating for the completist! As for the BluRay itself, there’s a special DTS 5.1 Stereo mix, but I’ve never seen the benefit of watching Supermarionation in stereo, especially when it was produced in mono – I don’t have a surround sound system though so I could be missing out. The commentaries have been imported from the old DVD release, and there are some new making-of documentaries as well.
Well, that’s probably enough words for now. I’m just glad I finally got to write a love letter to this terrible movie. If you got this far, thanks for hanging in there. Coming soon: the international intrigue is turned up to 11 when the IR team must find out the secrets behind Thunderbird 6!
For more Ravings in Cinemascope on the subject of Thunderbirds, click here.
For more on Barry Gray, click here.