Sunday, May 25, 2014

THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO/THUNDERBIRD 6: Blu-ray (Century 21st Cinema/United Artists 1966/68) Twilight Time

Sitting through approximately three hours of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds 2-film anthology – 1966’s Thunderbirds are Go and 1968’s Thunderbird 6 – is a little bit like being stuck in a lavishly appointed E-ticket ride at Disneyland (both the Magic Kingdom’s Carousel of Progress and Epcot’s Spaceship Earth immediately come to mind); enveloped by director, David Lane’s comprehensive dioramas, populated with bobble-headed and uncannily animated puppets; dubbed Supermarionation by their creator – Anderson - to distinguish them from either conventional puppetry or traditional marionettes; although they decidedly bear a striking resemblance to the latter rather than the former. Alas, one has to set aside a certain level of expectation – also, more than a modicum of jadedness in this era of CGI on demand – to truly appreciate either movie as anything more substantial beyond quaint. However, it is still quite possible to greatly admire the technological wizardry; decidedly cutting edge and masterpieces of their own unique kind.
To anyone of a certain vintage growing up in Britain, even the very mention of the name Thunderbirds conjures fond recollections of Anderson’s hour-long children’s television series; so complex it took a small army of passionate creatives, toiling under SFX supervisor – and genius – Derek Meddings, almost three weeks to film a single episode (and at a considerable cost); producer Lew Grade (footing the bill) so immeasurably impressed with the results he reportedly marched up to Anderson after viewing some test footage and shaking his finger, declared “This isn’t a television series…it’s a movie!” Alas, Thunderbirds never managed to break through to the American market – ironic, actually, considering Anderson’s premise for the show was about the Tracy family; a decidedly all-American brood of aeronautic millionaire jock-types (well, minus their Poindexter inventor/designer, Brains – voiced by David Graham) modeled after the Cartwright clan on television’s popular, Bonanza (1959-73).
There’s no denying the other major influence on Anderson’s short lived, though wildly popular television series (1965-66) and films: the James Bond franchise. With its gadget-laden espionage-infused scenarios, and the inclusion of Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward (voiced by Anderson’s then wife, Sylvia) – a sort of female Bond, flanked by her ever-loyal and lovably obtuse ex-con/chauffeur, Aloysius Parker (also voiced by Graham); the pair working in cahoots with the International Rescue squadron, helmed by silver-haired patriarch, Jeff Tracy (Peter Dyneley) from his remote private island somewhere off the coast of…well…; Thunderbirds is a fascinating hybrid of the kiddie matinee meets the iconographic fast-paced/high fashion playground of Ian Fleming’s treasured super spy.
That neither Thunderbirds are Go nor Thunderbird 6 comes off as bona fide ‘family entertainment’ or entirely captivating adult-infused action/adventure drama is a bit disappointing, as – clearly – they have been designed to straddle this chasm between two irreconcilable spheres of pop-u-tainment. Also, something of a letdown; Thunderbirds are Go never entirely caught on in the U.S. where the movie regrettably failed to catch the tail fire as part of the so called ‘British Invasion’. In fact, Thunderbirds are Go sank like a stone at the box office state’s side; Lew Grade immediately pulling up stakes – also, his financing – and leaving Anderson to fend for himself on the sequel.   
I confess: it took me more than one viewing to warm up to the concept and actually enjoy these movies for what they were meant to be; rollicking, mildly silly, and very ingeniously scripted thrill rides, catering to the swingin’ 60’s mod mentality and dedicated to over-the-top glamor and implausible action/adventure.  Appropriately, Anderson’s creations were sculpted out of more space-age materials than conventional marionettes; polymers, plastics, fiberglass and silicone – each oversized head fitted with a solenoid motor to synchronize the movement of their lips with the pre-recorded dialogue. Thunderbirds are Go also taps into the 60’s mania surrounding the ‘space race’; Anderson’s puppetry – by its very merit – already unencumbered by any adherence to reality, and, thus, having conquered the farthest reaches of infinity with atypically American chutzpah, yet distinctly British noblesse oblige.
At some level you just ‘gotta’ love a movie that bypasses man’s ambitions for a lunar landing (still three years away when Thunderbirds are Go had its world premiere in Lester Square), for an even more ambitious, yet casually observed rendezvous on Mars (oddly, no longer ‘the red planet’ but a desolate coal dusty gray wasteland populated by red-eyed Cyclops snakes spewing firecracker sparks from their gaping nostrils). Ditto for the even more fanciful and nonchalant dream sequence where the Tracy’s fair-haired Joe Studly – Alan (Matt Zimmermann) indulges Lady Penelope at an interplanetary nightclub, ‘The Swinging Star’; shamelessly featuring the U.K.’s chart toppers, Cliff Richards and The Shadows as – what else? – his offspring, Cliff Jr. and…wait for it…The Shadows.    
Thunderbirds are Go takes place in the then unfathomable year of 2067. Following the disastrous crash of its new spacecraft, Zero-X, the Inquiry Board of the Space Exploration Center (SEC) reaches its inevitable verdict of industrial sabotage. Almost immediately, a second Mars mission is planned, with the Tracy’s International Rescue team brought in to beef up security and provide safe conduct for the new spacecraft.  Jeff Tracy dispatches his eldest son, Scott (Shane Rimmer) to Glenn Field, Virgil (Jeremy Wilkin) and Alan as aerial escorts until the Zero-X has left the atmosphere. Interestingly, while SEC is still presumably in the infancy of figuring things out with the Zero-X, the Tracys already have a floating space module orbiting the earth.
Meanwhile, in Britain, Lady Penelope – posing as a member of the press corps – offers the four man crew of the new Zero-X St. Christopher brooches to wear, ostensibly, for good luck. However, inside each circular pin is a homing device (the idea lifted in its entirety from ‘The Duchess Assignment’ episode from the Thunderbirds TV series).  When all but the brooch belonging to Dr. Tony Grant (Charles Tingwell) begin to broadcast signals back to Lady Penelope’s pink Rolls-Royce, she immediately knows something is seriously wrong. Penelope alerts Jeff who orders Scott to investigate. Unmasking the saboteur taking Grant’s place aboard the flight, Scott is held at gunpoint; the terrorist escaping the launch pad, first by car, then later in a speedboat with Lady P making chase in her chauffeur-driven car. The Rolls turns amphibious in its hot pursuit of the suspect. It also comes with built-in machine guns that bring down a marauding helicopter assigned to protect the assassin’s escape.  
The real Grant is found bound and gagged inside a nearby hangar and reinstated to the flight deck without further incident. Now, the Zero-X departs for the farthest reaches of space and Alan returns home, only to discover Scott and Virgil have gone with Penelope to the nightclub, ‘The Swinging Star’ to blow off a little steam. It sounds good to Alan too, who invites another member of the International Rescue team, Tin-Tin Kyrano (Christine Finn) for a night on the town. Alas, Jeff quashes their plans, reminding Alan that the command center cannot be left unattended in his brothers’ absence.  We’re not sure why Jeff can’t man things alone and simply radio his boys if he needs their assistance…but there it is. Feeling undervalued, Alan storms off to bed, suffering a fantastic dream where he and Penelope indulge in a glamorous night on the town – the town having been relocated to a floating Jetson-esque nightclub in outer space. Curiously, everyone can breathe without the benefit of oxygen in Alan’s dream; he and Lady P. entertained by Cliff Richards and The Shadows. The dream ends disastrously; Alan losing his footing just outside the club and plummeting back to earth, awakening in a heap on the floor of his bedroom.
Meanwhile, the real intergalactic voyage of Zero-X encounters coiled rock formations on Mars. These turn out to be one-eyed python-esque alien life forms; the ship’s captain, Greg Martin (Alexander Davion) narrowly avoiding extraterrestrial annihilation.  Forgoing the rest of their Mars mission, the crew of the Zero-X dock at an orbiting command module piloted by space navigator, Brad Newman (Bob Monkhouse).  Attempting reentry to the earth, the Zero-X encounters a perilous malfunction; its escape unit circuit damaged in flight. Jeff sends the entire Thunderbird rescue team to intercept before the inevitable crash can occur in Craigsville, Florida.  Scott and Virgil manage to winch the Zero-X to their aircraft, Alan shimmying down a wire into its belly, with Brains instructing him on how to reroute the damaged escape circuitry and save the rest of the crew. It all works as it should, the crew ejecting to safety moments before the Zero-X slams into the heart of Craigsville, taking out half the town in a fiery ball of flame.
Presumably, because none of this property damage – or anticipated loss of life - seems to matter within the context of this film (heck, Jeff could probably cut a check and rebuild the town before sunset), the Tracy’s gather for a victory celebration at the real Swinging Star; everyone except Lady Penelope incognito as they toast Alan’s heroism.  F.A.B. – which became something of a moniker for the show, actually stands for an abbreviation of ‘fabulous’. In many ways, Thunderbirds are Go was a decided departure from the television series; more of an exercise in competition with the Bond franchise, ratcheting up the level of pyrotechnics and model stunt work; Derek Meddings really giving the movie a super-duper A-list sheen with his SFX expertise.
Thunderbird 6 returns to more familiar territory – or rather, material more aligned with the general tenor of the TV show; its screenplay again written by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, but now focused on more wordy byplay between these beloved characters. We’re still in 2068, the New World Aircraft Corporation (NWAC) hiring Brains to invent a revolutionary mode of commercial travel. Brains elects to build an airship; a decision drawing jeers and sneers from NWAC’s board of directors who, nevertheless, green-light the project to its completion.  Skyship One isn’t your ordinary ‘blimp’, nor is its maiden voyage, the circumnavigation of the entire world just a skip across the millpond, what with pit stops in Cairo, New York and Geneva. No, we’re in for some uber-glamorous globe-trotting.
Alan, Tin-Tin, Lady Penelope and Parker are assigned by Jeff as goodwill ambassadors from the International Rescue team. Alas, Brains is denied the fruits of his labors, asked instead by Jeff to begin work on Thunderbird 6; a new rescue vehicle to add to their fleet. Brains shows Jeff a prototype for a rather conventional-looking fire rescue unit. Unimpressed, Jeff tells Brains he will have to rethink the concept from scratch.  In the meantime, Lady Penelope begins to suspect Skyship One’s captain, Foster (John Carson) and his stewards are not what they appear to be. Indeed, Foster and his cohorts have murdered the real captain and crew, dumping their bodies over the Atlantic Ocean; secretly bugging the entire ship with recording devices that continue to pick up Lady Penelope’s words; later remixed to formulate a distress message sent to Jeff. In fact, the message is a trap put forth by ‘the hood’ (Gary Files) who escaped harm from the first movie and now seeks bloody revenge on the entire Tracy clan.
Operating as the ‘Black Phantom’ from an abandoned airfield near Casablanca , the hood instructs his impostors to play it safe and indulge their guests with every onboard luxury and convenience. Alas, Lady Penelope has begun to harbor feelings for Foster; that is, until she discovers one of his recording devices concealed in her bedroom. Meanwhile, the hood sends his distress call, reconstituted from Lady Penelope’s sound bytes, to Jeff at International Rescue; the transmission instructing them to come to her aid at the abandoned airfield outside of Casablanca. The plan is to murder the Tracy’s upon their arrival, and steal their airships. Thankfully, Lady Penelope gets word to Jeff ahead of time that the recording he’s heard was not sent by her. Alan attempts to stop Foster and his henchmen in the bowels of the ship, their exchange of gunfire damaging its’ ability to sustain cabin pressurization, thus bringing it down. Meanwhile, Scott and Virgil keep their rendezvous with the hood, instead decimating and destroying his stronghold without much effort or incident.
Aboard Skyship One, Alan is forced to surrender when one of Foster’s operatives takes Tin-Tin hostage. Without sufficient pressurization, Skyship One becomes hooked on a radio tower at a missile base in Dover, England. With its anti-gravity field failing, the weight of the ship begins to pull the tower down. Scott, Virgil and Brains attempt to keep the airship balanced by tethering it to their own ships, at least long enough for Brains to pilot Alan’s old WWII Tiger Moth, landing atop Skyship One’s quaking hull. Foster attempts to hijack the biplane. But Alan once again saves the day by shooting his captor dead.
Now, everyone climbs aboard the rickety dowels and wings of the antiquated Tiger Moth, Alan instructing Penelope on how to steer it through a series of barrel rolls in and around the highway, everyone escaping the hellish fireball that consumes the missile base as Skyship One comes crashing to the ground. Narrowly avoiding their own crash landing, Alan and Penelope bring the Tiger Moth down in an open field, Parker caught by a low branch and left dangling from a nearby tree – bruised, but otherwise alive and unharmed. Later, at Tracy Island, Brains unveils his prototype for the new Thunderbird rescue craft; a rebuilt version of the Tiger Moth that amuses everyone.
Thunderbirds are Go and Thunderbird 6 are decidedly artifacts – nee relics – from another place and time; the mindset that conceived them almost irreconcilable with what passes for mainstream entertainment today.  Alas, apart from being the end of an era, Thunderbird 6 was also the end of the line for Gerry Anderson’s beloved creations. By the time of its premiere, the television series had already fallen off the radar of public consciousness. Thunderbird 6 was not a success, either in America or Britain; the public’s interest in ‘Supermarionation’ effectively retired for good. It took AP Films nearly four months to shoot the first movie; a little less than three to complete its sequel. Yet, in some ways, Thunderbird 6 is a more ambitious and visually impressive movie than its predecessor; Anderson and his crew improving on their designs; the puppetry more fluent, the sequel incorporating a good deal more live action footage to augment this story.
The convincingly executed Tiger Moth sequence that caps off Thunderbird 6 is almost entirely conceived in full scale, with pilot Joan Hughes flying perilously close to an incomplete stretch of steel and concrete girders from Britain’s M40 motorway, still under construction; full-sized dummies of the International Rescue cast strapped to the wings of her biplane.  Local police had forewarned Anderson and director David Lane, Hughes would not be allowed to ‘fly’ under the overpasses, but rather have to taxi through them. However, once airborne, Hughes informed Lane via radio communication of the impossibility in maintaining control of her plane if she were to touch down. At a moment’s notice, Lane approved the harrowing flyby instead and was then forced to go to court to defend his position in a lawsuit brought against the company. Thankfully, the presiding judge was an immense fan of the series, throwing the case out of court.  
Viewed today, Thunderbirds are Go and Thunderbird 6 were decidedly ahead of their time, Paddy Seale’s photographic work and Derek Meddings' SFX remaining unsurpassed and breaking new ground. An interesting postscript: their work captured the fascination of no less passionate and prolific a film-maker than Stanley Kubrick, who engaged Sylvia Anderson for a luncheon date to discuss the prospect of her husband’s firm doing some special effects work for him. Alas, Sylvia prematurely thwarted this deal by politely informing Kubrick over the telephone that AP Films were not in the business of doing effects for other directors; Kubrick promptly revoking his invitation to dine before hanging up the receiver.
In retrospect, both Thunderbirds are Go and Thunderbird 6 owe a great deal to the lavish absurdity of the decade that spawned them; John Lageu and Keith Wilson’s production design in the original, and Bob Bell’s art direction in the sequel, heavily cribbing from production designer Ken Adams’ superb full scale creations for the James Bond franchise. Yet, in this awkward amalgam of sci-fi ‘cartoonish’ fantasy, the seamless blend of miniatures, marionettes and full scale live action comes across as just spookily artificial; tricked out in a stunning array of ‘in the moment’ ultra-trendy costume designs (for which we mostly have Sylvia Anderson’s influence to thank).
Despite the admirably meticulous craftsmanship on display throughout both the original and its sequel, and Gerry Anderson’s ambitions for the series – to appeal to Americans (and thus corner the market share on family entertainment) it’s somewhat understandable neither Thunderbirds are Go nor Thunderbird 6 succeeded in finding their audience. Neither movie sustains our interests for the entirety of their runtime; the amusement factor only appealing as precursors to Claymation and Jim Henson’s Muppets alter-universe, but wearing decidedly thin.
In spots, both movies are clever, witty, and decidedly, expertly conceived. And yet, something seems remiss – I mean, apart from the fact these characters are made of plastic and resin. Perhaps, it’s that Anderson has taken the plots of his movies far too seriously. We’re meant to invest ourselves in Thunderbirds are Go and Thunderbird 6 as though each was a James Bond movie; to set aside the creepiness of these bobble-headed beings, with their darting eyes and perfectly timed lip sync; their super-sized noggins loosely rattling about as though to suffer from some form of Parkinson’s. Are these really our humanoid counterparts?
Alas, no.  As I prefaced in this review, observing Anderson’s puppetry for more than a few minutes at a time is very much like being trapped inside an audio-animatronic pavilion at any one of Disney’s many and varied theme parks. Observed from the relative safety of a traveling suspended car or boat traversing the calming waters inside ‘It’s a Small World’ the effect is uncanny but tolerable. Flatted out for an hour and a half on the expansive Techniscope/Technicolor movie screen it just becomes a little shy of unbearably weird.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray transfers on both movies, via Fox/MGM’s alliance, reveal an impressive image that will surely not disappoint. Both features exhibit extremely vibrant colors. We won’t bother to discuss…um…flesh tones…herein for obvious reasons. Suffice it to say, each movie looks fairly accurate in its hues; the tangerine and black board room, and Lady Penelope’s flamingo pink Rolls-Royce popping as they should. Occasionally, film grain gets just a tad heavy.  Again, we have to consider the extreme lighting conditions required to shoot some of these SFX shots – explosions exposed at 123 frames per second.  I believe I also detected some very minor artificial sharpening – negligible at best. Contrast is superb and black levels are very satisfying.  Also, age-related artifacts are practically nonexistent. In both cases, Fox/MGM must have sourced these transfers from very well preserved negatives or expertly restored digital elements. Either way - nicely done.
We’ll also tip our hats to Fox/MGM’s efforts on the soundtrack. We get our choice of the original mono in DTS or a brand new 5.1 DTS, the latter giving full range to Barry Gray’s adventuresome score on both movies. Dialogue sounds very crisp and explosions come across all five channels with predictably thunderous results. Finally, we give a hefty nod to Fox/MGM for their weighty cavalcade of extra features. Wow! Who would have thought there was this much to know about supermarionation?!? Twilight Time affords us two fabulous isolated score track – one for each movie. Thunderbirds are Go also has two distinct and exceptionally fine audio commentaries; one featuring historians Jeff Bond and TT’s own Nick Redman; the other with director, David Lane and Sylvia Anderson. Lane and Anderson also provide insight on an isolated commentary track for Thunderbird 6.
Featurettes are too numerous to discuss at any length herein, but suffice it to say you will be given a crash course in AP Films, supermarionation, the making of both movies, some fascinating back stories and a wealth of history on Gerry Anderson’s enduring creations.  In most cases, these featurettes are holdovers from MGM’s previously released DVDs, although ‘Excitement is Go! – The Making of Thunderbirds’ seems to have been newly produced exclusively for this Blu-ray release.  Bottom line: if you’re a fan of these movies then this Blu-ray double feature from Twilight Time comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Both films: 3
Both films: 4

No comments: