International Rescue are heroes to planet Earth, always intervening in major acccidents to save the unfortunate in their state-of-the-art vehicles, known as Thunderbirds. Very few are aware of the identities of the men behind the rescuers, but they are in fact the Tracy family headed by billionaire ex-astronaut Jeff (Bill Paxton). His sons pilot the vehicles and save lives, yet Alan (Brady Corbet), the youngest, is frustrated that he has to stay in school while his family go off on adventures that he is reduced to watching on the television news. However, the machinations of The Hood (Ben Kingsley) will change all that...
The live action version of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's classic puppet series of the sixties was much anticipated, in Britain anyway, until people actually saw it and it turned into one of the most notable flops of 2004. Had the filmmakers misjudged their audience so badly? This Thunderbirds acts as a kind of prequel to introduce Alan into the team and was pitched at a much younger audience than even the original had been, with the kids as the heroes saving the adults. And even then, the expected rescue action was reduced to a brief sequence at the beginning and the finale.
Most of the action took place on Tracy Island, the South Pacific paradise that was the family's home which The Hood infiltrates. He manages to trap Jeff and all his sons on the space station Thunderbird 5 - all his sons except Alan, that is, who along with fellow youngsters Fermat (Soren Fulton) and Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) are our best hope for foiling The Hood's schemes to frame the Thunderbirds for a daring series of bank robberies. Not only that, but he wants to use the actual Thunderbird vehicles so there will be no question in the public's mind as to the supposed culprits' identities.
Anthony Edwards is Brains, egghead father of Fermat, but ineffectual and even performing puppet moves under the villain's mind control as an in-joke as awkward as the rest of the story. Yet the real heroine is Lady Penelope, with Sophia Myles stealing the show as the special agent kitted out in pink and accompanied by her chauffeur and right hand man Parker (Ron Cook). Whenever these two are onscreen, there's a sense of what might have been if the producers had had more faith in the format as it was, and not as an updated version that never makes up its mind as to whether it's a tribute or a "re-imagining".
Fortunately the special effects do the vehicles justice, but make the production even more like an advertisement for a toy range than the sixties programme ever did. Most of the characters in that had American accents, but Thunderbirds was proudly British, here the project doesn't appear sure of where it's targetted or where it's coming from. This time the Tracy Brothers, Alan apart, are totally interchangeable registering no personalities whatsoever, and Paxton's Jeff is a paternal cliché, scolding Alan and then accepting him by the end in an achingly predictable narrative. You could excuse this by saying it was simply for the kiddies, but so was the original and that has appeal that has lasted generations. A Lady Penelope spin-off might have been fun, though. Music by Hans Zimmer (the classic theme creator Barry Gray barely merits a mention here).