Thunderbirds (2004 film)

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Thunderbirds movie poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Jonathan Frakes
Produced by Tim Bevan
Eric Fellner
Mark Huffam
Screenplay byWilliam Osborne
Michael McCullers
Story by Peter Hewitt
William Osborne
Based on Thunderbirds
by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (uncredited)
Starring Bill Paxton
Anthony Edwards
Sophia Myles
Ben Kingsley
Music by Ramin Djawadi
Hans Zimmer
CinematographyBrendan Galvin
Edited by Martin Walsh
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date
  • 20 July 2004 (2004-07-20)(United Kingdom)
  • 30 July 2004 (2004-07-30)(United States)
Running time
95 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
United States
Budget$57 million
Box office$28.3 million

Thunderbirds is a 2004 British-American science fiction action-adventure film [3] directed by Jonathan Frakes, based on the 1960s TV series Thunderbirds created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. The film, written by William Osborne and Michael McCullers, was released on 20 July 2004 in the United Kingdom and 30 July 2004 in the United States.


The film's plot concerns the Hood, who traps International Rescue (IR) leader Jeff Tracy and four of his sons on board the damaged Thunderbird 5 to steal the other Thunderbirds vehicles and commit heists that IR will be blamed for, prompting Jeff's youngest son Alan and his friends Tin-Tin and Fermat to stop him. In contrast with the original TV series, which used a form of puppetry dubbed "Supermarionation", the film's characters are portrayed by live-action actors.

The film received negative reviews by critics and fans of the series, who disparaged its lack of fidelity to its source material, and became a box office bomb. Gerry Anderson was also negative of the film, describing it as "the biggest load of crap I have ever seen in my entire life", [4] although Sylvia Anderson praised it as a "great tribute" to the series. [5] The film's soundtrack includes the song "Thunderbirds Are Go" by pop rock band Busted, which peaked at number one in the UK charts and later won the 2004 UK Record of the Year award.


The Tracy family, led by former astronaut Jeff Tracy, operate International Rescue (IR), a secret organization that aids those in need during disasters using the technologically advanced machines called Thunderbirds, operating out of Tracy Island in the South Pacific. The youngest son Alan lives at a boarding school in Massachusetts and dreams of being a Thunderbird pilot. He and his friend Fermat Hackenbacker, son of the Thunderbirds’ engineer Brains, are extracted by Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, an IR agent, and her butler Aloysius Parker, using her limo FAB 1, as the Thunderbirds return from an oil rig fire off the Russian coast. Unbeknownst to them, a tracking beacon used by the Hood, a psychic criminal mastermind who has a vendetta against Jeff for not saving him in a collapsing diamond mine when his brother Kyrano was rescued, has been planted on the hull of Thunderbird 1 .

The Hood's submarine locates Tracy Island and fires a missile at the orbiting Thunderbird 5 , sending the Tracys in Thunderbird 3 to rescue John Tracy. The Hood and his minions Mullion and Transom take over the island's command centre, imprisoning the Tracys in Thunderbird 5 as their oxygen runs out. The Hood reveals that he plans to use the Thunderbirds to rob the major banks of the world, which would plunge the world's monetary system into chaos and the IR organization will be blamed and disgraced for it. Alan, Fermat and their friend Tin-Tin, Kyrano's daughter, use a ventilation shaft to reach the Thunderbird silos. Fermat removes Thunderbird 2 's guidance chip, delaying their plan, and the teenagers flee into the island's jungle.

While traversing the jungle to find the island's remote transmitter, Tin-Tin displays psychic powers like her uncle. Alan insists on confronting the villains, but Jeff tells them to wait for Lady Penelope's arrival. The trio flee from Mullion, but Fermat and Tin-Tin are captured when Alan tries to tow them to safety on hovercraft. Lady Penelope and Parker arrive, engaging the Hood's minions in combat, but the Hood defeats them with his powers. Alan appears but the Hood forces him to hand over the guidance chip and locks him and the others in the compound's walk-in freezer. The Hood, Mullion, and Transom pilot Thunderbird 2 to London and use the Mole to sink a monorail line into the Thames and drill into the Bank of England’s vaults. Alan and co. escape confinement and contact the Tracys who regain control of Thunderbird 5. While the adults head off to stop the Hood, the teenagers, Lady Penelope, and Parker fly to London in Thunderbird 1.

Arriving in London, Alan and Tin-Tin rescue a submerged monorail car using the aquatic Thunderbird 4 before going after the Hood. Together, Fermat, Tin-Tin and Parker manage to defeat the Hood's henchmen. The Hood locks Jeff and Lady Penelope in a vault and challenges Alan to defeat him. Alan dangles from a catwalk over the Mole, but Tin-Tin appears, using her own powers to turn the tables on the Hood. The Hood taunts Alan to let him die like his father did, but Alan, knowing that his father had in fact tried but failed to save the Hood, rescues him because "that's what (they) do". The Hood and his minions are arrested and the Tracys return to their island. Alan, Fermat and Tin-Tin are inducted as official members of IR, and depart for their first mission.



Thunderbirds was the third theatrical release based upon the series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. It was preceded by Thunderbirds Are Go in 1966 and Thunderbird 6 in 1968, both films using the Supermarionation production techniques of the series.

Production of the film started in the mid 1990s when Polygram purchased the rights to the entire ITC Entertainment library, which included the original Thunderbirds series. Seeing the big-screen potential of the series, Peter Hewitt was signed on to direct, while Karey Kirkpatrick was signed on to write. While Hewitt was a lifelong fan of the series, Kirkpatrick was not, but watched all 32 episodes of the original series to immerse himself within the lore of the series. [6] Hewitt and Kirkpatrick wrote a draft of the screenplay which was faithful to the series, but which they hoped would not alienate audiences who were unfamiliar with the franchise. Their script featured The Hood trying to steal Tracy Island's power core to power a device controlled by arch villain Thaddeus Stone, which would transfer all of Earth's gravity to the moon. After four drafts, Kirkpatrick left the project due to Working Title's concerns that the film would not play well in the US market. (Working Title was the unit of Polygram, and later Universal when that company bought out Polygram's assets, that produced films in Britain.) Hewitt left the production shortly afterwards due to his dislike for the new direction the film was taking. [6]

Filming began in March 2003 in the Seychelles, before moving to Pinewood Studios and on-location shooting in London.

Thunderbirds is dedicated to the memory of Stephen Lowen, a rigger on the film, who died in a fall whilst dismantling one of the sets. [7]


Thunderbirds was theatrically released on 24 July 2004 in the United Kingdom and 30 July 2004 in the United States by Universal Studios and was released on VHS & DVD on December 21, 2004 by Universal Studios Home Entertainment.


The FAB 1 car designed by Ford of Europe for the film. FAB 1 Thunderbirds car 2004.jpg
The FAB 1 car designed by Ford of Europe for the film.

Box office

Thunderbirds grossed $28,283,637, and with an estimated $57 million budget, the film was a box office bomb.

Critical response

The film received negative reviews from both critics and the fanbase. Those familiar with the series tended to be more negative, accusing the filmmakers of abandoning the concepts of the original series in favour of a Spy Kids approach, with many reviewers dubbing it "Thunderbirds Are No-Go!" [8] (a riff on the catchphrase from the original series, "Thunderbirds are go!"). The addition of Brains' son, Fermat, also irritated many fans as he receives more screen time than Brains. Empire gave the film two out of five stars. [9] Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 19% "rotten" rating and a consensus calling the film a "Live-action cartoon for kids." [10] Yahoo! Movies and Entertainment Weekly gave the film a C+ rating. Metacritic gave the film 36 of 100, indicating "generally unfavourable reviews".

One of the few aspects of the film to receive positive acclaim (other than the special effects) was Sophia Myles' performance as superspy Lady Penelope, a portrayal in a style identical to that of her television counterpart. Another positive view was Ron Cook as Lady Penelope's butler and chauffeur Parker. The Thunderbirds craft, as well as Tracy Island, were also seen to be very close to the style of the original designs. Purists disliked the fact that FAB-1, Lady Penelope's car, was a Ford rather than a Rolls-Royce. However, this was because the producers could not reach a suitable agreement with BMW in the authorised use of the Rolls-Royce marque; the car manufacturer insisted that only an actual production model could be used. Ford stepped in with a special version of their Thunderbird model, duplicating the six-wheel system on the Supermarionation Rolls. FAB-1 steers with the four front tyres.

The Ford Motor Company supplied a number of vehicles to the production, including an advanced off-road vehicle which prominently sported the Ford logo, a Ford Windstar, a Ford Ka and Ford Thunderbird which are owned by Lady Penelope, as well as many Ford C-MAX and Ford F-150s in various locations, leading to jeers over the too-obvious level of product placement by the car manufacturers - a sentiment actually shared by director Frakes, as revealed in the DVD audio commentary.

During development, creator Gerry Anderson was invited to act as creative consultant, but was left out when the studio felt there were enough employees on the payroll acting as part of the creative team. The studio offered him $750,000 (£432,000) to attend the premiere but Anderson could not accept money from people he had not worked for. He eventually saw the film on DVD and was disappointed, declaring "It was disgraceful that such a huge amount of money was spent with people who had no idea what Thunderbirds was about and what made it tick." [11] He also said that it was "the biggest load of crap I have ever seen in my entire life." [4]

Co-creator Sylvia Anderson, and the one responsible for character development, was given a private screening of the film and attended the London premiere. She expressed a far different opinion to that of her former husband, stating "I felt that I'd been on a wonderful Thunderbirds adventure. You, the fans, will I'm sure, appreciate the sensitive adaptation and I'm personally thrilled that the production team have paid us the great compliment of bringing to life our original concept for the big screen. If we had made it ourselves (and we have had over 30 years to do it!) we could not have improved on this new version. It is a great tribute to the original creative team who inspired the movie all those years ago. It was a personal thrill for me to see my characters come to life on the big screen." [5]

Timed to coincide with the theatrical release of Thunderbirds, the two prior films were released on DVD. The DVD versions of all three films include a number of extra features, including historical and production information.

Differences from the original

There are notable changes from the original series. The most obvious difference is the updated effects and new designs of the Thunderbird craft. The majority were given a sleeker and modern look; however, they were still based on their original designs, with Thunderbirds 4 and 5 deviating the most from their original look. The layout of Tracy Island, as well as the inside of the house, had also been overhauled. The way in which the Tracy Brothers make their descent to the hangars changed, with them now all standing in front of their pictures on the wall, instead of there being a specific place for them to stand in the lounge to get to a specific craft. Additionally the couch loading mechanism is now used in Thunderbird 2 as well, rather than just being for Thunderbird 3, but uses a robotic arm instead of the system of rails. Lady Penelope's FAB 1 vehicle was changed to being a Ford Thunderbird instead of a Rolls-Royce and can now seat only two people as well as being able to turn into a jet plane. Thunderbird 3 was also shown to dock with Thunderbird 5 differently; in the film it docks side on instead of the rocket head going into the space station.

The organisation is also referred to more commonly as "Thunderbirds" rather than "International Rescue"; although on their induction at the end of the film Alan, Tin-Tin, and Fermat receive badges that are designed with the "IR" logo on them as per the original TV series, indicating that the team are still officially called this (it even says in the trailer and in the introduction to the film that the organization is called International Rescue and that Thunderbirds is a nickname that derives from the names of their machines). As if to reinforce this point, it worth noting that this version of Thunderbird 2, unlike the original, has the words "International Rescue" across its body, under the cockpit section. Nonetheless, in the films it seems that use of the informal organisational name "Thunderbirds" has become the norm, and has been adopted by the family members themselves for everyday use.

In the film the dramatic emphasis was changed dramatically from the television series in that the younger characters Tin-Tin, Alan Tracy, and Fermat Hackenbacker (Brains's son) have the most prominent roles. In the original, however, Alan Tracy does sometimes have a larger role than the others and certainly a more emotional storyline (especially in the Thunderbirds Are Go! movie), [e 1] but he has never been the main character. In the original series, Alan and Tin-Tin were much closer to the age of the rest of the Tracy brothers; with Alan being captain of Thunderbird 3 which can be seen from the opening title sequence of the very first episode. [e 2] Fermat Hackenbacker was seen only in the film, because there is no mention of Brains ever being married, least of all having had a son. In the original series, Brains' name was never officially revealed, with "Hiram Hackenbacker" merely an alias (as seen in the episode "Alias Mr. Hackenbacker"); [e 3] in the film it appears to be his actual name. However, since no mention of this is made by other characters, it is possible also that Brains used 'Hiram Hackenbacker' as an alias when he and Transom first met, so she would perhaps have assumed it was his real name. Also Jeff Tracy never flew any of the Thunderbirds craft, and there has never been an instance where he went off to the danger zone (with the exception of the episode "Brink of Disaster", [e 4] as he was caught in the accident).

Like Fermat, the character of Onaha is not from the original TV series, where Kyrano was a single parent and presumably, like Jeff Tracy, a widower. In addition, the TV series has "Kyrano" as the family name, with Kyrano's first name never being revealed. Jeff's mother (known simply as Grandma in the TV series) does not feature or get mentioned during the film. Tin-Tin and Kyrano change nationality in the film as well; they had been Malaysian throughout the TV series but were depicted as being from India in the film.

Other changes are more canonical. The feature film is set in 2010 (taken from publicity material) while the original is set in 2065 (i.e. the date now accepted by many fans in Thunderbirds canon as the year of International Rescue's first mission, although it says on the back of the DVD that the film is set in 2065). [12] In the feature film, the Hood said that he was left for dead in one of International Rescue's earlier missions, but in "Trapped in the Sky"—which was stated as International Rescue's first mission—he was already trying to get their technology, of whose existence he knew via Kyrano. [e 2]

A huge difference in the film is the International Rescue uniforms. The film had dropped the original and recognisable concept of the blue uniform with coloured sashes and hat. (The original hat does make a brief cameo in the film however; an ice cream seller, portrayed by the film's visual effects director Mark Nelmes, is seen wearing one during the sequence where Thunderbird 2 lands in London.) In the film, they wear grey modern astronaut uniforms with coloured piping - the colour depends on which Thunderbird machine they handle. They have no similarities to the original design. Lady Penelope also wears an International Rescue uniform in the film, which she never wore in the series.

Another notable difference between the 2004 film and the original TV series is that International Rescue now allows itself to be filmed and photographed on missions. One of the recurring "rules" in the original TV series was that under no circumstances was anything related to International Rescue—be it the pilots or the craft themselves—permitted to be photographed. For example, in the episode "Terror in New York City", Scott Tracy electromagnetically wipes a recording of Thunderbird 1 when news crew starts filming. [e 5]

A further difference is that the Hood is actually referred to by name in the film (unlike the TV series), although his name did appear in spin-off media such as comics. The use of his powers seem to make him weaker when he uses them, and his eyes are red; whereas in the original series they were always a bright yellow. In contrast to the TV series, Tin-Tin actually shares the same powers as her uncle, the Hood, as seen in the film's finale.

In the TV series, Gordon Tracy was the aquanaut and pilot of Thunderbird 4, while Alan was the astronaut and pilot of Thunderbird 3, with John Tracy subbing on occasion. In the film, the roles are reversed. However, as Alan uses Thunderbird 4 only during the climax when Gordon is unavailable, it may be that Gordon is trained to pilot both craft in the film's continuity, since they are unlikely to be required for the same mission.

The smoking content featured in the original series has been dramatically reduced; no character is seen with cigar or cigarette in hand. In the original series, Lady Penelope was often seen with her cigarette holder, and Jeff Tracy smoked a cigar after the completion of a successful mission. It is likely that this change was made in order to avoid criticism of promoting smoking towards children.

Unlike the TV series, the island is actually referred to as Tracy Island in the dialogue, whereas the TV version was called Tracy Island only on Thunderbirds merchandise. Also, in the film, when John calls the island just seconds before Thunderbird 5 is struck by a missile, he calls out "Thunderbird 5 to Tracy Island". In the series, the Tracy boys would normally radio "Base from Thunderbird 1, 2, 5" etc. to the island.


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Further reading