The Process of Play: THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO and THUNDERBIRD 6

By Drew Morton

It is the summer of 1996.  I’m twelve years old and I’m standing in our driveway with my brother, my cousins, and a boxy VHS camcorder mounted on a tripod.  We’ve just seen Independence Day and the four of us have decided to make a sci-fi movie– or just a thinly veiled ripoff.  We’ve built a skyscraper out of a Girder and Panel set and we have lined it with a handful of Sparkler fireworks. We’ve suspended a Star Wars Star Destroyer over the building with some fishing line and rigged a toy truck to explode with a model rocket engine.  Our parents are, for the time being, nowhere to be found.

The camera starts rolling. My brother lights the fireworks.  We all start “acting” terrified off-camera as the truck explodes.  That’s when the Girder and Panel set actually catches fire and our faux terror turns to exclamations of profanity.  The last frame the videocamera catches is my brother’s foot stomping on the building, like a pubescent Godzilla.  Dad hears us, bolts out of the house, and chastises us for destroying our Christmas toys.

I start with this onanistic trip down memory lane because that is exactly what Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray double feature of Thunderbirds are Go (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1968) is.  If the sound of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s team of marionettes in giant airships elicits giddy cries from the 10-year-old inside your baby boomer heart, you’re in for a tremendous treat.  If you’ve just spent five minutes of  reading this and realize you have no idea what Thunderbirds is, you’re probably going to be bored out of your mind.

Quite simply, the Thunderbirds films aren’t films at all.  They are the cinematic representation of what you would get if you stretched out my Independence Day homage to 90 minutes; it is a home movie of a child playing with his or her action figures and play set.  Or, perhaps more so, the fantasy of a child playing with his or her action figures and play set.  Thunderbirds are Go (1966), the first cinematic offering in the Thunderbirds franchise (for those unfamiliar, it was first a British television show), begins with almost 30 minutes dedicated to the construction of a rocket ship, the launch of that rocket ship, the sabotage of that rocket ship, and the crashing of that rocket ship. While this may sound visceral and thrilling, director David Lane nearly matches Jean-Pierre Melville’s belief that cinematic time should mirror the temporality of reality.  Essentially, to borrow from Colin McArthur, Thunderbirds is very much a “cinema of process” in which temporality is less defined by the representation of important events that defines classical film editing and more defined by observation and temps mort.

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What this approach to cinematic time does is render Anderson and Lane’s Supermariovision world into a tactile play set or model.  We are given repeated occasions to allow our eyes to wash themselves in the rising tide of all the physical details this puppet world (the tiny switches and buttons on the control panels, the intricate structures of the various cars, ships, and planes) before the vehicles inevitably explode before our eyes.  On a certain level, I think the world building of Thunderbirds has strongly influenced the work of Wes Anderson (and is apparent in The Fantastic Mr. Fox).  Sadly, that’s all these films really have on their mind.  The characters are as wooden as the material they are constructed out of.  However, they do make great “wallpaper” cinema: films to turn on in the background during a cocktail party to entertain your guests (especially fun when Thunderbirds are Go casts aside narrative and indulges in a prolonged dream sequence at a night club in space – call it a camp precursor to the Stargate sequence in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey).

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Twilight Time pulls out all the stops on this Blu-Ray release by giving the films a stunning HD treatment (DTS 5.1 and original mono mixes are included) and duplicating all the extras from the MGM DVDs.  Specifically, we get a 20 minute documentary on the franchise in which the creative team attempts to ponder the reasons why the films were not terribly successful.  Rather than looking at the films from an objective point of view, they largely settle on things like, “The audience thought they were paying to see TV in the theater!” and “The marketing team blew it!”  Also included are three commentary tracks– two with director David Lane and Sylvia Anderson– and one with fans Nick Redman (who has appeared on the commentaries for many post-classical Westerns like the works of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah) and Jeff Bond.  These are all informative, but will not make a convert out of a non-fan.   There is also a range of short featurettes on everything from a focus on the marionette technology to a short anecdote about Stanley Kubrick.

In the end, fans of Thunderbirds will love this release and the top-shelf treatment that Twilight Time has given it.  Everyone else will feel like they’re watching their kid destroy an expensive toy set for 90 minutes.

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About Drew Morton 39 Articles

Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication. While his students call him “Doctor” or “Dr. Drew,” he is unable to help people suffering from medical ailments (he can only prescribe films) or from sexual dysfunction (although he can be quick with a double entendre). His film criticism has appeared in Cultural Transmogrifier, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Pajiba.

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