Hello again, everyone, and brace yourselves for more spurious linkage as we take a look at two
summer blockbusters revolving around characters traditionally found in a state of danglement of
some kind or another.
Whether you consider Gerry Anderson to be a scandalously-overlooked national treasure, a
'vicious enemy of proper science fiction who should be burnt in effigy by fans of the
genre'1, or just a grumpy old sod, you can't deny the place in public
affections his puppet SF shows have held in the four decades since their original broadcast. Yet
another revival looms, but this time taking the form of more than just another re-run: Anderson
himself is working on a CGI remake of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, while zooming soon
into a cinema near you is, finally, a live-action Thunderbirds movie, directed by Jonathan
Frakes (probably best known as the beardy bloke from Star Trek: The Next
Scandalously, Anderson's name doesn't appear once during the stylishly animated credits of the
new movie, for all that it's superficially very faithful to the original show. The premise is the same:
in the near future, billionaire ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton) has set up a secret organisation
named International Rescue, based on his private Pacific island. Most of the time he and his sons live
the life of Reilly, but when peril threatens they hop into the high-powered Thunderbird machines
designed by their scientist Brains (Anthony Edwards, who apparently used to be in Holby
City, or something) and go off to save the day.
However the youngest Tracy brother, Alan (Brady Corbet), is not allowed to go off on missions,
basically because he's about thirteen. So he spends all his time moping about with his friend Fermat
Hackenbacker (Soren Fulton) - yup, he's Brains' son, although the identity of Mrs Brains is not
elaborated upon. But all this moping must stop when psychic supercriminal the Hood (Ben Kingsley)
invades Tracy Island, traps Jeff and the other boys in a crippled Thunderbird 5, and plans to go
ram-raiding in Thunderbird 2. It's up to Alan, Fermat, and Tin-Tin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) - also
about thirteen in this version - to save the day, but not without the help of posh totty secret agent
Lady Penelope and her chauffeur Parker (Sophia Myles and Ron Cook).
Now Thunderbirds is a movie that's had quite toxic pre-release word-of-mouth, and I can
sort of understand why. This is a movie based on a TV show which nearly every male in the UK under
the age of fifty has enormously fond memories of, and the decision to radically re-imagine it along
the lines of a Spy Kids movie was always going to be controversial. Personally, I've been
waiting for this film for over twenty years, and ironically it seems to be aimed at an audience over
twenty years younger than me. Do I have the right to feel aggrieved? Hmmm, well, I don't know: but
the fact is that, as kid's movies go, this doesn't seem too bad at all.
Because this is a kid's film, not family entertainment. Fanderson purists will be appalled at
the slapstick comedy (villains getting gunged a la Noel's House Party, cartoony 'BONG!' and
'KA-DUNG!' sound effects punctuating the fight scenes), the juvenile leads, and the frankly crass
and unpleasant barrage of gags about anyone with bad teeth, poor eyesight or a speech impediment.
Frakes' direction, while occasionally inventive, mostly has a lot in common with his acting. And anyone
who liked the show will be dismayed about how nondescript and interchangeable the Tracy brothers
are: Scott and Virgil (the main characters first time around) get virtually nothing to do, and I
couldn't tell which was which anyway.
Along similar lines, but slightly more serious, is the way the film discards the main reason
everyone watched the Anderson shows in the first place: to see lovingly detailed and intricate model
vehicles hovering in front of a lovingly detailed and intricate model backdrop, which then explodes.
There's a tiny bit of this sort of thing right at the start, but the next hour of the movie is basically
a runaround on Tracy Island. There isn't much Thunderbird action until quite near the end, and even
then the actual rescuing seems a bit shoehorned in.
But having said that, the special effects are excellent, striking just the right balance between old
and new. The Thunderbird designs are mostly quite faithful, and even where they're not this is
usually an improvement (Thunderbird 4 no longer resembles Del Boy's van quite so much). I've
always thought that the Anderson shows were built around a weird combination of peerless model and
effects work, and absurd scripts and terrible acting, and so you could argue that the movie is in its
own way quite faithful to this formula.
Having said that, I should mention that Ben Kingsley gives a rather splendid performance as the
Hood, doing his considerable best with the part and lending the movie a genuine touch of class. Of
the rest of the cast, Paxton, who's normally a reliable and charismatic performer, just doesn't get
the material he needs to make a real impression. Anthony Edwards seems to spend the entire film
wondering what the hell he's signed up to. Sophia Myles and Ron Cook bring just about the right note
of camp unflappability to Lady Penelope and Parker, no doubt due to a much-publicised script-polish
by Richard Curtis ('Put me down! This outfit is couture!' snaps Lady P as an evil henchman carries
I'm a notoriously poor judge of this sort of thing, but I think Thunderbirds should do
quite well with the tweeny audience it's obviously aimed at. And there's just about enough there to
satisfy the legions of fans who should be old enough to know better by now. It's not F.A.B., but
neither is it a total disaster.
Does Whatever A Spider Can
Oh well, onto a movie I can confidently describe as a success in all departments: Sam Raimi's
Spider-Man 2, currently mounting a serious challenge for the title of all-time box office
champion. Readers with long memories and short attention spans may recall I was rather impressed
with the original when it came out just over two years ago - something not diminished in the slightest
by this second instalment.
Two years on from the events of the first movie - which are helpfully recapped in another stylish
title sequence - things have changed a bit for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and his amazing friends.
The lad himself is juggling responsibilities as Spider-Man and Pizza-Delivery Boy and not making a
very good job of it, his love interest Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is mixing occasional interludes of
dangling-in-jeopardy with a successful acting career, and his best friend Harry (James Franco) is
now a suit at his dad's old corporation, and obsessing over Spider-Man (who he believes killed his
father). Basically, being a super-hero is making Peter incredibly miserable as his work and
relationships are constantly suffering. Does he really still want the gig?
Things don't get any better when a freak accident with an experimental fusion generator - er -
fuses brilliant scientist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina on fine form) with four malevolent cybernetic
tentacles. Restyling himself Doctor Octopus, he sets out to recreate the experiment, no matter what
the risks to the city. But he needs Harry's co-operation to do this, and Harry's price is the head of
After a couple of Affleck- and Bana-shaped wobbles last year, Spider-Man 2 should put
Marvel Comics' film division back on course for world domination. This is thanks to a production in
which performances, script, and direction all come together to produce a film which is thrilling,
moving, and funny in all the right places. The style of the original film is continued seamlessly, with
several gags and motifs re-used (Bruce Campbell pops up again in another wittily-performed
Where it surpasses its predecessor is in its freedom to just pick one story and follow it through,
rather than combining the Spidey origin with various Goblin-related clashes. And it's a very human
and personal story, very much focussed on the troubled personal life and guilty conscience of Peter
Parker. While people are probably going to go to the cinema to see Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus
duking it out on the sides of buildings - and the battles themselves are terrific, the villain
impressively realised - this isn't really at the heart of the story. Given this it's a shame the climax
boils down to a rather generic special effects set-piece that only loosely ties in to the themes of the
script. (And if anyone knows how Spider-Man finds out where Doctor Octopus' lair is, I'd love to
hear from them.)
But never mind. The performances of the cast are every bit as memorable as the special effects.
Normally in a superhero movie you're glancing at your watch when the lead character's in
secret-identity mode, but Maguire manages to be utterly engaging as Peter Parker (and seems to be
quite a good sport about the achey breaky back problems which nearly cost him the role). Dunst is
fairly touching, even if Franco seems ever so slightly over-wrought in a slightly one-note part.
All this just adds into the overwhelming impression of supreme confidence this movie gives off:
it's not afraid to go from quite sombre personal moments to offbeat visual humour, to include wild
directorial flourishes, or even to run the risk of seeming camp and goofy. It's also not afraid to
shake things up and plan for the future: the relationships and situations of the main characters at
the end are very different from how they stand at the beginning, and while it's fairly obvious who
one of the villains of Spider-Man 3 will be, the script also plants seeds for at least two
others somewhere down the line.
It shouldn't really come as much of a surprise if I tell you that Spider-Man 2 is going to
be the biggest film of the summer. But it may if I add that the success is thoroughly warranted by a
film which mixes thrills, jokes, maturity and heartache to absolutely winning effect. Highly