Thunderbirds feels like the kind of project whose genesis can be traced back to some research-group employee noting that a surprisingly large percentage of those polled remembered the '60s television show Thunderbirds, and would be open to seeing a movie based on it. It's unknown whether these hypothetical poll results also indicated that people loved Thunderbirds but despised the marionettes that served as its chief selling point and most novel aspect. But, God help us, Thunderbirds has now been turned into a live-action film, which makes about as much sense as a live-action Scooby-Doo or an adaptation of Garfield in which a CGI protagonist interacts creepily with real animals. Then again, both of those films made enough money to prove—yet again—that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. It's doubtful, however, that the dreary, joyless Thunderbirds will follow in those films' lucrative footsteps.
Reconfigured to fit the lazily ubiquitous Spy Kids mold, Thunderbirds casts a wooden, sleepwalking Bill Paxton as the wealthy patriarch of the Thunderbirds, a family of adventurers who travel around the world in futuristic vehicles, rescuing people. The Thunderbirds have the disturbingly wholesome, apple-cheeked, all-American looks and synthetic peppiness of Mormon missionaries, as well as the personality, depth, and individuality of Star Wars stormtroopers. Then again, the Thunderbirds barely figure in much of the film, which dwells on the clan's youngest member (Brady Corbet), an aspiring Thunderbird whose strict father won't let him join the family business until he grows up.
Corbet gets a chance to prove himself when the rest of the family is stranded in space by telekinetic evil genius Ben Kingsley—no doubt drawing heavily on lessons learned during Gandhi—and Corbet and his pint-sized companions are called upon to save the day. Michael McCullers, who worked on Saturday Night Live, the Austin Powers sequels, and Undercover Brother, had a hand in Thunderbirds' script, but the film inexplicably plays things straight. It stingily doles out action sequences, largely neglecting the cool super-vehicles at the heart of the franchise's appeal, while sometimes resorting to wacky sound effects, that last refuge of the cinematically inept. Large, elaborate sets were built for the film, but Star Trek: The Next Generation fixture Jonathan Frakes obscures them with dim lighting, almost as if he's ashamed of what's onscreen. Frakes is no stranger to pop-culture phenomena that lurch on indefinitely, but Thunderbirds is a would-be franchise that deserves to be snuffed out in its infancy.