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Posts Tagged ‘Bill Paxton’

(Yes, I know, I know: you wait years and years for reviews of NASA-themed films and then three come along in a row. Ridiculous, isn’t it?)

Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13 is not the usual stuff of the Sunday afternoon revivals which I am so often to be found enjoying at the Phoenix in Jericho. The Vintage Sundays strand normally limits itself to either classic or cult movies, with recent seasons focusing on films by Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Studio Ghibli. All solid stuff and more-or-less guaranteed to attract a crowd. They’ve chosen to follow this up, however, with a season of ‘Space’ films, possibly to connect with the release of First Man – and so the revival schedule has been filled with a fairly eclectic mix of titles including The Right Stuff, Moon, Alien, and the original Solaris, concluding with the year’s second showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Apollo 13 fits in rather nicely with the rest of that bunch, despite the fact it is rather more mainstream and modern than the typical Sunday classic. That said, it is one of those movies which is perhaps older than you think – 23 years, at the time of writing – and one which perhaps did not get quite the critical plaudits it deserved.

The film opens with a swift recap of the main beats of the Apollo programme prior to the Apollo 13 mission: specifically, what later became known as the Apollo 1 fire, in which three astronauts were killed, and the triumph of the successful Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. As the story gets going, Pete Conrad’s Apollo 12 has successfully completed its mission, and the onus is now on Apollo 13, to be commanded by Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks). Lovell and his team have been bumped up the schedule by an unforeseen medical problem, and he and fellow astronauts Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingley (Gary Sinise) are working against the clock to be ready.

Lovell is determined that the mission will go ahead, despite some inauspicious omens – the thirteenth Apollo, due to launch at thirteen minutes past the thirteenth hour, and enter lunar orbit on the thirteenth day of the month. But the bad luck just keeps coming – Mattingley is exposed to measles only days before the mission is due to launch, and Lovell is forced to replace him with the back-up pilot, Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon).

Apollo 13 launches as planned, although there is a technical issue with one of the booster engines. ‘Looks like we’ve had our glitch for this mission,’ says someone in Ground Control. To say they are mistaken is an understatement: a routine procedure to stir the contents of one of the Command Module’s fuel tanks results in a significant explosion and the loss of electrical power in the spacecraft.

The mission almost immediately becomes one not of landing on the Moon, but somehow managing to get the astronauts back to Earth alive. Efforts on the ground are overseen by no-nonsense flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), who is insistent that failure is not an option. But the list of challenges faced by NASA is immense…

(I would do the usual ‘Spoiler Alert: they get home safely’ gag here, but for one thing I used it with First Man just the other day, and for another Ron Howard recalls one member of a test audience being very unimpressed with the movie, complaining about the predictable Hollywood ending and saying it was unrealistic that the crew survived.)

I suppose you could look at the relative failure of Apollo 13 at the Oscars and argue that it’s just more evidence that the Academy simply doesn’t like space films (I wouldn’t really call Apollo 13 science fiction, despite the fact it was treated as such by some elements of the media at the time). The 1996 Oscars were a good year for costume dramas and gritty realism – Braveheart and Leaving Las Vegas were two of the higher-profile winners – and I suppose there was also the issue that Tom Hanks had won Best Actor twice on the trot just recently, and nobody could face the prospect of another of his rather idiosyncratic acceptance speeches.

Yet this is a notably good film, an example of the Hollywood machine working at its best. This is a film which is polished without being too glib or slick, and one which knows how to tell a story without becoming melodramatic. (I believe numerous small changes were made to the real course of events, but nothing too outrageous.)

Walking to the bus after watching the revival of Apollo 13, I asked the intern who had accompanied me why they thought it only took 25 years for a movie about the mission to be made, while Apollo 11 ended up waiting nearly half a century. They admitted it was a good question (well, naturally), and after some thought suggested it’s just a more interesting story.

Well, I would agree with that, of course. ‘The mission goes almost exactly as planned’ is not a thrilling hook for a movie, which may go some way to explaining a few of Damien Chazelle’s more unexpected creative decisions in his Armstrong movie. The Apollo 13 story, on the other hand, offers a gripping ‘brave men struggling to get home alive’ theme, plus many opportunities for showcasing the ingenuity and resourcefulness of NASA in overcoming the numerous problems faced by the crew (the sequence in which a gang of junior NASA staffers are given the job of working out how to build a functioning oxygen filtration system out of, basically, a pile of junk, apparently inspired the long-running TV game show Scrapheap Challenge).

And the tone is pretty much what you would expect, too – respectful, patriotic, carefully very mainstream. The film opens with voice-over from Walter Cronkite, for many years the most trusted man in America, and the subtext is clear: this is what really happened in this story, the definitive historical version. In this respect it’s quite different from the more artful approach taken by Chazelle, even though the subject matter is obviously similar – some characters appear in both movies, most notably Armstrong, Aldrin, and Lovell himself.

It was actually slightly startling to watch this movie again and see Tom Hanks looking so young (relatively speaking). This movie was made at the time he was cementing his image as the great everyman of American cinema, not to mention one of the great screen actors of his generation, and he leads a very good cast with considerable aplomb. While most of the film is focused on the fact that this was, in the end, a successful rescue effort, Hanks never quite lets you forget that this is, on one level at least, a rather bittersweet story – Lovell never got to go to the Moon in the way so many of his peers did.

In the end Apollo 13 is simply a very technically proficient film, driven along by excellent production values and performances, with a solid script at the heart of it all. It is certainly one of Ron Howard’s best films, but then my issue with Howard has always been that he is one of those safe-pair-of-hands guys, rather than someone with a distinctive artistic sensibility of his own. I was glad to see Apollo 13 again and happy to watch it on the big screen, but I would still say this is a very good piece of commercial film-making rather than a truly great movie.

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I am not entirely surprised to learn that all is not well in the state of Tom Cruise: the gleamingly betoothed one is not busting blocks in the way he was wont to do in years gone by – Stateside, at least. Why exactly should this be? Is it a case of audience fatigue? Is it due to the films themselves not being quite up to scratch? Or is it simply that the great American public have, rightly or wrongly, come to the conclusion that, off-screen, Tom Cruise is just a tiny bit weird?

Certainly it seems to me that Cruise is increasingly resembling the great Charlton Heston in his final years, in that the quality of the star’s creative output has been overshadowed by his real-life beliefs and antics. His willingness to lend his name and star power to decent studio SF movies adds to this, admittedly: Cruise hasn’t made a truly game-changing genre movie like Planet of the Apes yet, but he keeps on trying.

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His latest offering is Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow, which instantly scored points with me by establishing its scenario without recourse to either expository captions or voice-over. Basically, Europe has been invaded by squiggly space aliens, but their advance has ground to a halt at the English Channel, and a vast high-tech invasion force is massing at Heathrow to drive the gribbly hordes back (insert your own joke about UKIP here, if you must).

Cruise plays Cage, a US Army media relations officer in Britain to document the invasion. A dedicated staff officer, he is therefore not best pleased when commanding officer Brendan Gleeson orders him in with the first wave of the assault (it’s basically the scene with Melchett and Darling from the last episode of Blackadder, but with shinier teeth), and his attempts to dodge this backfire and see him busted to private and packed off to the staging area.

The invasion proceeds and is a disaster, with the squiggly aliens slaughtering everyone in sight, including Cruise. Up until now the film has had a general sort of war-movie vibe, cheerily mixing up bits of Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, Starship Troopers, and Aliens – the movie acknowledges some of these influences, not least by casting the great Bill Paxton as Cage’s topkick. Not surprisingly, given that the film is only about fifteen minutes in and everyone has already died, things take a left turn as Cruise finds himself back in the previous day, reliving the events leading up to the doomed assault. Again it happens, again he dies, again he snaps back to the day before. Can he find a way to survive the battle, and perhaps even help win the war? Perhaps the fact this is even happening might offer some kind of a clue…

Well, here’s the funny thing about Edge of Tomorrow: one of the reasons I was slightly lukewarm about Cruise’s last SF offering, Oblivion, was that it felt rather like a bigger-budget, sexed-up, actioned-up retread of Duncan Jones’ first film as a director, Moon. And something rather inescapable about Edge of Tomorrow (for all that it’s based on an original novella by Hiroshi Sakurazaka) is the fact that it feels rather like a bigger-budget, sexed-up, actioned-up retread of Duncan Jones’ second film as a director, Source Code. Tom, if you want to work with Duncan that badly, there are more straightforward ways of letting him know.

The chief similarity between Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow is the time-resetting gimmick, which of course dates back over twenty years (to Jonathan Heap’s 12:01PM). I’ve always said that just being derivative isn’t in itself enough to make a film bad, so let’s not get too hung up on this. The film does handle the gimmick with a certain dark wit, with quite a few of Cruise’s various demises played for laughs – it doesn’t have Source Code‘s oppressive sense of an endlessly recurring nightmare, and it doesn’t quite explain how Cruise isn’t driven totally nuts by an insanely large number of traumatic demises, but then this is more of a generic action movie anyway. It is very much a movie for the games console generation, and anyone who has found themselves repeatedly slaughtered while trying to get to the next save point on an FPS will probably have some sympathy for Cruise’s predicament.

On the other hand, the film is solidly written, with a due appreciation of how difficult it is to seriously challenge someone who is effectively immortal and able to teach himself any required skill instantly, and so the final act becomes a rather more conventional SF-action movie set piece. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anybody – Edge of Tomorrow may touch on a bunch of different movie genres, and be predicated upon a fairly outrageous bafflegab premise, but it inevitably boils down to being Tom Cruise gritting his extraordinary teeth and shooting at stuff in front of green-screen.

That it succeeds in coming across as something more than that is partly a result of the inventiveness of the script and direction, but also due to the talent of the actors involved. This being a Cruise vehicle, the script has been tinkered with to give the star a chance to do his stuff – there’s an arc about him changing from an unreliable, barely-competent coward to a committed, dedicated warrior which I suspect has been beefed up – but he remains one of those actors with enough presence to prevent watching essentially the same scene four or five times over from becoming a drag. Brendan Gleeson isn’t in it enough, obviously, and the same really goes for Bill Paxton. I expect Noah Taylor fans will say the same (he appears, briefly, as a boffin). This is a Cruise vehicle, and that’s never really in any doubt, but his chief foil on this occasion is Emily Blunt as a ferocious female soldier with whom he establishes a relationship (over and over again). Blunt is a versatile actor and does well in a role which could easily have become a cypher.

Edge of Tomorrow isn’t going to set the world on fire or mark the beginning of a New Golden Age of Intelligent SF Film-making, but on the other hand if this is the worst, dumbest genre movie we see all summer then 2014 should turn out to be a pretty good year. This movie never really succeeds in becoming more than the sum of its parts – so it’s just as well that those were pretty good parts to begin with.

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When a cluster of films with a similar theme all come out at the same time, is it always the best one that makes the most money? Is it the best one that’s best remembered? Here, I suppose, we’re into the problem of defining words like ‘cluster’ and ‘best’ and, perhaps, even ‘similar’. I thought that there were startling parallels between District 9 and Avatar, but no-one else seemed to pick up on them. In that case I would very definitely argue that the better film made less money and less of an impact. Earlier in his career, though, James Cameron was part of a wave of low-budget SF movies set in California with a vaguely punk-ish sensibility and a fascination with time travel, the end of the world, and automatic weaponry – and here surely the best film won on all counts, simply because you’re much more likely to have heard of The Terminator than Trancers, Cherry 2000 or Night of the Comet.

This is threatening to turn into Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but a few years after Terminator, Cameron’s one-time wife Kathryn Bigelow contributed to another notable wave of films – vampire horror movies, usually with teenaged or youthful protagonists. I’m not sure that The Hunger quite counts as kicking this off, but anyway: Fright Night, The Lost Boys, Vamp, and Once Bitten all came out in the space of couple of years. And so, in 1987, did Bigelow’s Near Dark. This is a film which hasn’t enjoyed quite the same profile as some of its peers, but it seems to me to have been much more influential.

Adrian Pasdar does a good job of channelling the spirit of a young Elvis as he plays Caleb, a young Oklahoman farm boy. Caleb is a typical, red-blooded guy and of an evening likes nothing better than to head into town in search of attractive feminine company. Unfortunately this very red-bloodedness draws the attention of Mae (Jenny Wright), who is… oh, well, there’s no point being coy about this: she’s a vampire. However, Caleb forms a connection with Mae that makes her reluctant to rip him open and guzzle his blood, and she leaves him with just a playful little bite on the throat. This is enough to leave Caleb with serious problems when it comes to walking home the following morning. Just prior to his actually bursting into flames, he is abducted by the rest of Mae’s ‘family’, who lack her wholesome good looks and sweet nature. Their initial reaction is to try to kill Caleb, until they realise he is one of them. At this point they are prepared to let him join the family – but in order to truly belong, he has to learn to kill…

There are various problems with the story of Near Dark: there are holes in the plot (does Mae not realise biting Caleb will turn him?), which is reliant on at least one massive coincidence, and various elements are simply unsatisfactory – the ‘cure’ for vampirism that’s concocted near the end is a bit mundane and unconvincing, while the fact that the female lead is responsible for numerous savage murders over a period of years (for which she never shows much remorse nor receives any kind of punishment) is never really addressed head-on. And this last does matter, because Near Dark is framed partly as a mythic clash of good and evil – or, perhaps, innocence and sin. On the other hand, it’s because the movie does this so well that one’s prepared to overlook the problems with the plot.

For a film which is famously a western-horror fusion, there’s a strangely fairytale-ish quality to a lot of Near Dark – the characters are archetypes, the settings classic. The film looks beautiful, thanks to Bigelow’s compositions and Adam Greenberg’s cinematography. I’m not sure whether the striking synth score by Tangerine Dream really suits the subject matter of the film, but it’s one of the most memorable elements. The film looks and sounds impressively distinctive – which is probably quite important, given that it is mainly about putting new interpretations on very well-known ideas and themes.

From the opening dustbowl scenes onwards, the film’s setting in a decaying south-western USA can’t help but recall The Grapes of Wrath, and it’s not that difficult to see the itinerant vampire family as the monstrous equivalent of the Joad family from that book – both are migrants, both bound together by powerful ties of blood and loyalty. Both are, to some extent, aliens in the modern world. But perhaps one shouldn’t go too far down this path, as while the Joads are painfully sympathetic creations, Near Dark‘s vampires are not. They are, in fact, properly scary like few other screen undead. Given Bigelow’s connections with James Cameron (who is in the movie), it’s not much of a surprise that several members of the Cameron Repertory Company turn up to play the monsters. Lance Henriksen plays the head of the family, Bill Paxton is his berserk rockabilly sidekick, and Jenette Goldstein is the closest thing the pack has to a maternal figure. All of them made an impression in Aliens as members of the marine platoon – but all of them are even more memorable here. (There’s a story that the three of them pitched Bigelow a prequel to this movie focussing on their characters – sadly, she passed.)

What lifts Near Dark above the level of films like Fright Night and The Lost Boys is the way in which it jettisons most of the chintzy trappings of older vampire stories in favour of its own, stripped-down mythology. There are no coffins, no crucifixes, no stakes or garlic – and indeed the word ‘vampire’ is never used at any point in the film. Instead the movie finds a way to incorporate the creatures into a dusty, fading western landscape where they don’t feel remotely incongruous. And perhaps the reason why Near Dark‘s vampires are genuinely frightening when so many others feel like joke-shop monsters arises from this. In many other films, vampires are just vampires, and supposedly frightening solely for this reason. The classic archetype of the aristocratic foreign vampire, which is so often the default setting for this kind of character, only became so deeply embedded in the popular consciousness because this figure at one time symbolised a set of genuine fears and concerns for the audience of vampire stories. It’s putting a fantastical costume on a real source of unease. Nowadays, we have different worries, and just trotting out the archetype unthinkingly only presents us with an empty costume to be scared of.

Near Dark works so well as a vampire movie in that it does find a way to use the myth of the vampire to comment on a genuine contemporary source of fear – that of rootless, criminal migrants, potentially committing terrible crimes and then vanishing in the night. It’s important to say that this needn’t be a valid or logical fear – and indeed, if this reading of the film is correct, it must be said that Near Dark‘s view of drifters is surely about as rational as the Daily Mail‘s view of immigrants – but the fear itself has to be genuine for the film to work. And it does.

Even so, the vampire lifestyle almost begins to look alluring at one point in the film – but then the plot takes an unexpected turn and we’re in for a final act which is probably the weakest part of the film. There are various odd and unlikely developments in the cause of a vaguely unconvincing happy ending. The rest of the film is intelligent and well-made enough to more than compensate, and there are some brilliant set-pieces – the family’s visit to a bar, resulting in the gory slaughter of nearly everyone within, and a shootout with the local cops where the real danger is not the bullets but the sunlight the bulletholes allow into the hiding place. This last bit was shamelessly nicked by From Dusk Till Dawn (a movie which got everything nearly wrong which Near Dark gets right), but this film has surely been hugely influential despite its lack of commercial success. Needless to say, a remake is apparently in the works – but I was more surprised to hear of an attempted remake from 2008, which was never completed. Notably strange things about this were the reappearance of key cast members in different roles (Paxton in Henriksen’s part, Goldstein in Wright’s – how the hell was that going to work?) and the fact that it was abandoned on the grounds that it was ‘too similar to Twilight‘. I can’t imagine any version of Near Dark being remotely similar to Twilight, to be honest, but there you go. For the time being the original movie stands, reputation unblemished by dodgy sequels or unnecessary remakes: the best fusion of classic Americana and supernatural horror I can think of.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 28th 2002:

[Originally following a review of Godzilla vs The Smog Monster.]

Well, what are the odds? You wait weeks without a single monster movie getting a mention and then suddenly two come along at once. Yup, let’s look at James Cameron’s 1986 classic, Aliens.

Looking back at Cameron’s filmography as a director, it’s clear that originality is not the man’s strong point. It’s a collection of reworkings of other people’s material (The Terminator, True Lies) and sequels (Piranha 2: Flying Killers, Terminator 2, the film in question) and, of course, based-on-fact disaster movies. The sole exception to this is The Abyss, which I’ve always found to be his weakest movie for a major studio. [Anyone heading for the comments section framing a remark featuring the word Avatar, don’t bother. – A]

But anything he lacks in terms of inventiveness he makes up for in his ability to deliver a high-octane head-banging action movie, and that’s exactly what Aliens is. 57 years after the events of the original film, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her cat Jones (a cat) are rescued from their deep-space deep-freeze. Her employers refuse to believe her story concerning the fate of the Nostromo… until contact is lost with an outpost on the planet they originally found the alien creature. Along with an amoral company executive (Paul Reiser) and a squad of marines (Cameron regulars Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn and Jenette Goldstein amongst them), Ripley sets out for the remote colony, where nastiness inevitably ensues…

I think Aliens is a better film than its predecessor for one simple reason – James Cameron may not have Ridley Scott’s unique visual flair, but he has an instinctive grasp of storytelling, and he knows that a great action film is all about tension, characterisation, and ultimately delivering the thrills. There are no pointless 2001 homages in Aliens (well, maybe there’s one right at the start), nary a wasted shot or redundant line. There’s suspense in bucketloads (largely achieved by simply not featuring the monsters until nearly halfway through the film), and a small cast of readily identifiable, if not always likeable, characters (with the exception of Reiser’s wretched yuppie-scum). And of course, the climax of the film has the remarkable, iconic Alien Queen as its killer punch – though this isn’t to dismiss the other superb set-pieces (my favourite is the escape through the ducting culminating in Vasquez and Gorman’s trick with the grenades).

Cameron knows how to make a great sequel, too: virtually all the elements of the original film reappear, but his approach to them is sufficiently different to keep them fresh and engaging. The one real change is quite subtle – where Alien was on a deep level a psychological horror story about rape, Aliens – for all its testosterone-fuelled frenzy – is about the alarming power of the maternal instinct. But it still manages to make the original film look like nothing more than a low-key prologue, and at the same time sets an impossibly high standard for the subsequent films in the series.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 12th 2002: 

It’s always interesting when an established actor makes his debut as a feature director, simply because their choice of project is often very illuminating. In Play Misty For Me, Clint Eastwood embarked upon the deconstruction of his screen persona he’s continued on-and-off ever since, and with That Thing You Do Tom Hanks confirmed that wholesome nostalgic Americana really does run through his veins like blood.

I’m a little unsure of what Bill Paxton’s Frailty tells us about him, though. Admittedly Paxton isn’t as big a star as Eastwood or Hanks but he’s headlined blockbusters in the past and, let us not forget, played a key role in the most successful film of all time (he was the marine archaeologist in Titanic).

The bulk of Frailty is set in 1979 and is the story of young Fenton Meeks (Matthew O’Leary), a boy living with his little brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) and their Dad (Paxton, maintaining the tradition of actor-directors casting themselves in key roles) in small-town Texas. Although their mother is dead the boys lead happy lives, but all this is about to change. One evening Dad announces that God has sent him a message: the world is infested with demons that look just like regular folks, and it’s up to the Meeks family to hunt them out and destroy them. Fenton’s initial vague unease becomes acute when Dad comes home with the ‘special weapons’ God has sent for them to use: a pair of gardening gloves, a length of lead pipe and what’s technically known as a great big axe.

Fenton realizes Dad has gone off the deep end, but what can he do about it? He can’t turn his own father over to the police, but neither can he persuade him to stop his dreadful crusade. Matters soon reach crunch point when Dad decides it’s time for Fenton to take his turn with the axe.

While the initial scene-setting stuff is a bit lacking in subtlety, once Dad starts having his visions Frailty turns into an extremely effective psychological horror movie, deeply rooted in the American Gothic tradition of the Deep South. In fact, it plays like a superior Stephen King adaptation, contrasting Fenton’s coming of age and loss of innocence with the family’s increasing skewed home life. The film succeeds in a big way in its depiction of the banality of Dad’s madness: for example, Dad and Adam treat their rides out to procure more victims to be hacked to death in the cellar the way other families would trips to the football or fishing.

The performances from the two boys are very good indeed, easily as good as Paxton’s own assured turn. Dad seems to have been shrewdly written to play to Bill Paxton’s own strengths as an actor: while he can do Regular Leading Man if required to (Twister) he’s equally good at a kind of sleazy and/or unstable good ol’ boy (Aliens, True Lies), shading off into berserk hillbilly psychosis when necessary (Near Dark). For the most part he keeps Dad quite low-key, which obviously makes the eye-rolling and axe-wielding more arresting when it comes.

Paxton seems to have adopted a similar approach in his direction: this isn’t a movie of overt gore or shock moments (though there are a little of both), it relies instead on a constant, broodingly intense and oppressive atmosphere. (Brian Tyler’s score helps enormously with this.) He doesn’t attempt any fancy whistles-and-bells stuff with the camera, either, but his deft touch with some of the scene transitions and the small number of visual effects the film uses suggests talent as a director. He also manages to keep the metaphorical elements of the story; this can be interpreted as a film about child abuse, and cycles of violence within families – subtle but unmistakable.

So it’s really a terrible, terrible shame that Brent Hanley’s script is wrecked by a framing story where one of the boys, now grown (and played by a dead-eyed Matthew McConaughey) recounts his childhood to an FBI agent (Powers Booth) investigating a serial killer known as God’s Hand. This leads into an unnecessarily convoluted twist ending, which isn’t nearly as clever or shocking as it thinks it is. It seems sometimes that, post-The Sixth Sense, everyone directing a horror film feels obliged to put a twist ending in, no matter how damaging it is to the fabric and tone of the movie. In this case, it turns what could been a simple but highly effective chiller into what feels like a mediocre episode of The X Files.

I can’t stress strongly enough how badly the ending disappointed me. But the rest of it is great and Paxton has nothing to be ashamed of either as lead actor or director. But the fact remains that while often highly impressive, Frailty is a deeply and unnecessarily flawed movie.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 22nd 2004:

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’ (the considered opinion of the academic periodical Foundation), 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 Generation).

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 Riley, 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 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 her off).

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.

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