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MGM // PG // October 21, 2008
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 23, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Compatibility Warning: I've read several complaints about this first wave of Bond Blu-ray discs not playing on a number of different set-top Blu-ray decks. I can confirm that on my copy of PowerDVD 7, Thunderball would load a black, blank screen and stop, and it sounds like several dedicated players from a couple of different manufacturers are suffering from the same problem. Readers not using a PlayStation 3 as a Blu-ray player are warned that they may need to do a firmware update and may not be able to play these discs at all.

As Quantum of Solace -- Daniel
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Craig's second stint as 007 -- lurks in the wings, MGM is launching its first volley of vintage Bond onto Blu-ray. This initial wave includes all three of the James Bond movies that director Terence Young filmed with Sean Connery, and they're among the most enduring of a franchise that's spanned five decades now: Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Thunderball. Flush with cash after the titanic success of Goldfinger and released as the world over was swept up in a secret agent frenzy, Thunderball further cemented the template that the Bond series would follow for decades to come: lavish production design, impossibly gorgeous women, beautifully exotic backdrops, entire fleets of sleek cars, breathtakingly over-the-top action sequences, and a smirkingly suave secret agent in the lead.

Thunderball opens as Bond brings down one of SPECTRE's key operatives after what's supposed to be a funeral. Even though the mission is a success and he's able to escape from the Parisian chauteau thanks to a stowed-away jetpack and a water-blasting Aston Martin, the secret agent is shuttled off to a clinic to recuperate. There, Bond becomes ensnared in a plot to steal a pair of atomic bombs and hold the world ransom for more than a quarter of a billion dollars. A glimpse of a corpse that somehow later piloted the plane carrying that massively destructive cargo sends Bond off to the Bahamas in search of the man's sister, hoping she may hold the clue to recovering the bombs. He's right, of course; Domino (Claudine Auger) is hanging off the arm of Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), a cycloptic extortionist in the upper echelon of SPECTRE, and she's wholly unaware that she's the mistress of the man who murdered her brother and has engineered this scheme to hold the world at large hostage.

Thanks to the sprawling Cinemascope frame, the exotic backdrop of Nassau, and lavish production design that the series could now afford to indulge, Thunderball was the first of the Bond movies to feel like a true visual spectacle. At least when Bond is skulking across dry land, Thunderball rarely ever stops to catch its breath before careening from one over-the-top setpiece to the next. The first act alone delivers a surgically altered double, a villainous agent in drag, a romp in a steamroom, Bond nearly succumbing to a modern-day rack, and making a getaway by jetpack. The Bond franchise may be legendary for its breathtakingly gorgeous women, but Thunderball offers perhaps the most striking of the lot. Claudine Auger -- the former Miss France Monde who landed the role of Domino -- may hold the mantle as the single most beautiful woman to ever grace the series, and Lucianna Paluzzi makes for an outstanding femme fatale as the Italian assassin Fiona. Of course, the series is still defined by Sean Connery, and although his interest in the franchise was wearing thin by this point, he's as magnetic and effortlessly suave as ever here.

Even though Thunderball is
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occasionally sneered at for being over-the-top and overproduced, that just seems like part of the fun to me. There's nearly always someone or something eye-catching skittering across the screen, but as much as I love the movie, it does make a few missteps. Adolfo Celi does a fine job as Largo, but he just isn't a particularly memorable badnik, not exuding the same menace or charisma as the more iconic Bond villains. Largo comes across too much as the second in command -- the gray clouds that seem to harken the arrival of something much darker and more destructive, only the storm never really shows up.

Some of the action hasn't aged especially well. As dazzling as it was in 1965 -- when these beasts were rarely seen on-camera in anything close to this context -- Thunderball's shark tank isn't the spectacle its status as a pop culture cliché would lead the uninitiated to think. Editor Peter Hunt wanted to ramp up the tension in the frantic finale set on Largo's yacht, the Disco Volante, so he snipped numerous frames from the film to speed up the action. The effect is jarring, distracting, and almost cartoonish.

Thunderball's biggest misstep is setting so much of the film -- somewhere around a quarter of its 130 minute runtime -- underwater. It's certainly an unconventional backdrop for an action movie: there's no witty banter or any dialogue at all, most of the sound effects are buried under the deafening roar of the undersea currents, and the pressure at those depths slows down movement greatly. It's tough to maintain the sense of breathless exhilaration and breakneck pacing that define the Bonds movies when small armies of identically dressed red shirts are slowly trudging deep beneath the ocean's surface. Peter Hunt was asked to double the length of the final underwater confrontation -- a dazzling ballet of violence with dozens of scuba-diving mercenaries squaring off against one another -- and even he admits in the disc's audio commentary that it drags on for far too long. These underwater sequences do tend to be slow-moving and somewhat repetitive, and Thunderball as a whole could probably stand to be ten or fifteen minutes lighter.

It's not perfect, no, but I still love Thunderball, and it's a definite thrill to have one of my favorite Bond flicks on Blu-ray at this stage of the game. Thunderball looks drop-dead gorgeous in high definition, and a surprising number of the documentaries and other extras from years past have been meticulously remastered in HD as well.

Video: The screengrabs
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scattered throughout this review don't come close to doing this Blu-ray disc justice; thanks to a world-class 4K remastering by Lowry Digital, Thunderball looks phenomenal in high definition. There's an almost tactile sense of depth and dimensionality -- the image practically leaps off the screen. Likewise for the eye-popping Technicolor hues, particularly the brilliant blues of the Caribbean and the bright, vivid clothing of Bond and a slew of impossibly gorgeous women as they laze around Nassau. Grain is remarkably unintrusive, with just one short sequence in an underground grotto looking especially noisy. It's worth noting that the grain in that scene tends to look somewhat soft and smeary, but there doesn't seem to be any sign of heavy-handed noise reduction anywhere throughout Thunderball. The image has a silky smooth texture, but it never looks filtered or processed and is wonderfully filmlike throughout. Clarity and detail never cease to impress, even in the film's most expansive shots. Fine detail is frequently astonishing, highlighting the strength of Ken Adam's elaborate and ornate set design. The image expectedly degrades in shots with optical effects, but there's no trace of any wear or speckling, and no authoring missteps such as edge enhancement ever once creep in.

My expectations were dizzingly high for these Bond remasters, and Thunderball still looks better than I ever could have hoped, making for an essential upgrade even for completists already on their third or fourth copy of the film. Thunderball is presented on Blu-ray in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 -- it was the first in the Bond series to be shot in scope -- with the opening titles lightly pillarboxed as well. As is the case with virtually everything out of Fox and MGM these days, the video has been encoded with AVC.

Audio: Thunderball's six-channel remix -- offered here in a 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio track -- is nearly as impressive as the movie's sparkling high definition visuals. It doesn't sound like a movie that rang in its fortieth anniversary several years ago, thanks in large part to the robustness and clarity of John Barry's score. This is some of Barry's best work in the Bond series, and the booming brass and swirling strings are full-bodied and eager to take advantage of the multichannel setup. Frequency response isn't in the same league as one of the more recent Bond flicks, but the low-end is pretty colossal for a film of this vintage: the wall-rattling thud of a jet colliding against the ocean floor, a slew of enormous explosions, cracks of a rifle, and the opening of an
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enormous underwater hatch.

The sound design doesn't take too many liberties with the original monaural audio, preferring to open things up instead of peppering the track with gimmicky, awkward surround effects. The rears aren't constantly chattering, no, but they do come alive convincingly during the big action sequences, with jets screaming across the sky and the volleys of gunfire bombarding Thunderball's final moments. The reverb in some of the cavernous lairs and the clatter of the Junkanoo parade also flesh out a strong sense of ambiance. Some stretches of dialogue and a few scattered sound effects show a bit of strain, but for the most part, the track is reasonably clean and clear.

I've read quite a few complaints about the remix on the 2006 Ultimate Edition DVD, including misplaced sound effects and the audio falling out of sync. I didn't notice any similar issues on this Blu-ray disc, and I really don't have any complaints about its lossless audio at all. This is an outstanding remix.

Thunderball's original monaural audio has also been provided along with a Spanish mono dub and a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Subtitles are offered in both English and Spanish.

Extras: While many of MGM's Blu-ray discs as of late have shrugged off the extras from earlier DVD releases, their Bond titles are all lavish special editions. I was impressed to see that several of the original documentaries and featurettes have been remastered in high definition as well. The footage from other Bond movies featured in them have been culled from Lowry's newer remasters, all of the stills shown have been rescanned at a much higher resolution, and even much of the 16mm archival footage has been retransferred to HD. Only the interviews originally shot on standard definition video and a few scattered bits of film have been upscaled. It must have been a colossal effort to reconstruct existing documentaries this way -- I can't remember off-hand ever seeing another studio go to these same lengths -- and it's a welcomed and greatly appreciated surprise.
  • The Thunderball Phenomenon (30 min.; HD): The first of the set's documentaries focuses on Thunderball being released as the world over was caught up in Bond's marketing and merchandising blitz. The discussion swirls around the title song being swapped out, the soundtrack album hitting stores before the second half of the movie had even been scored, a big stack of promotional artwork, and the parade of international premieres. It's especially great to be able to see so much artwork and such a diverse slate of merchandise from throughout the globe.
  • The Making of Thunderball (27 min.; HD): Much of the talent on both sides of the camera is interviewed throughout this second documentary. Some of the topics include the legal hiccups delaying what was initially intended to be the first of the Bond movies, the many famous actresses who tested for the role of Domino, covertly using hidden cameras to get a sense of what an actual atomic bomb looks like, and the shooting of many of the key sequences in the film...including footage of one explosion that left a stuntman engulfed in flames. There are quite a few terrific stories in this documentary, particularly the headaches of working with the sharks.
  • The Secret History of Thunderball (4 min.; HD): This featurette opens by highlighting some of the differences between various releases of Thunderball over the years, most notoriously excised music and alternate dialogue. Thick accents led to a couple of actors having their dialogue replaced after filming wrapped, and "The Secret History..." also compares the original production audio with the polished re-recording in the finished product. One unused line of dialogue from a battered workprint is also shown along with stills of a deleted scene.
  • Alternate title sequence (3 min.; HD): Thunderball's iconic title sequence appears again as an extra, this time with all of the credits and text removed. It's just silhouettes of naked women swimming around as Tom Jones belts out "Thunderball".
  • Locations (3 min.; HD): Bond girl Maud Adams speaks over several minutes of footage, chatting about the chateau from Thunderball's opening sequence, the racetrack where the rocket-propelled assassination was shot, and, lavished with the most attention, the backdrop of the Bahamas.
  • 007 Mission Control (HD): Really not even an extra so much, this feature groups together a series of short excerpts from Thunderball highlighting some of the characters, backdrops, and standout sequences.
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Two audio commentaries have been ported over from the thirtieth anniversary Laserdisc release. They're both moderated by John Cork -- perhaps the most rabid Bond fan walking the planet today -- and he's by far the dominant presence in both commentaries.

  • The first features a series of very short comments from a small army of Thunderball's cast and crew, including director Terence Young (culled from a 1974 interview), production designer Ken Adam, underwater unit director Ricou Browning, and seemingly every actress in the film. Because there are so many speakers who appear for just minutes at a time, their comments tend to not be all that deep or probing, generally offering a brief overview of their experiences on the set and lobbing out one or two particularly memorable stories.

    Cork introduces each speaker at length, and the majority of the commentary is treated like Cork delivering a spoken essay rather than a more traditional conversation. Some of the highlights include the scale and danger of such an ambitious, intensively underwater shoot, fretting about houseguests drunkenly tumbling over into a tank of sharks, the first female 00 lurking in one scene, and how much the screenplay evolved throughout the years it took to get the project off the ground. I really liked a lot of the material in this track, and it's masterfully pieced together, but I miss the flow and personality of a more traditional commentary. As knowledgeable as Cork clearly is, it still would've been nice to have heard at least some of this information come from the cast and crew instead; his comments sound like he's reading from a book.

  • The second commentary track is somewhat erratic as well, but being centered around just a couple of participants gives it a bit of tighter focus. The centerpiece of this commentary is a conversation between Cork and editor/2nd unit director Peter Hunt. This is a more technically-oriented track, offering notes about the sound design, editing techniques such as never letting the screen go black and paying close attention to the direction of movement on-screen, the uneasy transition from optical sound to magnetic tape, and doubling the intended length of the enormous underwater finale.

    Screenwriter John Hopkins appears briefly from a separate recording session, describing his approach to dialogue and contrasting Emilio Largo with the more audacious Auric Goldfinger from the previous film. This track does suffer from a much slower pace than the first commentary, and it distracts itself by playing the original theme song as sung by Dionne Warwick over the opening titles, an international contest for walk-on roles for the quickly-scrapped followup On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and the novelty of entire scenes dubbed in French, Italian, Spanish, and German.
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This Blu-ray disc carries over the other extras from earlier releases in standard definition. Culled from 8mm and 16mm footage, the quality tends to be grainy, washed-out, and battered.

  • The Incredible World of James Bond (50 min.): A month before Thunderball first hit theaters, NBC aired this hour-long special promoting the franchise. "The Incredible World..." is anchored around excerpts from all of the Bond films up to that point, including a martini montage, Q introducing Bond to seemingly every gadget in the series, and highlights of all of the badniks and beautiful women. While the special casts kind of a wide net, recapping the history of the franchise, chatting up author Ian Fleming, and touching on the series' enormous success, it also gives Thunderball a good bit of attention and tosses in a fair amount of behind the scenes footage. It has kind of a promotional bent, but there's enough compelling making-of material in here to leave "The Incredible World..." worth a look.
  • A Child's Guide to Blowing Up a Motor Car (17 min.): This tongue-in-cheek 1965 promotional film from Ford follows a kid getting a heck of a birthday present: a chance to hang around the Thunderball set while some baddies knock off Count Lippe. This framing device can be a little tedious, but there's a pretty enormous amount of behind-the-scenes footage, and the payoff for the birthday present helps make it all worth it.
  • On Location with Ken Adam (13 min.): A set of home movies from Thunderball's acclaimed production designer includes a fly-on-the-wall look at location scouting, a hydrofoil considered for the Disco Volante, and some of the key backdrops for the movie. The charming, personable Adam narrates over this footage, giving it some context while also chatting about some of the producers and other talent.
  • Bill Suitor: The Rocket Man Movies (4 min.): The man who actually wore the rocketbelt during Thunderball's opening sequence speaks about the device and shows off some of his home movies from the shoot.
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  • Thunderball Boat Show Reel (3 min.): This is a different take on the sprawling underwater finale assembled during editing for -- as you could probably guess by the title -- a boat show.
  • Ministry of Propaganda: The long list of promotional material includes 8 minutes of radio spots playing against a static high-def background, several battered trailers, and a slew of TV spots. There are also a couple minutes' worth of black-and-white plugs for Bond merchandise back when Thunderball was first hitting theaters, including a raincoat, a set of slacks, and an 'action pack' for the junior set.
  • Photo Galleries: A pretty sizable set of low-resolution photos has been grouped into several different galleries.
The version of Thunderball reviewed
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here comes packaged in a traditional Blu-ray case with a glossy cardboard sleeve. Best Buy exclusively carries a steelbook set, and Thunderball is also available in a boxed set with From Russia with Love and Roger Moore's For Your Eyes Only. Each of these Bond Blu-ray discs includes a code for a free ticket to see Quantum of Solace, but the sticker used kind of ruins the sleeve when it's removed, and I still have the imprint of that long, rambling e-ticket code staining my slipcase.

Conclusion: Thunderball may drag on ten or fifteen minutes longer than it really ought to, but it still stands out all these decades later as one of the best Bond movies. Even longtime fans who've picked it up on VHS, Laserdisc, and several times on DVD over the years will likely want to give Thunderball another look on Blu-ray. This high definition remaster is jaw-droppingly impressive -- much better than I ever could've expected -- and the lossless soundtrack, a slew of high-def extras, and a fairly modest sticker price make this Blu-ray disc even more compelling. Very, very Highly Recommended.
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