MONSTER TRUCKS, or: E.T. with Axle Grease

Sometimes, a thing that isn’t very important becomes a thing that’s very important. This happens when the stakes are raised, when supporting it becomes important to your loved ones or when you are impeded from completing your task. This third reason is what happened when I opted to see MONSTER TRUCKS, by all accounts a film that stood no chance of making my ten best list. But if you are blocked once, succeeding in your original quest becomes a sort of vendetta with the machinations of the world.

It took me four goddamn attempts to see MONSTER TRUCKS.

The first time, I was unable to find a seat. This film may not have done well around the country, but in my Florida neighborhood it was apparently huge. If you went on the opening weekend and happened to check out the actual Monster Jam truck rally in town (kill me), you got into the movie for free. So, lots of people took advantage of that and the rest was word of mouth. The second time, I was stopped by a neighbor which made me late for my showing. The third time, I had even more trouble finding a seat where I would have been able to see the screen, and keep in mind that by this time MONSTER TRUCKS had been out for over a week.

The fourth time I was determined to see this through. This despite the fact that allergies were wreaking havoc on my already fuzzy vision, making it all but impossible to see out of one eye until I applied plenty of drops and medication. But still I persevered, half blind and doped up with over the counter drugs, walking to the local theater. Because even though I could have taken it or left this movie before, now I was raising my fist in victory that I would finally be able to see MONSTER TRUCKS. By this point, I had put more effort into seeing this movie than the writers put into the script.

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I wish I could say that the reasons for me wanting to see MONSTER TRUCKS were completely innocent, but that’s just not true. Sometimes, a film gets such bad buzz that I need to see it for myself. And this one really looked like a throwback to the poorly reviewed films of the 90s. Would it be a complete disaster like THE AVENGERS (Not the Marvel one, kids. Know your history.) or would it be a cheesefest I enjoyed in spite of its terribleness like KNOCK-OFF, a film that should be seen by every man, woman and child on the planet?

MONSTER TRUCKS is what happens when you take that “I believe the children are the future” lyric and apply it to the world of filmmaking. Kids have been the secret brains behind a lot of features over the years, and those features have all been terrible. George Lucas’ kids inspired him to create Jar Jar Binks. Robert Rodriguez basically wrote down all the suggestions from his kid to make THE ADVENTURES OF SHARK BOY AND LAVA GIRL. And now this film which was somewhat based on an idea from the four year-old son of Paramount’s president Adam Goodman.

According to a GQ article on the development of the $125 million film, it was greenlit with an eye towards all the toys it could spawn with a licensing company boasting, “We are thrilled to be working with Paramount on such an exciting, adrenaline-packed movie which has great toyetic appeal.” That this was pure marketing mumbo jumbo and that “toyetic” isn’t a real word seemed to not phase anyone in the production.

But something must have happened, because in a film clearly engineered for that very purpose, there are no licensed MONSTER TRUCKS toys on the market. The film was finally released in January 2017, but was originally scheduled for May 2015. It was shot so long ago that several of the so-called teenagers in this film have graduated to playing fully adult roles on film and television. The delay came from several poorly received test screenings which may have resulted in kids being scared of the original design for the adorable monster that will not be coming to a toy store near you. MONSTER TRUCKS’ final release date is its fifth, finally shoved out after Paramount wrote it off as a $115 million loss before it opened.

And yet, even on this Thursday evening, the theater filled up pretty quickly. A horde of children took up virtually every seat around me. Looking around at the audience, the grumpy old man that lives in my head took over and I thought I would have to drink a lot to get through this screening. But when the movie started, silence. Everybody was quiet, because MONSTER TRUCKS was starting.

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We start out with an oil company drilling just outside of a populated town. I’m afraid I don’t remember the name of the soulless corporate entity that serves as the film’s evil empire, so for the purposes of this review I will refer to them as GreedCo. GreedCo is run by Reece Tenneson (Rob Lowe), who has a southern accent that disappears and reappears at various times throughout the film. There is a massive explosion that miraculously doesn’t result in multiple fatalities, and it appears that they have found something. Early readings had warned them that there may be animal life under the ground, not just any animal life but something that has never been seen before. But GreedCo has a scientist (Thomas Lennon) on their payroll whose job it is to cast doubt on anything that might interfere with their bottom line. This was clever, topical aspect to the film, echoing the conundrum of company scientists who cast doubt on climate change, a phenomenon that is viewed as absolutely factual to anyone in a lab coat not receiving a paycheck from the fossil fuel industries.

Sure enough, GreedCo did uncover something with their drilling – three creatures belonging to a previously undiscovered species of animal. Two of the creatures are captured, but one of them manages to escape.

Creech, as this third creature is eventually named, is a nondescript grey blob with a toothy grin and lots of tentacles. He lives off of oil (hence how his kind can survive underground) and premium gasoline makes him tweak like a meth addict. He finds his way into a junkyard where he encounters our film’s hero, Tripp (Lucas Till).

Basically modeled to be the misunderstood teenager from a broken home, Tripp can’t believe how unfair life is. His mom is seeing the town sheriff and he can’t even afford an obnoxious truck like the biggest douchebags in his small Dakota town. He spends all his spare time trying to restore a truck of his own so he can cruise the streets and pick up girls with presumably low standards. When he meets this strange being from another world, Tripp at first views it as something to be afraid of and then as a nuisance that is somehow keeping him from working on his Dickmobile. But when Creech makes his home in the undercarriage of Tripp’s truck, all is forgiven since there is something about Creech’s cilia that creates extra torque for the truck, making it a real hell on wheels. No, I don’t think this is scientifically sound and no I won’t waste my time checking.

Tenneson wants to recapture Creech so he can hush up the notion that there are animals under the earth and he can go on making his millions. He sends his goons after Tripp, who then has to depend on a few unlikely friends to help him rescue the two other animals and get them all to safety.

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MONSTER TRUCKS’ biggest problem has nothing to do with the monsters or the bad guys or whether it will appeal to a wide audience. The main problem is our hero. Simply put, Tripp is an increasingly selfish and unlikable person who is ill-mannered to everyone to whom he comes in contact. This extends to his mother (Amy Ryan) who he claims to respect but certainly doesn’t show it. Ditto her mom’s boyfriend (Barry Pepper) who he’s slow to warm up to. Ditto to a kid at school who makes the mistake of looking up to him. And ditto to his eventual love interest, Meredith (Jane Levy), an intellectual girl with an interest in environmental biology. When he doesn’t ignore her entirely, he is astonishingly rude and cruel to her. Of course, Tripp eventually comes around and has a lot of allies in his adventure. But he didn’t come around to appreciating them beforehand. Rather they go out of their way, putting their own careers and lives in jeopardy, in order to aid him whether he deserves it or not. Tripp treats everyone like garbage until he figures he can get something out of them. This includes  Creech, a miraculous animal he regards as a nuisance until he decides to lock him up in his truck. Creech seems on board with this, but Tripp doesn’t know this for sure and I never really thought he cared either. He argues that if he turns Creech over to an environmental agency, they might poke at him. Meanwhile, he’s poking at him.

Fortunately, what the film does with its other characters almost makes up for how terribly it presents Tripp. Jane Levy is likable as Meredith and has a pretty good head on her shoulders. Her instincts about Creech are correct, whether Tripp realizes it or not. Director Chris Wedge engages in a clever bit of misdirection by using subtle but irrelevant bits to turn us against people when its the ones we are led to trust who wind up being bad news. He has not only positioned Tripp as the lead, but allowed us to see the film through his eyes. This is both illuminating in the sense that we get some sort of character arc and problematic in the sense that the film sometimes seems to condone his selfish actions.

If someone had come to Hal Needham in 1996, at the end of his career, and told him to make his version of E.T., this is probably what he would have come up with. It’s a goofy film that only looks like it cost a third of its $125 million budget. But it was never dull, sometimes exciting and I was surprised how many of the stunts were not computer enhanced.

At its best, MONSTER TRUCKS is a throwback to the type of film I didn’t realize I had missed. It’s a harmless, fun, family-oriented adventure with a squishy cute monster at the center of it. The action sequences are entertaining and well shot. The film overloads on the pure cheesiness of its execution (including an unintentionally funny waving montage towards the end) that I just couldn’t take personally. This was not the awfulness of THE AVENGERS or the awesomeness of KNOCK-OFF, it finds a cozy place somewhere in between.

I realize I may be going a bit too easy on this movie. But if I wound up enjoying MONSTER TRUCKS, the rest of the theater loved it. Seriously, these kids ate it up. There was rapt attention during the film, laughter at all the funny bits and by the end credits, wild applause. The audience reaction was so startling that I feel the need to mention it here. Say what you will, MONSTER TRUCKS knows its audience and it doesn’t resort to crass grotesqueries to win them.  Recommended.


RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA

  • What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals? 
  • In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?

The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.

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