Whatever you think this movie is about probably isn’t exactly right. If, based on the trailer, you think it’s about a monster who takes up residence inside a high school kid’s truck, you’re only slightly right. The fact is, the monster is part of the engineless truck; it doesn’t run without him. The many-tentacled creature (named “Creach” by said teenager) integrates its body with the rusted out, customized vehicle, and it can do just about anything. So if all Monster Trucks was was a flimsy, lightweight kids’ movie, I could see going easy on it for doing something a little different. By this live-action film (with CG creatures) from animation director Chris Wedge (Ice Age, Robots, Epic) wants to be more, and the harder it tries to be, the worse it gets. Anyone who thinks ambition earns an otherwise bad movie points should take a peek at this one.
Now I understand: January is a rough month for moviegoers in many ways. While January does act as a release valve for qualifying prestige films, vying for awards, it’s also studio dumping ground for questionable franchise films (Underworld, Resident Evil, XXX) and other works that don’t hold much potential for making any money. There are exceptions, but historically, this is how things typically shake out.
Although it’s being released by a big studio, Paramount Pictures, Monster Trucks is, in fact, not a movie at all; it’s a infomercial for Dodge Trucks. If this were simply a high-energy chase movie across rugged terrain, designed to show off the durability of these vehicles, you could almost forgive it if what we were watching were all about the rough ride. There’s definitely some of that in play, but Monster Trucks is also a film about protecting the environment from a wicked (utterly fictional) oil company, which discovers a new species of life while digging for oil and attempt to not only cover this fact up so they don’t have to stop digging, but they attempt to kill the remaining members of the species so the problem doesn’t come up again.
Maybe I’m the only one that finds it bizarre that a film that so prominently features oversized trucks (that likely get around 20 miles a gallon, at best) is going after oil companies but make no mistake, oil itself is not the bad guy, since the creatures seem to feed on it by the barrel. They’re also very smart, easily trainable, and have a hive mind, so that when one learns to do something, others learn it too, which is very good for speeding through a plot.
The film opens when an accident at an oil well results in three of these creatures shooting to the surface, only to be hunted for capture by the company (headed by Rob Lowe, in evil mode), presumably for research purposes by its head scientist (Tom Lennon), who you can tell is a scientist because he’s the only character in the film with glasses. One of the creatures makes its way into the nearest town and lands in the local auto scrap yard, run by Mr. Weathes (Danny Glover) and his one employee, Tripp (Lucas Till, probably best known for playing Havok in the most recent X-Men movies, as well as starring in the latest television version of “MacGyver”), a high school student who almost never actually attends school.
As you might already notice, Monster Trucks has a bizarre, multi-generational cast, including Barry Pepper as the local sheriff, who also happens to be dating Tripp’s mom (Amy Ryan, who is completely squandered here in all of two brief scenes). Frank Whaley is also on hand as Tripp’s real dad, who just happens to be working at the oil drilling site, whose head of security (Holt McCallany) is in charge of rounding up the missing creatures. Tripp’s one ally is fellow high school student and resident brainiac Meredith (Jane Levy of Evil Dead and Don’t Breathe).
Tripp forms a bond with Creach, who seems to enjoy crawling inside the guts of a truck Tripp is rebuilding. Using his skills and knowledge of mechanic (he’s no dummy, the film reminds us, even if he constantly misses school), Tripp customizes his truck to accommodate the rather large creature and finds ways to control the car by setting up various devices in the bodywork that teach Creach to steer and react in specific ways. Basically, he rides him like a barely controllable metal horse.
Most of the film is just bad guys chasing Tripp and Creach, Meredith and Creach falling for each other, and Tripp making peace with the things in his life that he can’t control—like what a complete jerk his father is (the film even includes a few seconds of Tripp crying about this, which feels so awkward in this context). Ultimately, the movie becomes what I’d assumed it would be in the first place—a better-than-average chase film across treacherous terrain at high speeds, and boy, those Dodge Rams really get the job done!
Even with creature designs that are far too cutesy for anyone’s good, the special monster effects integrate rather nicely with humans and machines alike. Director Wedge wants us to like these characters so much, that you can feel him manipulating us by making Creach icky but adorable. I was also troubled at how downright treacherous things got at times, especially when Tripp takes his new truck out on the road with other drivers. We’re not talking near misses; there are nasty accidents at some point involving people who have nothing to do with the story. This is a PG-rated film, but there’s a scene where a guy gets a vat of poison dumped on him, and then they cut away just before, I have to presume, he dies in the steam of his organs dissolving (I may have let my imagination get the best of me on that, but it seems like a solid guess).
Monster Trucks’s greatest crime is being hopelessly misguided. It’s not outright evil (although that might have made it less generic and more interesting), and it’s possible that kids who happen to like their cars will get a kick out of it. More than anything, it’s a textbook example of what the people who make movies try to pass off as entertainment in January. There are so many better movies out right now, even better family-oriented ones, that you shouldn’t have any problem finding anything other than this one to spend you money on. Heed my warning.