For movie buffs, “spoilers” typically refer to details that give away key plot details before audiences have had a chance to see a movie for themselves. But in the case of “Monster Trucks,” expectations have been crushed by two pieces of news released by the studio responsible. First, Paramount warned its shareholders to anticipate a massive bomb, having already taken a $115 million write-down against the movie’s projected losses. And second, it got out that the concept was “developed” in conversations between Adam Goodman (who has since lost his job as president) and his then-four-year-old son (who has since aged out of the target demographic — that’s how long this project has taken to reach the screen).
Like it sounds, “Monster Trucks” is a lame kids’ movie reverse-engineered from a worse pun: What if those massive custom 4x4s that kick up dust and crush old cars at heartland truck rallies were really alive? And what if they were powered by giant, gas-guzzling monsters where their motors should be?
That’s not to say there isn’t some way to take that setup and spin it into a successful studio franchise, the way Pixar did with “Cars.” And there are probably worse ideas than hiring Chris Wedge (director of “Ice Age” and “Robots”) and screenwriter Derek Connolly (“Jurassic World”) to make it work on the big screen. But the concept was never good enough to support a movie of this scale, and those early-word spoilers have destroyed what little enthusiasm there might have been for such a movie — which is sort of a shame, since the creative team managed to assemble a sturdy forbidden-friendship movie, where men in black want to separate a well-meaning human from his misunderstood pet.
Here, the human in question is a hunky, yet awkward high school student named Tripp (Texas-born Lucas Till, who plays Havok in the “X-Men” movies). Looking old enough to be in graduate school, “teenage” Tripp lives with his single mom (Amy Ryan) and works at a small-town junkyard (for a wheelchair-bound Danny Glover), where he hopes to one day get his run-down Dodge pickup running again. At this point, the old heap is basically just rust and turquoise paint — though that doesn’t keep Tripp from sitting behind the wheel and pretending to drive, making engine noises with his mouth as he fake-swerves to avoid imaginary obstacles.
Lately, mom has been dating the local sheriff (Barry Pepper), while Tripp’s deadbeat dad, who walked out on his family years earlier, holds a job with a shady oil and gas company called Terravex. Operating a few miles outside town, Terravex is sitting on what could be the largest oil reserve in the continental United States. There’s just one problem: Between the company’s state-of-the-art drilling operation and all that sweet crude is an entire ecosystem — an elaborate network of underground lakes and caves — that has been undisturbed for thousands, if not millions of years. Oh, and there’s something living down there.
Before you can say “I drink your milkshake,” Terravex’s eco-ambivalent boss (Rob Lowe, looking especially waxy) has ordered his team to tap into their claim, releasing three giant CG “monsters” from the depths. In a horror movie, these potentially menacing creatures, with their long squid-like tentacles and rows of shark-like teeth, would proceed to teach mankind a lesson about the dangers of corporate greed. But “Monster Trucks” was made for babies, and so these beasties turn out to be glorified pets with an appetite for oil and the ability to operate engine-less fossil-fuel-burning vehicles — like the pickup Tripp happens to have handy.
For this hackneyed dynamic to work, the filmmakers only really need to establish one thing: That the bond between Tripp and his monster is strong enough that being stuffed inside tn old truck qualifies as friendship — because it’s hardly as majestic as flying on the back of a luck dragon, as in “The NeverEnding Story,” or biking across the moon, à la “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.” Such movies belong to a genre Hollywood did best about 30 years ago, and as such, “Monster Trucks” feels like a throwback to the era of “a boy and his (magical) dog” movies — though these stories have significantly lost their charm since the industry switched from practical to digital effects.
Those classics look clunky now, with their old-school animatronics and puppet tricks, and yet, they invited a certain suspension of disbelief all but missing from a film like “Monster Trucks,” in which it’s all too evident that an effects house has gone in after the fact to add digital tentacles to scenes in which big trucks are bouncing across mountain terrain (science-nerd classmate Jane Levy and corporate conscience Tom Lennon thrown in, more because the monster trio craves additional drivers than for additional human interest).
Still, the movie does have a few entertaining set pieces up its chassis, including a chase in which Tripp’s truck climbs a wall and bounds across the rooftops of his small town’s retro Main Street. And in an inspired touch, the monsters glow when they make contact with water, and the resulting phosphorescent green feels distinct from previous creature features. But surely there was something more interesting to do than rescuing two monsters from captivity, stashing them in trucks of their own, and racing to stop Lowe and his goons from poisoning their habitat.
“Monster Trucks” marks Wedge’s live-action debut, and like other directors who’ve hailed from the animation sphere (including “John Carter” helmer Andrew Stanton and “The Chronicles of Narnia’s” Andrew Adamson), he seems overwhelmed by the transition, resulting in exaggerated acting and clunky staging. Instead of hiring someone with CG experience to treat these projects as tentpoles, studio execs should look to indie directors with something to prove (the way David Lowery elevated “Pete’s Dragon” above its B-movie origins).
And, of course, they should have spent much, much less: Had it been made on the shoestring scale of something like “Sharknado” or an old-school Roger Corman picture, “Monster Trucks” could have been a phenomenon — instead of a glorified SuperBowl commercial for Dodge trucks. Younger audiences may not find it so strange that nearly all the movie’s “hero trucks” are Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram vehicles (the other product with significant on-screen placement is Texas-based Big Red soda, also featured in Paramount’s Transformers series). But there’s something not just paradoxical, but downright sinister about a movie that treats an imaginary petroleum company as the enemy, while hyping some of the least fuel-conscious SUVs on the market.