Keep on Monster Truckin' Case File #92 Monster Trucks
If you are not the parent of a three year old boy, you may have found yourself wondering what could have moved a seemingly rational, for-profit movie studio like Paramount to spend one hundred and twenty five million dollars on a movie called Monster Trucks about, you guessed it, trucks that are also monsters, or at least powered by amphibious sea-monsters from beyond the deep.
As the parent of a three year old boy, however, I found myself wondering why it took cinema well over a century to finally realize its true potential by answering the universe’s angry cries and spend one hundred and twenty five million dollars on a movie called Monster Trucks about trucks that are also monsters.
It goes beyond that. When I first learned of Monster Trucks’ existence, I found myself wondering why every movie isn’t about monsters that are also trucks, or trucks that are also monsters, or weird truck/monster hybrids. Don’t studios like money? Don’t creators want their creations played on an endless loop by drooling, addicted children, too young and obsessed to know any better? Are studios unfamiliar with the box-office of the Transformers and Cars franchises?
How could a movie combining trucks and monsters, two things all boys love with an unhealthy passion, fail to make a fortune? How could a commercial premise as seemingly fool-proof as uniting monsters and cars fail so dramatically? Moreover, how could a move called Monster Trucks be no goddamn fun at all?
I went into Monster Trucks with a lot of questions. I finished it with even more, but I also saw Monster Trucks through my son Declan’s eyes as well as my own. I was surprised to discover that a movie called Monster Trucks let down both my inner three year old boy and the actual three year old boy I watched it with.
I see things a little differently as a dad. Fatherhood has changed me. I now, for example, nurse a bizarre conviction that children’s entertainment is for children, not adult critics. And as the father of a little boy who loves all of the things little boys who are supposed to love, chief among them monsters and trucks, I got vicariously excited about Monster Trucks on Declan’s behalf.
My son is new to watching feature-length movies. He’s also three years old so he has the attention span of a fruit fly or the current President of the United States. He’s obsessed not only with Batman (big surprise there), but specifically with the Bat-Cave, so I’ll find something Batman-related for us to watch and after a few minutes he’ll persistently inquire, “Where’s the Bat-Cave? Where’s the Bat-Cave? Where’s Batman? Where’s the Joker?”
I then explain to Declan that movies and television shows have a bunch of different scenes, and not all of them will feature the same characters or the same set. When Declan greeted the slow, exposition-heavy, monster and monster truck-light beginning of Monster Trucks with a familiar, predictable cry of “Where are the monster trucks?” he was mirroring my own internal monologue.
I wanted to tell Declan, “That’s a good fucking question. Where are those fucking monster trucks? Why aren't there more monster trucks in a fucking movie called Monster Trucks? Isn't that the whole goddamn point?” Monster Trucks doesn’t really get around to the whole monster-in-a-truck thing until after twenty minutes painstakingly establishing both the nature of the monsters who will fuse with a big-ass truck to become some manner of “Monster Truck” as well as the economy and history of the depressed small oil town where the film takes place, and the tortured family life and daddy issues of its bland teenage protagonist Tripp (Lucas Till).
Late in the film, Tripp’s tutor Meredith (Jane Levy), who is so nakedly a hoary teen-movie cliche that she might as well be introduced gushing to the lead, “Hi! I’m the gorgeous yet slightly bookish-looking “friend” who has an enormous, obvious crush on you who you will spend the entire film inexplicably overlooking and ignoring until it’s narratively convenient for you to do otherwise!” tells Tripp that there’s no one like him in their school. Her statement is puzzling, because I’m pretty sure high schools are full of boring white dudes who like cars. It is true, however, that there aren’t a lot of high schools populated by dudes in their mid-twenties who look like the result of a genetic experiment cross-breeding Kurt Russell with Patrick Swayze. Tripp is not terribly convincing as a high school student, which is weird, considering that he’s been playing a high school kid for nearly a decade, dating back to his time as the male lead in 2009’s Hannah Montana: the Movie.
Tripp comes from a tragically broken home. His father (Frank Whaley) abandoned the family and he has a complicated and ambivalent relationship with her mother's new boyfriend (Barry Pepper), who also happens to be the town sheriff. Incidentally, I cannot look at Barry Pepper’s face now and not see the viscerally disturbing visage of Eric Trump, and I cannot look at the hideous, ghoulish face of Eric Trump and not see character actor Barry Pepper circa his career-making turn as Jonnie Goodboy Tyler in Battlefield Earth. Yes, between Battlefield Earth, Monster Trucks and the Trump administration, Pepper has been involved with all manner of fiascoes, but I may be confusing him with his Patrick Bateman-like doppelgänger.
Just as Godzilla began as an unsubtle metaphor for the almost unimaginable horrors unleashed by the atomic bomb and atomic energy, Monster Trucks is none too subtly about the dangers of fracking and messing with the primal, unknown forces of nature for the sake of making a buck. At the risk of blowing your mind, what if I told you that in Monster Trucks the real monster is human greed? The secondary monster is of course the monster that essentially becomes the sentient motor of a truck, of course, but the true heavy is Terravex Oil, who essentially own and run a small town in North Dakota where a trio of hitherto undiscovered, unknown amphibious sea-monsters are unleashed through fracking.
Two of the sea monsters are captured by Terravex, and looked after by a geologist played by Thomas Lennon, but the third escapes and bonds with Tripp after the sulky high school senior finds out that the monster, a sort of squid/octopus hybrid with big puppy dog eyes he names Creech, drinks oil and metabolizes it the way the engine of a car or truck would.
Creech essentially functions as a sentient super-engine capable of not just traveling great speeds but also climbing up walls and leaping high into the air. Creech communes with Tripp’s beat-up old truck to the point where it becomes impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Alas, Terravex eventually figures out that one of their sea-monsters has gone missing, and set out to retrieve it, by any means necessary.
In theory, there’s a lot to like about Monster Trucks. It’s very nakedly in the tradition of beloved creature features from the 1970s and 1980s from people like Stephen King and Steven Spielberg about sad, lost or lonely boys, teens or men whose banal, mundane existences are changed forever when a fantastical creature or creatures enters their world, or when they leave our world for the stars.
Monster Trucks desperately wants to be mentioned in the same breath as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T, Gremlins, Explorers, Poltergeist, Christine and Batteries Not Included. Thematically, Monster Trucks bears a distinct similarity to a less beloved late-period Steven Spielberg production: the Transformers movies. What is a class act like Spielberg doing Executive Producing Michael Bay’s hot garbage? Making Dreamworks billions, and also creating timeless art of course.
Monster Trucks deserves credit less for what it is than for what it is not because, to be brutally honest, it’s not much. It’s almost impressively not much. It’s one hundred and twenty five million dollars of something so negligible it barely exists, and I just spent one hundred and four minutes in the world of Monster Trucks.
Most refreshingly, Monster Trucks is not like the Transformers movies. There are no leering cheesecake shots of the female lead seemingly ripped from the pages of Maxim. There’s no racist dialect humor confusingly executed by shape-shifting robots. Shots last for longer than a fraction of a second and the movie’s pace isn’t intentionally frenetic and disorienting. There are no crude, dated pop culture references. I could be wrong, but there does not seem to be any pop culture references at all.
I appreciated that Monster Trucks doesn’t have fart jokes or social media jokes or trendy jokes or timely jokes. But it seems a little perverse and counter-intuitive that there don’t seem to be any jokes at all. Even Lennon, who has a lucrative, high-profile gig as a script doctor and writer-for-hire, mostly delivers dense, jargon-heavy exposition to an executive played by Rob Lowe.
I similarly appreciated that Monster Trucks is devoid of the kind of Poochie-style ‘tude that is ubiquitous in kids entertainment but the film might have benefitted attitude of any kind.
While we’re on the topic of theoretically positive qualities Monster Trucks possesses that are actually pejorative, I respected that Monster Trucks doesn’t go overboard anthropomorphizing its sea monster. True, he does have a bit of a puppy dog quality to him, but he is very much a sea creature with sometimes recognizable emotions, who communicates the way animals and pets communicate, rather than the way humans do. I was intermittently charmed by Creech, but not to the point where I was willing to overlook everything else.
In the Spielberg-directed or produced classics Monster Trucks pays clumsy tribute to, the attention the filmmakers pay to the details and emotional reality of life as a kid in the suburbs grounds the fantasy and action and spectacle in a recognizable reality. They lend these flights of fancy an unexpected psychological verisimilitude.
That doesn’t happen in Monster Trucks. Instead of giving the film a dramatic heft or substance, they instead drain a sure-fire crowd-and-kid-pleaser of all pleasure. Here’s the thing: I don’t want a movie called Monster Trucks to be deeply invested in the emotional life of a teenager coping with parental abandonment and a complicated home life. I don’t want a movie called Monster Trucks to really explore the way Terravex exploits its power to poison the environment and escape consequences.
No, I just wanted a movie called Monster Trucks to be fun, and have some trucks that are monsters, and monsters that are also trucks. I did not get that. That’s fine for me. Monster Trucks was not meant for me. No, it was made rather specifically for my three year old, truck-and-monster-obsessed son. Even he lost interest almost immediately.
Who could blame him? Monster Trucks should be dumb fun. Instead it’s weirdly sincere tedium with an odd sort of integrity I admired even as I resented it because even a shitty Transformers sequel is more fun than this painfully sincere, perversely dour slog.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure