How Bad Is…Monster Trucks (2016)?
Monster Trucks has issues, but winds up being oddly engaging in many places.
This infamous box office bomb cost Paramount upwards of 120 million dollars. Critics crushed it like Robosaurus crushes cars at a demolition derby. Viewers actually treated Monster Trucks more generously, and the film got an “A” from CinemaScore. As it shares a star with this weekend’s new film, Ready or Not, I decided to give it a whirl. We love good/bad movies here at Deluxe Video Online, and the story of a guy who befriends a monster that lives in his big-ass truck seems like it would fit that category pretty solidly.
Monster Trucks (2016).
Tripp (Lucas Till) hates life in his sleepy North Dakota hometown. His single mother is dating the town sheriff (Bary Pepper), a man who takes a dim view of Tripp’s poor grades and obsession with cars. His biological father works for Terravex, a shady fracking company that employs a majority of the town. Terravex discovers an aquatic ecosystem standing between them and the oil deposits they are after, and their fracking dredges up three octopus-like creatures from that system. The immoral CEO (Rob Lowe) decides to cover up the discovery, despite the protests of his science advisor. One of the creatures, the child of the creature family, escapes and hides in the junkyard where Tripp spends his nights, souping up an old truck. The two eventually bond, but Terravex comes looking for the creature, this time to destroy it.
What Went Wrong?
- Audience Misalignment. I’m a little shocked that the studio thought it was wise to invest north of 150 million dollars on this project. Everything about this film is targeted at a very particular subset of viewers. Some of those subsets are obvious – white, male, rural. The others are a bit odder and contradictory- environmentally conscious yet a car enthusiast. Anti-fracking, pro science, but a car enthusiast. I guess I just don’t quite get how you make an anti-fracking, anti corporate social message stick with one character who is only happy when he’s covered in axle grease and his monster pet that LITERALLY DRINKS OIL. I don’t think anybody who’d line up to see giant monster trucks at the speedway is what you’d think of as ecologically concerned.
- I’m just going to say it: Tripp is a dipshit. Or at least dipshit adjacent. I think this comes down to whoever wrote him having quite a few blind spots. He’s rude to people for no reason. He treats the Sheriff like he’s the gestapo, yet Barry Pepper plays that character very sympathetically. He seems prickly to his mother, like he blames her for the divorce despite the evidence being that his dad is a complete loser. He treats both Meredith (Jane Levy) the girl who volunteers to tutor him selflessly, and Sam, his only ostensible friend, abysmally. He’s all transactional: if you’re useful to his one priority, he treats you like a human being. If not, you’re roadkill. There’s never really a reckoning for this narcissism, so you never feel any empathy for his situation. When people start helping him, you wonder why on Earth they’d do that for such a self-absorbed and loutish young man.
- This movie is a bout two decades too late. Most of the movie feels like “boy discovers monster” movies of the 1980’s like Flight of the Navigator, E.T., or Little Monsters – if those movies were made with a 1990’s Nickelodeon TV series vibe. Those movies don’t get made much anymore, probably due to lack of audience interest in paying full price for a dead genre. I also think monster trucks as a cultural thing for kids and teens died around that time too. I certainly don’t see them plastered all over merch and television like they were when I was a kid. People going to Monster Jam these days are more likely to be sporting beer koozies instead of lunch boxes. Making a young teen movie with cutesy creatures and monster trucks in 2016 feels like it missed its demographic mark completely.
What Went Right?
- Creature design. Creech, as Tripp names his monster, is cute and has an engaging personality. The family dynamic of the three creatures is adorable. Anytime a character not named Meredith does something commendable, it is almost always 100% of the time the result of interacting with the creatures. Maybe that’s the secret message of this film: the real monsters of this picture don’t have eight arms…
- Solid Supporting Cast. As you can guess, I have a much higher opinion of everyone not named Tripp. Most of them are quite interesting characters. Meredith is actively noble, but not off-putting. Her obvious crush on Tripp makes her feel like the actual protagonist of the piece. The rest of the supporting cast surprised me. I like Barry Pepper, but he’s definitely slipped out of the top tier and had to take some lousy scripts. Danny Glover and Rob Lowe routinely take horrible scripts. They’re all rock solid in this film, and carry off their roles ably. Thomas Lennon (Reno 911) is a delight as the morally compromised scientist who redeems himself helping Creech. I did not expect a) to see Lennon in a project of this budget, b) to have such a deft exploration of the compromised nature of science in the petroleum industry, and c) that this movie would have effective comedy and character writing. Good job all around.
- Nice Visuals. From the first shot, you can see where the budget went. We get a sweeping aerial shot of the green hills – of British Columbia, not the Dakotas, but oh well. Director Chris Wedge (Ice Age, Epic) has a penchant for panoramic shots, high angles, and vibrant color. I can’t really fault the CG, either. It is fluid, cutesy, but not completely cartoonish. The creatures interact with the real world nicely, pointing to a marriage of CG and practical effects. Only one time did that interface look floaty and fake. Of course it was when Creech hugged Tripp. Tripp ruins everything he touches.
How Bad Is It?
Not very bad at all, I’d say. I never warmed up to the protagonist, and monster truck racing disappeared from my “cool stuff” list right around the time Hulk Hogan stopped getting movie deals. Even with these handicaps, I found the performances from the rest of the cast to be engaging, and the story to be a light and breezy throwback to the kind of movie I was raised on. I could never quite nail down the film’s politics, but it was consistently entertaining. I laughed out loud when I read that Paramount hoped to jump-start a film and TV franchise with this property. All in all it was a decently fun flick that unfortunately wildly misunderstood its place in the ecosystem.