What if “monster trucks” actually meant — wait for it — that there were monsters in the trucks? Cute monsters, of course. Nice monsters. (Duh! Nobody likes bad monsters.) The kind of monsters that a boy could be friends with and drive around with and do daring deeds with. Wouldn’t that be cool?
Apparently — this will shock you — Monster Trucks was developed from an idea by former Paramount president Adam Goodman’s four-year-old son. Seriously. They didn’t actually let the four-year-old write the movie (or so they say), but you’d be hard-pressed to find much evidence for that up on the screen. A monster in a truck is the least ridiculous thing amidst a story that is often illogical in much the same way that a small child can smash and crash toy cars of mismatched scales together with little regard for the likelihood of a Tonka truck being defeated by a Lightning McQueen one-tenth its size. A boy befriending a monster is unobjectionable in itself, but some of what they get up to together is hugely problematic in much the same way that a small child will exhibit total disregard for the needs and indeed even the safety of others when he is having a good time with this toys. (If you’ve ever gotten bonked in the head by an airborne Matchbox car, you know what I’m talking about.)
Hell, it wouldn’t take much to convince me that Monster Trucks was not only written by a four-year-old but directed by one. For one thing, this movie contains one of the most pathetic things I’ve ever seen onscreen, one of the saddest debasements of an actor ever. Lucas Till (X-Men: Apocalypse, Paranoia) is a 26-year-old man — though, to be fair, this movie has been in the can and on the shelf for so long that he was probably only 23 when it was shot — who is required to sit in the cab of the vintage pickup truck that his character is restoring, and pretend to turn the wheel as if driving while making *vroom vroom* noises. Not as a joke. Not to be goofy. But as if this is the deepest, most thrilling fantasy a high-school senior can imagine. (The usually just-about-passable conceit of having an adult actor play a teenager gets pushed to the limit here: another jarring scene has the rather hulking Tripp — that’s his name — looking wildly out of place among a bunch of actual teenagers on a schoolbus.)
Think Transformers Babies. Think E.T. Moves into the Love Bug. And then lower your expectations to a Mac and Me level. This is one of those movies that we overanalytical critics are not supposed to get too worked up about because, you know, for kids. And maybe that excuses the absurd contrived plot about how a North Dakota oil-drilling project unleashes a family of blubbery, tentacly underground sea monsters — a species of megafauna previously undiscovered in many decades of prospecting — that just so happen to take a superquick liking to using monster-truck chassis as wheelchairs. Maybe the “for kids” thing pardons cartoonish oil-company villains — like the one played by Rob Lowe (Sex Tape, The Invention of Lying) — and cartoonishly clueless authority figures — like the sheriff played by Barry Pepper (Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, Kill the Messenger). Maybe the four-year-old mentality of the whole endeavor allows a pass for Meredith (Jane Levy: Evil Dead, Fun Size), a schoolmate of Tripp’s who starts off as rude and bossy (just like a girl!) before melting into a supporting yet chaste girlfriend role (can’t be too careful about cooties). Maybe it’s okay that a major sequence in the film requires a top-secret research facility to study the monsters and yet such lax security that a couple of nosy teenagers can wander in without being noticed. Maybe it’s okay that those teenagers can be away from home for days without any responsible adults appearing to notice.
But it’s not cool that the adults actually in charge of Monster Trucks, director Chris Wedge (Epic, Robots) and screenwriter Derek Connolly (Jurassic World), crafted this as a sort of last-gasp romance of American environmental narcissism — yes, we are using up all the oil, try and stop us! — that fetishizes gas-guzzlers. The whole movie is shot like a TV commercial for trucks that make a man a man. (Did you think there was a green message here? There could have been, but there isn’t. The monsters eat oil! You should see the numbers on the pump at the gas station when Tripp pulls in to feed his monster.) It’s not cool that its stars lack any charisma or charm, that the vehicles exhibit more personality than they do… and I don’t even mean the ones with cute monsters inside them. And it’s really not cool that the shenanigans Tripp gets up to with his monster-in-a-truck include some outrageously dangerous driving that puts completely innocent bystanders at risk for their lives and results in massive criminal damage across a wide swath of his small town. (That he also, at one point, acts like police do-not-cross crime-scene tape doesn’t apply to him is a comparatively minor offense.) The movie takes little notice of Tripp’s vandalism except to note how much wacky fun it is. What an adventure!
Monster Trucks appears to have no inkling how utterly inappropriate both its would-be sympathetic human and monster protagonists really are. This would appear to be yet another film from the same darkest timeline/Mirror Universe of Passengers and Collateral Beauty, in which deeply indecent behavior by ostensible heroes is celebrated and rewarded. Because that’s a message kids need to hear?