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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Monster Trucks movie review: what a car-tastrophe

Monster Trucks red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
What if “monster trucks” actually meant — wait for it — that there were monsters in the trucks? From an idea by a four-year-old (really), and it shows.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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?

A monster in a truck is the least ridiculous thing amidst a story that is often illogical and morally hugely problematic.

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.)

The Car of Cthulhu.

The Car of Cthulhu.tweet

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.tweet 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.

Monster Trucks How to Train Your Dragon

Nope, no hopes that you will be reminded of better, sweeter boy-and-his-monster movies…tweet

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 narcissismtweet — 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.tweet 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?

Click here for my ranking of this and 2016’s other theatrical releases.

Click here for my ranking of this and 2017’s other theatrical releases.

red light 1 star

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Monster Trucks (2016) | directed by Chris Wedge
US/Can release: Jan 13 2017
UK/Ire release: Dec 26 2016

MPAA: rated PG for action, peril, brief scary images, and some rude humor
BBFC: rated PG (mild threat)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • When I saw this trailer, I assumed that it was based on some line of toys or TV show or something that I’d never heard of because I’m a sophisticated adult.

    So this movie is an original concept? Man, of all the things…..

  • It’s not based on anything except the mind of a four-year-old.

  • RogerBW

    The Axe Cop comic was written by a five-year-old boy and drawn by his big brother. It works well in about five-minute doses.

    Lucas Till, he of the perma-smarm, didn’t have to take the lead in the MacGyver remake. Nobody was holding his family hostage or anything. I have no sympathy for him at all.

    Maybe this is why Hollywood doesn’t make many films with original ideas: nobody involved can actually tell if an idea is any good, so they try to buy them in from pre-screened sources.

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  • Lee Rowe

    Actually, I watched this with my kids, and the movie was thoroughly enjoyed by all, including myself. To tell you the truth, when you write a film review, you have to be able to step back a little and be a tad objective, but this felt like criticism for the sake of being able to use all your big words in the one letter.

    Yes, this was for kids, and yes, we all cringed when he made the vroom vroom noises, but beyond that, the action was great, the characters were pretty good. The acting wasnt too bad either. Good musical score, great visuals and a pretty decent smattering of humour throughout! and in general, it flowed nicely and kept you quite entertained!

  • Danielm80

    I was going to give you an N3 (from the 2017 Bingo card) and move on, but I’m curious: What is it you think she isn’t objective about? Do you think she has a bias against movies for kids? She’s given positive reviews to a whole lot of them, most recently Paddington 2. (She loved the first one also.) Do you think she’s slanted against movies with CGI monsters? She loved Pacific Rim and Kong: Skull Island and more than one Godzilla film.

    If you think she’s slanted against movies with really dumb plots, then I would say: That’s a pretty good attitude for a critic to have. But even so, I refer you back to Pacific Rim.

    Or maybe I should take your comment at face value. If you really think that she would attack a random movie just to show off her vocabulary, I don’t know what to say to you, except…If you consider “ostensible” and “narcissism” and “fetishize” to be rare and difficult words, you might want to widen your reading material.

  • Lee Rowe

    Ok…. Have no idea what N3 from a bingo card is meant to mean, but I am here for the review. Also, I never said she was bias about any other movies (kids, cgi etc) so I am not sure why you would suggest that she is. Also in all fairness… I could have been a little less abrasive in my reply (yes, its easy enough to get up on a soap box and have a rant before realising that it may have been a tad rude), apologies to all for that …… so all that aside.

    I guess my problem is that… well… this was not the horrendous movie that it has been portrayed as in this article. Yes, its a silly plot, but it was executed reasonably well and was very entertaining. My kids watch it on a regular basis and get a great laugh out of it each time. I have sat through it three times myself (as you do when you have kids), and honestly, have enjoyed it every time, far more than I would have expected given the premise of the whole thing.

    I have read scathing reviews about such movies as Titanic, The Avengers, Avatar etc, all of which were amazing movies that broke records at the box office. Given their massive success, it is clear that the people who panned them as professional reviewers should find another line of work and reading such self serving rubbish from these people about good movies is frustrating at the very least! While we are all entitled to an opinion, I would imagine that when you are doing a public review that will ultimately help people decide whether or not to go and watch a movie, you are in fact affecting an industries finances, and this should be somewhat tempered with being able to stand back and accept that a movie can be more than just how it personally touched you. Its clear that the person who wrote this review hated the movie given that the review is quite scathing.

    I wrote my feedback in defence of a good flick that will definately entertain MANY families, despite this damning article. Again, maybe I could have been a little kinder in my reply, but I believe I have been alot less harsh than the article itself was.

    So, thats my two cents worth. I have put my soap box away and promise to use it more wisely going forward (will try to). I just throw it out there that if you really REALLY hate a movie, perhaps get some external feedback before publicly crucifying it.

    And… thanks for actually taking the time to write back regarding my comment. Always good to have a bit of a debate!


  • Bluejay

    Totally agree, Lee. Another thing that annoys me is that sometimes she gives GLOWING reviews to movies that I HATED. For instance, she really liked Godzilla from 2014, whereas I thought it had a ton of plotholes, tired story, cardboard characters, etc. I really resented the fact that, when she gave her positive opinion of the movie, she didn’t consider that there might be people out there (like me) who would have a NEGATIVE opinion about it. Why didn’t she write a review that acknowledged my negative reaction? I mean, okay, I realize that she is entitled to her own opinion and she can only write about how the movie affected HER, and there was no way she could accurately predict how it would affect ME, but still!

    It’s frustrating that critics can so irresponsibly influence the box office — not just by discouraging people from watching great films (which is why all the Transformers movies were flops), but also by encouraging people to see films that I think are crap, and then the film earns a lot of money even if I think it doesn’t deserve to. I mean, that’s what happened with Blade Runner 2049 — beloved by critics and certified “Fresh” with 87% at Rotten Tomatoes, which is what convinced moviegoers to see it in droves and make it the biggest film of the year, even though it’s a crap movie.

    Why don’t critics ever clearly, explicitly say, “This is only my opinion”? They really should, because otherwise they’ll confuse people who don’t realize that they can have their own opinions and make their own decisions about what movies to watch. Then those folks might get pissed off and write angry comments about how it’s horrible that a critic’s opinion didn’t match their own.

  • Lee Rowe

    Yep totally agree Bluejay, because opinions are something that you usually share amongst friends on a facebook timeline etc. A publically accessable movie review page is not the best place to bag out a film just because it didn’t appeal to you. That’s where being objective is needed, yet is fast becoming a lost art.

    I have seen plenty of great movies that I seriously hated, but I fully understand that this is just because they didn’t really appeal to me. Have even found myself recommending them to friends that I think would like them because they have appeal for different people.

    To jump on and outright publicly bag it, accusing the director and writer of having the professional skills of a four year old etc, I don’t know, just feels out of place on a movie review page.

    This is a page for movie reviews. Its setup professionally, even asks for donations to obviously keep it maintained and the like. I didn’t think it was unreasonable for me to expect that it was more than just someones home blog about how much they loved or hated a movie.

  • Bluejay

    I know, right? Opinions are just what you share privately among friends. A movie review is never an opinion, it is a statement of scientific truth. She can’t just write about what she thinks about a movie; she should be totally objective, and write about what everyone else might think about the movie, too. I have read plenty of movie reviews, and the best ones are the ones that are completely objective, which I can tell because those are the ones I agree with.

    For her to express her strong negative opinions about this film, even if she honestly holds those opinions, I don’t know. She really should have taken the opinions of folks like yourself into account, when she sat down to write it. She may not even know you, but that’s really no excuse.

    And it’s totally unfair for her to set up a donations page so that people who enjoy her writing can support her. It might fool people who dislike her writing into accidentally making a donation. These deceptive critics trying to “make a living” can go jump in a lake.

  • Lee Rowe

    Naw…. now you are just being silly, and speaking in pure sarcasm isn’t making it all that easy to take you seriously.

    Also, my second message (before you came into the conversation), I did apologise for being a little abrasive with my initial comments. While I still stand by my thoughts, I was a little rude about the “Big Words” comment, and really didn’t mean offence.

    Regarding your comments…..

    I mentioned the donations thing as a tribute to the fact that she has setup a PROFESSIONAL page etc and is maintaining it as such. It was both an acknowledgement and compliment towards her hard work. These pages do not maintain themselves. Clearly you misunderstood what I said, or are deliberately deflecting.

    Also, an objective review of something is neither a purely personal opinion, nor a scientific fact. Its something in between that is sometimes difficult to balance, but can be done. I am surprised that you feel that it has to be one or the other on a forum such as this.

    I also never actually asked anyone to take my opinion over their own before giving a review. I have suggested that you have to think broadly about a movie and its presentation beyond how it appeals to just yourself, and surprisingly this is different to expecting her to simply fall into line with my opinion.

    Please bear in mind that I am not suggesting that she doesn’t share an opinion with people, simply that if you are going to go to all this effort to prepare and maintain a professional looking page, it seems a shame to just fill it with something that falls short of a great and open minded movie review. (Yes I am a total movie fan of all genre).

    If the page was put together with a personal opinion style info exchange in mind then I apologise. I searched for movie reviews and this came up. I felt that the review was not only negative, but remarkably scathing (again… declaring the 4 year old skill level of the writer and producer), hence, like everyone else here, I gave my opinion. And of course you are hammering me for giving an opinion (And yes, I see the irony).

    To the author of the page. I feel I need to apologise. I threw my thoughts out there and perhaps stomped on your rights to an opinion just a little. This is my fault as I always think of movie reviews as having to be A LITTLE removed from personal experience to be fair to all that read the review (Not overly of course as you have to have something of this in there). I realise that not everyone is aiming to do a professional grade job with reviews and perhaps its all about saying “This is what I got out of it”… and please don’t misinterpret this as sarcastic, that’s an honest acceptance that I overreacted through my own expectations.

  • Danielm80

    Can I give a standing ovation to an internet comment?

  • Lee Rowe

    Well… I guess seeing as my posts are getting deleted now, its time to leave. Enjoy.

  • step back a little and be a tad objective


    I’ll say it again for the people in the back: THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS OBJECTIVE CRITICISM.

  • this was not the horrendous movie that it has been portrayed as in this article. Yes, its a silly plot, but it was executed reasonably well and was very entertaining.

    And this is a completely objective opinion, is it? Nothing at all subjective in it? I mean, you are just factually correct? There’s no hint of, you know, *opinion* in what you say?

  • That’s where being objective is needed, yet is fast becoming a lost art.

    Oh, dude. Whenever you stumble across a review you believe is “objective,” I promise you that that is only because your own biases align with the critic.

    Also, you might want to reread Bluejay’s comment with a slightly more discerning eye.

  • Lemme see, how many comments by you have I deleted? Double-checking… Yup, that’s a grand total of zero. Zero “posts” deleted.

  • Bluejay

    I did read your most recent post before it vanished. I’m not sure what happened there; it was probably a Disqus glitch. I’m confident that MaryAnn didn’t delete it, since that’s not usually something she does, and your comment was quite civil and conciliatory and even included an apology to her.

    Here’s what I remember from what you said: You think movie reviewers should be “objective” and “broad-minded,” beyond just writing about their personal reactions (although they’re allowed to include that in the review). But as MaryAnn has pointed out to you, “objectivity” is an illusion in arts criticism. Her opinion that the film could have been written by 4-year-olds is subjective, but so is your opinion that it was reasonably entertaining. That’s just YOUR reaction, not a fact.

    Even a reviewer who seems to you to be “broad-minded” by taking different imagined perspectives into account (“I didn’t like this, but people who like XYZ might like this”) is simply IMAGINING those perspectives, not being objective. And to me it’s a pointless exercise in defanging one’s own review. OF COURSE other people might feel differently about a film; there’s no need to explicitly say it, as if to apologize for one’s own opinion.

    And you kept circling back to the “4-year-olds” comment, which makes me think your argument is really this: “It’s okay to say you didn’t like the film, but you shouldn’t say it so harshly or strongly, because you might upset the people who might actually like the film.” But again, why should she apologize for her own sincere reaction, and why (if it were even possible) should she take other hypothetical people’s hypothetical reactions into account? Would you make the same argument if she LOVED the film and said “this is absolutely gorgeous, the best, a genius piece of work”? Would you say, “It’s okay to say you liked it, but don’t say it so strongly, in case there are people out there who wouldn’t enjoy it as much as you did”? Your argument simply seems to be: “Sure, you can say how you felt about the film, but TONE IT DOWN.”

    A critic’s only responsibility is to honestly express how they felt about a film. Period. You’re entitled to disagree, and you’re entitled to feel strongly about their opinion. But then it’s up to YOU to take that critic’s opinion into account as an interesting, contrasting perspective (so you can be “broad-minded” yourself), and/or search for other critics who are better-matched with your tastes. It’s not a critic’s job to change their thinking or writing style just to avoid upsetting people who might disagree with them.

  • Danielm80

    When I write book reviews, I often consider the perspectives of different potential readers, within the review. In fact, my editor sometimes insists on it. And, to be honest, sometimes it does defang the review. But other times, it makes me even more certain of my own opinion. It makes me think about the unspoken assumptions I’ve brought to the book. And it can inform readers about my taste and biases, and help them contrast them with their own.

    When the Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey series were made into movies, a number of reviewers hated them, but they wrote about why other people might enjoy them, and what that says about our society. I really enjoyed reading that sort of cultural analysis.

    I’ve also seen reviews (usually of concerts and theatre shows) in which the critic said: People around me were weeping and applauding, but I couldn’t stand the show. Here’s why I think we all reacted differently…

    Not every review benefits from contrast and comparison, and—as you said—it can be harmful. It probably would have been in this case. But I certainly wouldn’t rule it out as a technique.

  • Bluejay

    a number of reviewers hated them, but they wrote about why other people might enjoy them, and what that says about our society. I really enjoyed reading that sort of cultural analysis.

    Yes, but that is using other people’s perspectives as a way to engage in, as you say, cultural analysis — to figure out what those perspectives say about society in a larger context. (In fact MaryAnn does something like this in her Justice League review.) It’s a way to say something interesting about the film and its relationship to the world at a meta-level. That’s different from what MaryAnn’s detractors often demand — that she tone down her opinion to avoid disrespecting the butthurt fans who love the film. And of course it usually happens when she expresses NEGATIVE opinions; hardly anyone takes her to task for reviewing a film TOO positively (with the exception of our old friend AsimovLives and his weird obsession with Abrams’ Star Trek).

  • Danielm80

    True, although people did get really upset with Roger Ebert because he didn’t hate Gigli nearly enough.

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