Monster Trucks (2016)

On January 13, meet Creech

Hey, what if monster trucks were actually trucks but with monsters living inside of them. This, folks, is the basic premise behind Monster Trucks, a film that was ‘apparently’ conceived after a conversation between former Paramount president Adam Goodman and his (then) 4-year-old son. Taking its title quite literally, Monster Trucks is a silly mishmash of crazy, cartoony ideas that young boys are sure to guzzle down. Originally set for release in May 2015, then pushed to December of that year, then March of 2016, to now, January 2017, this high-concept alien-centered vehicle (obviously trying to go for an ’80s throwback type vibe) is not the car wreck that many would have you believe — particularly those over at Viacom (its distributor), who have already labeled the project as a $115 million write-down.

Still trapped in suburgatory ...
Still trapped in suburgatory …

Set in present day North Dakota, Monster Trucks tells the story of 17-year-old Tripp Coley (Lucas Till), a high school senior who dreams of a better life outside of his small country community. Living at home with his mum Cindy (an underused Amy Ryan) and her boyfriend Rick (Barry Pepper), the town’s sheriff, Tripp spends his days hanging out at a junkyard with wheelchair-bound owner Mr. Weathers (Danny Glover), where he works and collects parts for a rundown Dodge pickup he’s trying to fix back at his own garage.

Everything changes after Tripp meets a subterranean creature he names Creech (creativity clearly not Tripp’s strong suit), a slippery cross between an octopus and a shark, who was driven out of his dwelling after a shady oil and gas company named Terravex punctures an untouched ecosystem buried deep underground, which had been left undisturbed for years. When Tripp discovers that the oil-drinking blob can power his rusty 4×4 — by crawling inside the chassis and rotating its various axles via its tentacles — Tripp and Creech form an unlikely friendship that sees them try to outrun Terravex owner Reece Tenneson (Rob Lowe) and his goons as the unecological tycoon tries to eliminate the beasties in order to keep on drilling into what could potentially be one of the largest oil reserves in the United States.

Vigorously directed by Chris Wedge, Ice Age (2002), in his live-action debut, Monster Trucks taps into a specific type of retro flavor, think Short Circuit (1986) or Mac and Me (1988), and harkens back to a time when old-school animatronics and clunky plotting invited audiences to suspend belief and simply roll with it. Penned by Derek Connolly, Jurassic World (2015), Monster Trucks has a solid crack at establishing a decent bond between Tripp and his slimy pal before the action kicks into gear, even if the pair’s closeness doesn’t truly drive the narrative in the same way as those ‘boy and his fantastical pet’ stories from the past did. Sure, these types of movies have lost a bit of their magic, but my inner 7-year-old couldn’t help but have a good time with Monster Trucks.

Monster power and velocity
Monster power and velocity

Admittedly, parts of the premise sound like they’ve been taken straight out of a horror — think about it, a rural oil company unleashes several tentacled creatures with rows of shark-like teeth into a nearby settlement — but titular critters are actually quite affable here. You see, the CGI gremlins have been designed to appeal to the kiddies, what, with Creech’s large puppy dog eyes and cheeky smile for instance, their glow in the dark bodies (activated when they make contact with water) being another visually imaginative touch. Similarly, Monster Trucks features a ‘car yard’ of exciting PG-13 set pieces, including a chase across the old-fashioned rooftops of the town’s Main Street, to a super-charged finale that rivals any of the crazy stuff we’ve seen in the Fast & Furious series, with the trucks bouncing down mountain-y terrain as they attempt to stop Terravex from poisoning their entire habitat. True, the studio probably spent a bit too much money here, but proceedings are a lot more inspired than one would think.

Acting wise, Monster Trucks is a tad hit-and-miss, although it’s always pleasing to see Barry Pepper, Saving Private Ryan (1998), on the payroll. Lead Lucas Till, X-Men: First Class (2011), does okay as our hero Tripp, even though he looks far too old to be playing a teenager — a scene that sees him pretend to drive around in a souped-up ride is just plain embarrassing. What’s more, I honestly believe that Till’s jock-like physique would’ve put him in the top-tier of your traditional cinematic high school, making his disillusionment with life somewhat unconvincing. Thankfully, the wonderful Jane Levy, Don’t Breathe (2016), delivers a scene-stealing performance as Tripp’s tutor and smitten’ love interest Meredith, Levy’s spark and flair earning the flick an additional half a star. Elsewhere, Thomas Lennon, Herbie Fully Loaded (2005), has a great part as Dr. Jim Dowd, a morally conflicted scientist working for the baddies, while Holt McCallany, Gangster Squad (2013), fits the part of henchman Burke, Terravex’s top goon, to a tee. Then there’s Frank Whaley, Field of Dreams (1989), who has a couple of scenes as Wade, Tripp’s estranged father, whose entire subplot feels completely redundant.

Smile and say 'grease!'
Smile and say ‘grease!’

At the end of the day, Monster Trucks was never going to reinvent the wheel nor deliver the smarts we’ve seen in other kid-friendly hits — I’m looking directly at you, Zootopia (2016). It does, however, succeed as a rip-roaring adventure for the youngins, chiefly those with a monster-sized imagination. If I were 7-years-old, I would’ve totally dug what this vehicle has hidden under its hood. Vroom vroom!

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Monster Trucks is released through Paramount Pictures Australia