Look at that title. Look at the above image. Let’s be real here; this was never going to be good. But could it be weird? Darren braves Monster Trucks to let us know.
Literalness is a very niche idea within movies. Very rarely does something come along that is exactly as the title describes it. Some great titles suggest, they hint, they dance around the idea but they never out and out say the entire premise.
It’s rather refreshing.
Monster Truck has entered the B-Movie bonanza that is movies where the title clearly came before the idea; Snakes on a Plane and Sharknado are other notable examples. If you saw the trailer you knew exactly what you are getting for your money. Monster in a truck. Boom. Job done, nothing more needs to be said. Is there a monster? Check. Is it in a truck of the four-wheeled variety? Check. Does it have some ‘gnarly’ stunts and ‘kickass’ explosions? Check.
And if you thought that was all there would be to it, cheese with a side of teenage pandering, then you’d be right. But, then again, you’d also be wrong.
Trip is a young man living in a rural USA town, wanting nothing more than to build his dream truck and get the hell out of dodge, away from his ‘overbearing’ step-dad Rick. When working at the local Junkyard one night to scrounge up parts for his cobbled together truck, he sees a monster with a taste for oil. Now it’s up to him and a girl called Meredith to save the creature before the evil oil baron tycoon who runs the town and kill it and exploit its natural habitat for profit.
Now, does that summary seem generic to you? It seemingly sums up every mid 90’s troubled teen movie. The tough father figure relationship, the nasty capitalist villain, the eco-warrior vibe and saving the innocent animals. Change a few words and it’s Free Willy or Ferngully or the like. Yet I don’t think I can put that label on it. It seems too self-aware for that.
For once, I actually might spoil the movie yet since this is such an unlikely watch for most people, I feel like I am warranted on breaking my own rule. I will try to keep them to a minimum but believe me when I say if I spoil anything it is only to make the point about how surprisingly interesting this work really is.
There are so many things to pull out from this movie and I only have so much space. Instead, I’m going to focus on three aspects of the script, all of which are totally unnecessary for such a cheeseball, low concept genre flick that it actually makes this such an interesting watch.
1) The Father dynamic.
It’s common in these kinds of ‘troubled teen’ films to have a dysfunctional familial relationship. Free Willy is a great example, Angels on the Outfield is another. The problem is Monster Truck just toys with the idea. Trip’s real father is hinted at being a deadbeat dad, and later we know that he is, as he betrays his son’s trust. Yet the step-dad is neither shown to be trying to connect with Trip or to be hostile to him either. He’s just there. The only character trait he has is that he likes to keep his car clean. That’s it. No other real qualities. Later, when he helps Trip to outrun the villain’s henchmen, Trip decides to apologise for all the mean things he has said about the step-dad and the step-dad has no idea what he’s talking about. He is unaware that Trip apparently hates him, and so are we. Beyond a quick scene at the beginning, they don’t really have any rivalry or hatred for one another. Maybe, they didn’t have time to build this plot thread up and cut it for time, leaving the odd apology joke as a tongue-in-cheek reference to it. This leads me to my second point.
2) They over explain.
How much time do you need to spend on the idea of a monster in a truck? For a silly concept, they spend a lot of time grounding their idea, spending around an hour explaining the backstory of the monster and how/why it can do what it can do. Seriously. Nearly an hour. Explaining that not only can this thing exist both on land and water but that due to its naturally habitat two miles below the earth, close to an oil pocket, it subsists on oil. That it is afraid of fire and has a form of bioluminescence. The tentacles have individual buds on them that can rotate extremely quickly, meaning that it can grab the axle on trucks to speed them up. Minute details such as the s of oil vs processed petroleum on their physiology. That it has a familial structure, can understand human emotions and has also got its own emotions. And finally that the species has a form of hive intelligence that works over short distances, meaning that during the grand finale when they find other monsters to have a race, they can learn whatever the others have learned. It explains why they just instantly learn how to drive trucks. What is going on? How can a movie about a goddamn fish monster have more lore than most sci-fi? Even before we see the monster in full truck action they foreshadow all the things it can do, from driving to jumping in the air, even going so far as to point out why it can do it and have the lead work it out. And speaking of the lead…
3) Trip is a sociopath.
I mean it. Straight up sociopath. He must be. For example: he has no friends. Obviously this is a common trait in the troubled teen’s style of movies and, obviously, I am not saying that if you don’t have friends you are a sociopath but the reason why he doesn’t isn’t because he is bullied or misunderstood. It’s because he only uses people and doesn’t understand human emotions. He cannot connect with his classmates because he doesn’t care about anyone beyond his main motivation. What little interaction he has with his peers show them as fawning over him, trying to get his barest approval but he rarely even acknowledges them. Even the love interest is demoted to this form of ridiculous sheep that follows him. He never even says her name despite the fact she makes it quite clear that they have a lot of interaction. He doesn’t have any real emotional moments and except for one scene where he cries, he is decidedly self-serving. His goals are inherently selfish, misunderstanding basic human interactions. One of the opening moments is him crushing a car in the junkyard, a rictus grin etched on his face as the mechanical viscera spews out. Why is he doing this? “You enjoy that too much,” Danny Glover says. Too right, Mr Glover.
Even his saving of the monster is calculated and cold. Planning originally to crush it to death, once he finds out he can exploit it he quickly saves it instead. Hiding it from the villain, not out of a moral imperative, but because he doesn’t like people touching his things. Later, once he turns the Truck into something he is proud to drive around in (taking advantage or Meredith’s extreme wealth and goodwill) Meredith tries to see the good in him. “It’s like a wheelchair for the creature,” she says, full of innocent hope. “No. He’s an engine for my truck,” he replies, unflinching, his robotic face cold and implacable.
Watching this is like the strangest study of the human mind I have ever seen. Not since Ferris Bueller has the lead in a movie been this thoroughly strange and lacking in empathy for his ‘friends’. The movie posits him as the hero but through everything he does, his motivations and actions leave me doubting his sincerity. Think Free Willy mixed with Nightcrawler.
Is it a good movie? It’s ok. The action isn’t terrible, the scenes are filmed fairly decently and each member of the cast does what they can with some truly terrible dialogue and subversive, yet unfunny, jokes.
I would still say watch it, just for the spectacle. I might be crazy and totally overthinking things as I sometimes do (like when I spent most of a day thinking about how The Full Monty was secretly about third-wave Anglo-American Feminism) but judge for yourself.
Monster Truck is exactly what you’d expect, and somehow nothing I could ever have imagined.