Directed by Chris Wedge. Starring Lucas Till, Jane Levy, Thomas Lennon, Barry Pepper, Amy Ryan, Danny Glover, Rob Lowe. (2017, PG, 104 min.)
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Jan. 20, 2017
What do you get when you cross an antediluvian giant squid with a dilapidated pickup truck? You get Monster Trucks, the trippiest kids’ movie ever to roll on four wheels. Tugging at your heart with one tentacle while lashing out at Big Oil with another, this stranger-than-strange $125 million film defies description, but here goes: A fracking accident triggered by the environmentally insensitive drilling practices of an unscrupulous petroleum company brings to the surface a trio of blubbery cephalopods, a new species of aquatic critters whose presence at the site could threaten the company’s lucrative mineral rights. One of them escapes and eventually is befriended by Tripp (Till), a reclusive but cool high school senior who works part time in the junkyard where the big purplish creature with beady eyes and a wide mouth (a Barneysaurus, perhaps?) takes refuge from the bad guys who want to destroy him. For reasons that only someone with double doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering and chemistry could explain (unless, of course, this is just made-up shit), the now-nicknamed Creech becomes the souped-up engine in the hollowed-out bucket of bolts Tripp’s been assembling from scratch, transforming the junk heap into an oversize hybrid vehicle that can outrace, outclimb, and outsmart anything coming off an assembly line. Hence the title: Monster Trucks! Apparently, the movie’s raison d’être appears to rest entirely on that pun.
For a film ostensibly aimed at a grade-school audience, Monster Trucks is a bit of a puzzle. The plot is loaded with scientific and ecological jargon that most adults, much less their children, will find hard to digest. The not-so-subtle anti-fossil fuel agenda (as the oily owner of the evil Terravex corporation, a tanned Rob Lowe does everything but twirl a mustache) paradoxically turns on itself when Tripp discovers that Creech copiously consumes hydrocarbon substances by the barrel for energy, guzzling the stuff like a Hummer. (When Tripp takes his newly tricked-out truck to a local service station to fuel up, the pump registers a bill of around $360.) But the most distressing thing is the complete lack of accountability for Tripp and Creech’s destructive joyride, which results in a significant amount of vehicular damage and possible human injury. What does this teach kids about the consequences of their actions? (The death and destruction that ensue in the more inventive and thrilling final race against the malevolent Terravex flunkies don’t count. Those meanies deserve everything they get and more.) At times, Monster Trucks faintly echoes E.T. – a boy (well, here a young man with a cleft chin for days) trying to help an alien being get home – but it has all the grace of a jacked-up Ford F-150 with a four-link suspension and tractor tires crushing a row of cars by steamrolling atop them. The metaphor may be an apt one, but it can’t redeem this inconsequential movie that never shifts into high gear.