Monday, 16 January 2017

Monster Trucks (2016) - Movie Review

Every so often, a trailer will come out for a film that… well, quite frankly, does the absolute least when it comes to selling a film. Specifically, failing to make the film look even a tenth as dumb as it probably is. This is most certainly one of those examples, and considering this got a special New Year’s Eve screening last, this technically falls under the 2016 list. Call it a technicality, but I don’t want to disrespect this new year by having it be related to this garbage.

The plot: Tripp (Lucas Till), a high school loner, is at odds with both his father (Franke Whaley) and local oil tycoon Reece (Rob Lowe). While working late one night at the junkyard, he discovers a mysterious creature that, somehow, works as a makeshift engine for his truck. As Reece and his goons chase after them, Tripp, the monster nicknamed Creach and his tutor Meredith (Jane Levy), they have to stop Reece’s plans to drill for oil in Creach’s home and rescue the other creatures that Reece’s company has captured.

The cast is… um… what in the hell are these people doing here? I always thought that low-fi Christian films were the bottom of the barrel in terms of where actors struggle to find work, but apparently it’s films like this because there are way too many actors here that are too good for this. Till is making his slow rise as a bold new face in Hollywood, and while he’s okay as the rather abrasive rebel that he’s given, it’s nothing too special. Levy, after doing brilliantly last year with Don’t Breathe, is likewise rather milquetoast as this rather plain bookworm but she smooths out enough to work alongside Till as the film goes on.

Then we get into the more recognizable names, and it’s here where that sense of “this shouldn’t be here” really kicks in. Rob Lowe, Barry Pepper, Danny freaking Glover; for a film that feels like a decades-old vehicle to sell toys, even this level of star power seems off. Coming from the same casting director as Independence Day: Resurgence, I guess that getting notable actors is part of the job, but no-one would have minded if you left these people with what little dignity they have left.

I sure hope you like or at least grew up in the 80’s because this film is stuffed to the gills with 80’s kid’s movie tropes, right down to the Hasbro-esque concept at the core of the film. I’m tempted to call this somewhat of a throwback to the marketing-disguised-as-entertainment cartoons of the era, but that would be a disservice on two fronts. It would demean said cartoons that, even for how goofy they would frequently get, still had genuine entertainment value to them outside of selling products to impressionable kids (and nostalgic adults), and it also demeans the entire decade as a whole. I say this because, when I say ‘80’s film tropes’, I mean the absolute worst of that ilk; it’s the stuff that even the shows of the time were starting to make fun of.

You’ve got the big bad oil company as the main villain, with Rob Lowe giving the sort of nuance you would expect from a Captain Planet villain, you’ve got basic character archetypes that think growth is the same as homogenisation until there’s no personality left, two fixing-things-up montages set to rock music, and even the setting of the film feels like it was included just because it sounded “rad”. Don’t get me wrong, Sentinel County is a name worthy of Rule Of Cool, but when it’s filled with so many people posturing hipness without actually being it, it’s a lot more daggy than the filmmakers probably intended. Kind of like the main character’s name, come to think of it, which relies on the 80’s-90’s trend of intentional misspelling because poor literacy is kewl.

The reliance on stock and overused stereotypes like the high maintenance love interest and the policeman who is on bad terms with our rebellious hero ends up running into the plot itself, which is about as rail-thin as you can get for what is basically a blatant cash grab. It’s pretty much lacking in any form of tension because the characters are as obvious and predictable as they are, something set in motion by the opening scene with EvilCorp (okay, it’s called Terravex, but let’s not kid ourselves) preparing to destroy the titular Monsters’ habitat. From there, we get conflict that seems to exist for no other reason besides the script demands that it happen, leading to some painfully by-the-numbers exchanges between Tripp, his mother, his painfully stereotypical father who is more footnote than flesh and blood, his love interest Meredith, his boss played by Too Human For This Shit, and the policeman played by Barry Pepper.

It’s one of those experiences where the film could be muted and you would still be able to quote the film verbatim; that’s how little this film is trying to hide its own narrative plasticity. I’m not expecting every film to be bursting with nuance and emotional depth, because not everyone looks as minutely into these things as I do, but this goes beyond basic into just lacking in any form of effort. Like, not even the scenes where we get to see the Monster Trucks in action are good because they’re wrapped around so much drywall that it fails to engage.

Not for lack of trying though, as this film tries to push an environmental message alongside its titular inevitable plastic tie-in. Of course, coming from the director of Ice Age and a writer who helped construct the equally-annoying Jurassic World, not even the dependable genius of DOP Don Burgess can make it stick. Seriously, 2017 is shaping up to be a very, very sad year for a cinematographer that I hold in very high regard. Getting back on topic, not only do the attempts at a deeper meaning just further draw comparisons to Captain Planet, it just doesn’t fit within the confines of the story.

When you’re depicting oil drilling as this absolute evil, having creatures that rely on oil for food is kind of counter-intuitive, something not helped by how hollow the oil industry is portrayed through Rob Lowe and the company Terravex. Of course, even that pales in comparison to the bigger problem at work here, that being the utter hypocrisy that shines through how the villains are shown. Kind of difficult to make a point about money-grubbing oil tycoons when your entire film exists just to sell toys and more films; you’re just swapping one example of corporate greed for another.

All in all, I couldn’t be happier that this film is bombing as badly as it is because the last thing we need is for this to become a franchise. The actors deserve far better than this, the writing brings back the worst of the 80’s, and the direction shows why Chris Wedge works best with CGI creations because this feels way too cartoonish for a live-action film of this scope. I get that January is supposed to be the dumping ground for cinematic refuse, but quite frankly, I can’t see this film being made in any month, least of all in this millennium.

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