Still from 2016's "Monster Trucks."

Monster Trucks        

I suppose Monster Trucks’ being reminiscent of something like Explorers (1985) is incidental, though. It was not, in comparison to the hyper-nostalgic Netflix series Stranger Things (2016-present), made as a quasi-homage — it was inspired by the four-year-old son of former Paramount president Adam Goldman. Take that into consideration and it makes the film slightly less charming. What we’re seeing is not necessarily a harkening back to the days where Anthony Michael Hall was still going through puberty. What we’re seeing, rather, is a man’s proving he has so much power and so much fiscal authority that his kid’s wildest cinematic dreams can come true if he wants them to.

 

Fortunately Monster Trucks isn’t grating. It’s so inoffensive and so eager to please that we can’t help but let its geniality wash over us. Granted, it’s so slight and without wit we can feel it drifting from the memory even as we watch it — as it can happen with well-made but bland would-be blockbusters — but I cannot stop myself from admitting that I genuinely enjoyed it. Even if that enjoyment stems more from material thrills than from merit.

 

It stars Lucas Till, a sharp-jawed beaut whose onscreen charm doesn’t match his good looks, as Tripp, a high school senior without much ambition. His home life in turmoil — his mother (Amy Ryan) is in a relationship with the town sheriff (Barry Pepper) he doesn’t approve of — and his academic standing in jeopardy, he’s desperate to escape the dissatisfaction that can overwhelm a small-town teenager. To combat his ennui, Tripp takes a part-time job at the local junk yard, where he, laughably, begins building a pickup truck to help aid his eventual escape from the area.

 

Most nights are productive and nonchalant, a perfect escape for him. But one evening, things take a nose dive into the fantastical. A strange creature, which looks and sounds like the offspring of a hippopotamus and an octopus, appears out of nowhere. It seems to feed on oil and have a fondness for machinery, making itself at home in the confines of Tripp’s truck. It’s friendly, too, like a sort of oversized puppy. Tripp attends to him like a pet, though he remains concerned about the beast’s origins.

 

Those origins, unbeknownst to our hero, could cost him everything: The monster’s releasehas to do with a nearby fracking operation. Once drills hit the goods, subterranean creatures, like the one who becomes Tripp’s newest pal, were released, the operation tarnished. And that doesn’t sit well with the fracking company’s CEO (Rob Lowe), who decides near instantaneously that a man — ahem, monster — hunt is the name of the game.

 

All is told pretty insipidly and without the knowing humor it so desperately needs. (Though it is, without a doubt, a movie that will please four-year-old boys not unlike the one who inspired Monster Trucks’ making in the first place.) But it is decently fun, the climax particularly sticking around in the memory as a dose of effective action choreography.

 

But I’m still flummoxed as to why studio heads let the production of Monster Trucks move past the stages of a pitch. One could see it produced on the cheap, perhaps as a B-movie. Somehow, the movie was made for a whopping $125 million, a price tag equivalent to that of Fast Five (2011), for example. Such is a reasonable sum for a guaranteed hit, a slab of well-established franchise continuation. But for a family movie with a wacky premise and limited appeal? God only knows what Paramount was thinking when it pushed the project forward. Shame that karma wasn’t forgiving of that unpalatable excess — the movie didn’t even make back half its budget.  B-

DIRECTED BY

Chris Wedge

 

STARRING

Lucas Till

Jane Levy

Rob Lowe

Danny Glover

Amy Ryan

Barry Pepper

 

RATED

PG

 

RELEASED IN

2017

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 44 Mins.

June 24, 2017

I

can think of few other movies to analogize 2016’s Monster Trucks to other than the best features of Joe Dante, the filmmaker behind Piranha (1978) and Gremlins (1984). Because aside from wearing a premise that might have flown better in 1985 as compared to our cynical 2017, it is the type of dopey, good-natured family film with enough sci-fi panache and enough action-heavy husk to fit within that zeitgeist. Correlations between itself and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and The Goonies (1986) come about at lightning speed — it’s an adventure wherein kiddos suddenly become the action figures they played with growing up.