“MONSTER TRUCKS” — 1 ½ stars — Lucas Till, Jane Levy, Barry Pepper, Rob Lowe, Danny Glover; PG (action, peril, brief scary images and some rude humor); in general release
“Monster Trucks” is not a documentary about the car-crushing 1980s cultural phenom Bigfoot. That film, hopefully, is still on its way. Rather, director Chris Wedge’s effort is the story of a prehistoric slug that takes up residence in the engine compartment of an old pickup truck.
“Monster Trucks” is aimed at kids, is produced by a company — Nickelodeon — associated with kids, and stars 20-something adults who are supposed to be kids. In that context, a goofy movie about an oversized pickup truck driven by a multi-tentacled amphibian feels beyond criticism. Yet “Monster Trucks” operates with such flawed internal logic that it is difficult to recommend in good conscience.
The origin story: One dark night in rural North Dakota, a greedy oil company called Terravex drills into an underground ecosystem and releases a trio of slimy, bioluminescent creatures. Two are captured immediately and held for testing. The third wreaks a little havoc around town before taking up residence with a local auto mechanic named Tripp (Lucas Till, who fans will recognize as Havok from the recent X-Men movies).
Tripp is actually still in high school, hence the odd sight of him sitting at the back of a school bus surrounded by kids who look about 10 years younger than him. His absentee father (Frank Whaley) is off working for a drilling company, his mother (Amy Ryan) is dating the local sheriff (Barry Pepper) and this pretty girl from school (Jane Levy, also in her mid-20s) keeps nagging him about his biology homework.
All Tripp wants is a working truck so he doesn't have to ride the bus to school anymore, and once he breaks the ice with the subterranean slime monster that takes up residence in the garage at his work (a tow company run by Danny Glover), he finds his solution. As it turns out, Creech — Tripp’s name for the creature — is a perfectly suited engine for the old truck he’s trying to restore.
It would be a match made in biofuel heaven if the security force for Terravex (a fleet of imposing black pickups led by Holt McCallany) weren’t determined to find Creech and lock him up with his friends. News of a new species would keep Terravex from getting their oil, so the company (which is run by Rob Lowe) will do anything it has to in order to cover Creech’s bioluminescent tracks.
Essentially what you have is a movie full of custom gas-guzzling super trucks promoting an anti-fossil fuel message. This probably won’t bother most of the kids who wind up seeing “Monster Trucks,” but it should raise the eyebrows of the adults that take them to see it. (Frankly, the kids will probably be more bothered by the effort to make the octopus-slug creature appear cute, a stretch that makes Steven Spielberg’s work with “E.T.” appear quaint.)
Back in the 1950s, “Godzilla” was meant to be a warning against the dangers of nuclear testing, and in an odd way, “Monster Trucks” feels like a kid-friendly attempt to do the same thing for the oil industry. In all honesty, “Monster Trucks” would have worked fine as a harmless direct-to-TV candidate for Nickelodeon’s cable network. But as a full-length feature, it just has too many problems for paying customers to justify the expense.
“Monster Trucks” is rated PG for action, peril, brief scary images and some rude humor; running time: 122 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Weber State University. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.