Buried deep within Monster Trucks are two films that never quite see the light of day and a third that overpowers the others. It's a film that applies its title to a pun, that pun being a literal reading of the phrase "monster trucks." What if large trucks could be powered by tentacled beasts with electrical tendencies? It's a clever concept, and the film does, indeed, capitalize on it, featuring a narrative that contrives for the creatures to reside where the engine usually rests and a climax in which there is an isolated location that can only be reached by enormous trucks like the ones the creatures occupy. There is the required amount of vehicular carnage within the action set pieces that belong to the climax and what precedes it. But there's stuff that surrounds the central conceit, too, and Derek Connolly's screenplay populates the two major subplots with the usual hokey earnestness.
The first film that might have worked if Connolly had paid it due attention opens the film that has arrived in theaters, and it concerns the Big Business doings of TerraVex, an oil industry worth billions, whose CEO Reece Tenneson (Rob Lowe, sporting a shaky Southern accent and apparently unsure whether he's playing a villain) is concerned only about its success in tapping the unlimited resources underneath his feet. He has a big, burly security guy named Burke (Holt McCallany, the more believable sleazeball) to back up his efforts to keep things in line, and certainly the presence of a scientist named Jim Dowd (Thomas Lennon, good as the moral center of the film) is reason to keep things in line. Dowd wants to investigate an ecosystem found 100 meters below the earth; Tenneson wants to drill past it. Neither is aware that the reservoir is full of the aforementioned creatures.
One of those creatures escapes during a well explosion and leads us directly into the other film that might have been solidly entertaining with more focus put on it. Tripp (Lucas Till, a dullard) is living a cozy but bored life with a mother (Amy Ryan, a great talent criminally given a single scene) and potential stepfather in Rick (Barry Pepper), the local sheriff. His own father Wade (Frank Whaley - and it's disheartening to write the names of so many solid character actors in a review for a film like this when they have almost nothing to do) works for TerraVex and must comply with the fascist tyranny of a security company when they come calling for the escaped creature, which Tripp has named Creech after attempting to kill it, befriending it, and forcing it into servitude when he discovers that it can control major automotives. Along for the ride is Meredith (Jane Levy), Tripp's biology tutor, who has an enormous crush on him.
One can detect a subversive family entertainment that confronts man's refusal to treat the earth and all that comes with it with any sort of respect through children or teenagers who outsmart dimwitted adults, and perhaps somewhere in there is a fable about a boy and his animal (in this case, a computer-generated creation that only has personality when the film calms down enough to give it a close-up) that doesn't treat the relationship as weirdly subservient and faintly creepy. As such, Connolly and director Chris Wedge (a veteran in animation making his live-action debut) ignore both of these threads to focus on routine action. Some of that is clever, such as a trip to town that focuses less on destruction and more on whether Creech can remain stealthy while acting as the undercarriage to a truck, but the climax is just a lot of flipping cars (in 3-D!) in slow-motion on the edge of a perilous cliff. Monster Trucks is harmless fluff that avoids some genuine avenues of potential.
Lucas Till (Tripp), Jane Levy (Meredith), Thomas Lennon (Jim Dowd), Barry Pepper (Sheriff Rick), Holt McCallany (Burke), Rob Lowe (Reece Tenneson), Danny Glover (Mr. Weathers), Amy Ryan (Cindy), Frank Whaley (Wade Coley).
Directed by Chris Wedge and written by Derek Connolly.
Rated PG (action, peril, brief scary images, rude humor).
Released on January 13, 2017.