Concluding my spotlight on some of the worst films of 2017, I’m going to take a look at Monster Trucks, one of the financial flops that kicked off the year back in January.
The plot of Monster Trucks is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A young man working at a small town junkyard discovers and befriends a creature which feeds on oil being sought by a fracking company.
The screenplay for Monster Trucks was written by Derek Connolly, who also penned screenplays for movies like Jurassic World, Safety Not Guaranteed, and Kong: Skull Island.
Monster Trucks was directed by Chris Wedge, who has primarily worked on family-friendly animated features like Robots, Ice Age, and Epic.
The cast of the film is made up of Lucas Till (X-Men: Apocalypse, X-Men: First Class, MacGyver), Jane Levy (I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe), Thomas Lennon (Reno 911), Barry Pepper (The Green Mile, Saving Private Ryan, Battlefield: Earth), Rob Lowe (The West Wing, Parks & Recreation), Danny Glover (Predator 2, Saw, Lethal Weapon), Amy Ryan (Birdman, Gone Baby Gone, Bridge of Spies), and Frank Whaley (Luke Cage, Pulp Fiction, Swimming With Sharks, Broken Arrow).
The cinematographer on Monster Trucks was Don Burgess, whose credits include some significant critical and financial hits, such as Forrest Gump, Spider-Man, Cast Away, Source Code, Blind Fury, Contact, What Lies Beneath, The Book Of Eli, and Flight.
The credited editor for Monster Trucks was Conrad Buff IV, whose list of film credits includes the likes of Titanic, The Last Airbender, The Abyss, Training Day, The Happening, Species, True Lies, Spaceballs, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
The musical score for the film was composed by David Sardy, who also worked on the movies Zombieland, 21, End of Watch, Sabotage, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.
Reportedly, five outwardly-identical green Dodge trucks were built for the movie to play Creature’s automotive shell. One, with its engine in the pickup bed, could be driven from a position under the hood, so that the stunt driver wouldn’t need to be digitally removed from the cab.
Monster Trucks was originally produced by Nickelodeon Movies. However, as the budget spun out of control, they left the project during post-production. Ultimately, they re-joined the film prior to its release, and are given a production company credit.
According to some second-hand reports I’ve heard, the crew responsible for the driving stunts in Monster Trucks had no idea that there were going to be CGI monsters added to their work, or that the production was a kids movie: they apparently assumed that it was going to be an action movie with elaborate truck stunts.
Monster Trucks was struck with multiple release delays, due to the extensive work needed in post-production. Depending on the source, the movie is qualified as either a 2017 or 2016 film, though it officially hit theaters in January of 2017. However, it was originally set for release on May 29, 2015, making its total release delay over a year and a half.
One of the biggest questions surrounding Monster Trucks is how it wound up getting a green light in the first place. It seems beyond belief that such an odd concept would get approved with such a high potential price tag: it just doesn’t make business sense. Reportedly, it was a pet project of former Paramount head Adam Goodman, who was let go before the film came to completion (likely in part due to its disastrously expensive production). However, the real interesting tidbit about his involvement is that the story of Monster Trucks was reportedly based on a pitch from his four-year-old son, which has led to the film being additionally ridiculed.
The final production budget for Monster Trucks was put on the books at $125 million. In its lifetime theatrical release, it managed to take in a gross of roughly $65 million worldwide, making it a massive financial failure.
In accordance with its financial failure, Monster Trucks did not fare well with either critics or the audience at large. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 5.7/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 32% from critics and 53% from audiences. Scott Meslow of GQ described it as “a movie so bizarre, wrong-headed, and obviously destined for failure that it practically demands further exploration.”
It is worth noting right off the bat that the biggest reason that Monster Trucks entered the public consciousness was on the basis of its bloated budget. Basically, this movie was guaranteed to fail from the minute it started getting press coverage, and was already being predicted as one of the worst movies of the year back in January. In his Rolling Stone review of the movie, Peter Travers even mentions that the primary production company, Paramount, had already chalked it up as a loss before it even hit theaters:
Paramount Pictures, which is releasing the film, took a $115 million write-down against anticipated losses before it even opened. It’s like having your parents write off your college tuition because they know you’ll never amount to shit.Talk about lack of faith.
However, just because a movie is a flop, or has an outlandish concept, doesn’t mean that the film’s overall quality is necessarily bad. In the case of Monster Trucks, the film’s advance reputation, due to both its bizarre conceptualization and swollen budget, may have poisoned the well in regards to its public reception.
The movie is by no means a classic, but it does have some notable redeeming qualities. The first and biggest one, to my surprise, was the monster itself: “Creech.” I expected the CGI to look jarring and immediately dated, but to my shock, it works a lot better than I expected it to, and he blends pretty well into his surroundings. Creech is also interestingly designed with a handful of juxtaposed natural elements to be simultaneously familiar, sympathetic, and alien. Part shark, part squid, part whale, and part adorable puppy, it is an interesting beast that was clearly the result of a lot of work, and it definitely could have come out of the design phase a lot worse.
As far as other positives go, the supporting cast is surprising deep and entertaining. Rob Lowe is a blast as he channels an approximation of George W. Bush as an oil tycoon, Danny Glover is always nice to see on screen (even in a very limited role), and Thomas Lennon provides some of the better comedic moments as an ethically-compromised scientist working for a soulless oil company.
All of those positives considered, there are still some big issues with Monster Trucks. For the most part, most of the issues boil down to the screenplay. The writing, particularly when it comes to the dialogue and characters, is sub-par, and the comedy is uneven and poorly executed as a result. Most of the characters are thin to the point of caricature, even when they are played well by their actors, which doesn’t help a movie with an already contrived premise that was in dire need of depth to give it some grounding.
The lead of the movie, played by Lucas Till, is one of the few characters who changes over the course of the story, or has any kind of depth. However, even that isn’t completely a positive: his character comes off as an aloof jerk early in the story, during the period where the audience should be identifying with him and getting on his side. While he does warm as the story progresses (particularly to his love interest), his earlier disposition is never justified or apologized for, and makes him a hard character to pull for.
Overall, Monster Trucks isn’t as bad as its reputation indicates. It is a deeply flawed movie, but it has enough positives to keep it from ever being completely boring. All considered, it is probably on par with an average children’s movie. That said, this isn’t a movie that is easy to see in a vacuum from its context: the stories surrounding its budget, production, and conception are hard to avoid, and inevitably color the film.
When it comes to a recommendation, I don’t think this is a movie that needs to be sought out by bad movie fans, because it just isn’t all that bad. At the same time, it isn’t good enough to recommend to general audiences. The stories surrounding the movies are more interesting than the movie itself, so I do recommend reading up on it, but watching it is something I would consider totally optional.