If there’s one defining characteristic of the present decade, it is its consumptive yearning for a simpler time. Nostalgia has scorched contemporary internet culture, political rhetoric, and arts and entertainment, rendering no shortage of movies and TV shows vying to reclaim the spirit of an age long ago faded. Rising like a phoenix from this five-alarm fire is Monster Trucks, no doubt one of the most valiant efforts in portraiture of pre-September 11th to come out of modern day Hollywood.
In fact, it’s damn near miraculous how close Monster Trucks gets to reproducing the ‘90s aesthetic, and how enjoyable the ride is as a result. Essentially plotless and merrily witless, the movie never lets you forget that its only discernible reason for being lies in the merits of its titular play on words. Inscrutably, this functions as a strength, encouraging the sort of reckless abandon we don’t often see in films born to a century entrenched in cynicism.
The sardonic humor, reference-heavy dialogue, and proudly clever postmodern air of today’s movies, child- and adult-oriented alike, are not missed in Monster Trucks, which replaces the lot with silly sight gags and an all around warm vibe. The joys of the movie derive from the sweet back-and-forth between high schooler Tripp (Lucas Till) and “Creech,” the otherwise unidentified critter that finds a new home in his employing junkyard and, later, in the engine of his truck. Thin though their camaraderie may be, the hijinks they enjoy together around the former’s sleepy North Dakota neighborhood are never far from cute. Saving this schematic from overindulging on its own brainless monotony is Tripp’s schoolmate, science tutor, and hapless admirer Meredith, whose smirk-worthy patter Jane Levy elevates to a number of outright chuckles.
By and large, Monster Trucks sustains a smooth ride without anything under the hood, so to speak, straight up until its final and most explosive act. For the bulk of the film, obligatory baddies—and oil company muckety-muck (Rob Lowe—no, not just Rob Lowe, but Rob Lowe with an unplaceable Southern accent), his nebbishy lackey (a very funny Thomas Lennon), and his dead-eyed hired goon (Holt McCallany)—careen about town on the prowl for Tripp’s newly discovered friend, hoping to wipe it and any of its kin out of existence so that they may drill freely in its subterranean habitat; even when exacting the threat of xenocide, Monster Truck’s never allows its villainy the company of too dark a cloud.
But this desperate stranglehold on an impossibly bright yesterday shows all its seams when the kids fight back. The unsurprisingly automobile-centric race-to-the-finish climax of this film is laden with truck flips and flattenings, the occasional explosion, and even the dousing of a human being in poison liquids. The film luxuriates in every one of these turns, celebrating each trouncing of an adversary—be he identifiably malicious or just another cog in the machine—as an unconditional victory.
Along with the bathwater of sardonic cracks and pop culture reference, Monster Trucks seems to have thrown out the baby that is empathy. The movie rears its nihilistic head every time Tripp cackles over the destitution of another adversary; truth be told, Tripp, ostensibly arrested in emotional prepubescence (which, if you’re in the mood, you can chalk up to a subplot about his father running out on him when he was a kid), doesn’t show a glimmer of empathy even for the humans on the good guys’ team.
It isn’t that I’m calling fault with the moral fiber of Monster Trucks, but instead with probing uncertainty about its ability to work in the world today. There’s a reason that our movies, even those made for young audiences, are so overwhelmed with reference humor and cloying nostalgia. A good ways beyond the no-return point of postmodernity, our modern eye cannot abide a piece of entertainment, culture, or rhetoric unconcerned with all corners of time and space gleaned from its vantage point. It’s exhausting, and quite certainly why we wish so frequently to revisit a simpler past. And so, though indeed all the rights kinds of fun, corny, and sweet, Monster Trucks may be too successful a reproduction of the blissful time to which we wish we can return. If nothing else, the film is a reminder that time drives only forward. And from this far down the road, those simpler days don’t look quite like they used to.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Images: Paramount Pictures
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor for Nerdist. Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.