Stephen King can write, anyone who has ever stumbled drunkenly into a mega-bookstore will invariably end up within a maze of King titles. It seems totally natural that King's supernatural/horror/monster stories would translate well to the cinema. Sadly, King's imagination has translated to the screen about as naturally as cockroaches take to staging elaborate, well attended, Shakespeare festivals in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Maximum Overdrive was not only based on a King short story, Trucks from the Night Shift collection, but written for the screen and directed by him as well. King is a writer, he is in no way, shape, or form a filmmaker. Maximum Overdrive proves this beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Every single element of this movie is cribbed from other movies. Night of the Living Dead, Duel, Killdozer, The Car, Twonky, Rambo, and virtually ever technophobic episode of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, are the ones that come to mind immediately. There are others though, there are always others.
Maximum Overdrive begins with a screen crawl... Apparently Earth is passing through the tail of a rogue comet, and will remain in its celestial shroud for nine days (give or take a few hours)... This is all the explanation you get for the events of the following motion picture, so try and remember them.
Once the crawl ends with some terrible green-tinted "Earth in the shroud of the comet" effects" the film begins in earnest.
Stephen King, putting in his trademark cameo, gets insulted by an ATM machine benath a bank sign t hat changes messages from "Interest Rates are Low..." to "Fuck you".
It's the only clever scene in the film, so you might as well take the tape or DVD out now and watch The Discovery Channel. But, should you wish to press on...
As the credits roll we get several scenes of traffic, a drawbridge (the kind that open by lifting each side of the bridge), and the two genetically challenged operators. While they play cards the machinery begins switching on WITHOUT HUMAN ASSISTANCE.
The bridges opens and several cars are crushed as they slide back down the bridge. This scene takes at least four minutes so try and stay awake. The main problem with the whole film is that King has no idea how to visually build suspense. The byproduct of this is the movie looks and feels absolutely flat. None of the "accidents" is exciting, and since, for example, the drawbridge thing happens before we meet any actual characters, it has not a single iota of emotional resonance.
Okay, so the cars slide down and people are killed. Who gives a shit? NO ONE!!!
One of the people in this foolish scene is Marla Maples in case you're ever on Jeopardy and the category is "Women who've tasted Donald Trump's Tower of power".
We get to meet our main characters soon enough, and I won't go through the hell of explaining how all of them end up in the single place where virtually all of the film occurs. Our characters are: Bill (Emelio Estevez), a parolee and fry cook at the Dixie Boy truck stop, his boss "Bubba" Hendershot (Pat Hingle), a scumbag who purposely employees parolees because he can exploit them, Brett (Laura Harrington) a drifter who is immediately attracted to Bill but rides in with Camp Loman (Christipher Murney) a bible salesman, Wanda June (Ellen McElduff) the waitress who on two occasions channels William Shatner screaming "we made you! we made you!" until she is mercifully gunned down, Deke (Holter Graham) a little league kid and son of, Duncan (J.C. Quinn) a diesel fuel monkey at the Dixie Boy. There are some others but we'll get to them when they get to the Dixie Boy.
Handy (driver of a truck with a massive Green Goblin face over the radiator) pulls in for some gas and eats. News of the comet has made the papers. King thoughtfully shows us that "comment thrills millions" or something akin to that on the local paper. Wanda Jane can't seem to tune the television though. Meanwhile Bubba tells Bill that he has to work nine hours instead of eight, but he will only be on the clock for eight because he's a parolee and one bad word from Bubba and it's back to Drop the Soap Acres for Bill.
Do you care? No? How strange too because virtually all of King's stories are character centric. He tries here to establish characters with whom the audience will identify, but his choices are so incredibly stereotypical that the only emotion you can have for any of them is blinding hatred.
Who knows, maybe Steve wanted us to root for the trucks...
Dack at the Dixie Boy things are starting to go wrong. Duncan, while filling the Green Goblin truck, realizes that the pump has stopped for no apparent reason. Rather than turn the pump off and on, or consider what he is doing, he points the nozzle directly at his nose and peers down inside to see if something is plugging it up.
Meanwhile a nameless black guy is standing in the Dixie Boy game room when the machines start acting funny. Video games display the symbols used on a paranormal deck of cards (you know those green box, red circle, black cross things that scientists use to test ESP in people). The change and cigarette machines start spitting their contents onto the floor.
Rather than run screaming from the game room as any sane person would do, Stephen King has thoughtfully provided us with a stereotypical black guy who simply can't resist free stuff and immediately begins stuffing his pockets with the booty. I guess there was no way for King to work a white woman into the whole sequence so the black guy could rape her while eating fried chicken and watermelon... Maybe King was planning that for the sequel... Regardless, the scene is offensive, stupid, and jaw-droppingly, unrelentingly bad.
Right on cue the pump starts up again and sprays Duncan's eyes with diesel goodness. He goes blind and writhes around on the ground until everyone rushes out to help.
From here we cut to the rest of the town...
We also get a montage of bad things happening to people at the hands of mechanical devises that is so astoundingly funny it may warrant rewinding and watching over and over again. We get to see an entire little league team (except for Deke) wiped out by a soda machine and a kid run over by a steamroller.
King is thoughtful enough to have Deke ride through a quaint suburban neighborhood so we can see a tableau of mechanized death including:
A couple of cars wrapped around trees with the occupants hanging out the windows, a line of beer bottles leading to legs trapped beneath... er.... well, it cuts out just then but I think it was supposed to be a lawn mower, a woman strangled by her hair dryer (don't ask I don't want to explain the physics of such a death), another guy killed by his Walkman, several pairs of legs sticking out of bushes after apparent death by lawn implement.
Deke is unmoved by all this. Either he has the constitution of Thor, God of Thunder, or he can't act. Since I didn't see the magic hammer Mjolnir, I am going to guess it's the later.
Deke is chased by a lawnmower and stealthily escapes a marauding ice-cream truck before we cut back to the Dixie Boy where Wanda Jane is maliciously attacked by an electric knife. This has to be one of the stupidest things I have ever seen in a film. Not only because electric knives have no place in a commercial kitchen, but because the thing apparently has a "personal mobility" upgrade and actively attacks the waitress.
I was doubled over with laughter.
Now the trucks get into things. Duncan just HAS to go and find his son Deke, and although blinded by diesel fuel, is allowed by all the other characters to wander out into the parking lot where he run down by a truck.
I will say this for Steven King's direction, he has no fear about drenching everything in red-red-red blood. It was kind of refreshing to see so much of it in this movie, especially now that films are so KABOOM-friendly and clean when it comes to character death. Even Hannibal was pretty much bloodless...
But I digress.
Why the cast didn't attempt to stop Duncan is anyone's guess, but they don't and he dies. I bet he was happy to be leaving the set anyway so I didn't shed any tears. The truck then wastes the bible salesman's car sending him into a fit of blasphemous fury where he runs out into the parking lot and is also run down by a truck. This time it's the Green Goblin one.
Okay, time to add the third and final set of human characters to the movie. These are Curt (John Short) and Connie (Yeardley Smith) two newlyweds traveling the highways and byways of North Carolina when they are attacked, sort of, by a truck at a gas station where everyone is dead.
And just to prove that the whole place is malevolent, even the clock runs backwards at this gas station. Yeardley Smith, for anyone who's spent the last 12 years living in a chicken coop with no television, provides the voice for Lisa Simpson. Yeardley's been in a few movies, and for a while before The Simpson's started, actually spent a long time as a bit player in such cinematic guano as "The Legend of Billie Jean" and "Heaven Help Us."
Yeardley Smith has exactly one character, Lisa Simpson, in her repertoire, and even when she is playing a possibly retarded/often hysterical newlywed, all you can think about are The Simpson's episodes that have personal meaning. I am partial to the one with Hank Scorpio and the Globex Corporation that hires Homer to spearhead their nuclear weapons division....
But back to Maximum Overdrive... Later in the movie Connie swears like crazy, so an added benefit is closing your eyes and visualizing Lisa screaming "Goddamn it I hate these Fucking Assholes!" However, if you find Lisa Simpson's voice even slightly annoying this movie will run up and down your spine like a nitrous oxide supercharged roto-tiller.
They arrive at the Dixie Boy and barely survive as the trucks smash their car to pieces. Even lazy viewers will wonder why everything from electric knives to tractor trailer trucks are on a murderous rampage, yet cars still perform their regular duties for their human masters. Is it a big deal? No. Is it an annoying nagging question that one of the characters should have asked? Yes. Do they? No. So, it's annoying.
Now we get to the heavy character development part of the movie because all the characters are in one place (Except for Deke) and it drags. Boy does it ever drag. We learn that, predictably, Bill isn't such a bad egg after all, and neither is Brett for that matter. We also learn that Bubba Hendershot has a huge arsenal of military weapons in the Dixie Boy basement.
I'll wait while you digest that last line.
Yes, old Bubba has machine guns, rocket launchers, and grenades tucked neatly away in his basement. Do the characters use these to destroy all the trucks encircling the Dixie Boy and escape, thus saving viewers from an additional forty-five minutes of agony?
They only use them when it is convenient to the script. So while you scratch your head and wonder why they don't simply shoot their way out, the characters all engage in some of the stupidest mid-film banter in history. Everyone of consequence has a story and King won't let a minute go to waste without someone piping in with their personal soliloquy. For example, Bill used to be a sailor but ended up going to jail on a petty theft charge, but since all this crazed-machine lunacy began he longs again for the quiet solitude of the ocean and a wind powered ship.
He asks Brett that if they were to escape, would she follow him so he could STEAL a boat from a nearby marina, and sail off to a nearby island.
And they say prison doesn't rehabilitate?
It's enough to make the unprepared viewer stagger out into traffic and offer themselves to the God of tractor trailers. Prepared viewers will simply mute the TV for a while and listen to music, masturbate, or pick toenail cheese until the film starts up again in earnest.
That night someone starts moaning over from the drainage ditch. It's the bible salesman. He isn't dead. Deke is also over by the drainage ditch. He's worked his way from town over the outskirts fo the Dixie Boy. Hearing the cries of the bible salesman, Bill and Curt decide to make a rescue mission. They sneak over to the shower room adjacent to the Dixie Boy, pry open the drain, and make their way to the drainage ditch. Why the shower drain is large enough for two men is unknown, also unknown is why it is filled with what appears to be raw sewage. As far as I know this would probably bring the health department down on the old Dixie Boy like a biblical plague of locusts. But then, this is a movie and the laws of reality don't apply.
Deke locates the bible salesman first and he begs Deke to help. Deke can't lift him from the mud. Deke starts screaming for help too, conveniently knowing that Bill will be nearby to assist.
The bible salesman dies, apparently (I couldn't make heads or tails of this scene and I watched it twice) so Bill and Curtis take Deke back to the drain just as a massive dump truck plunges into the drainage ditch after them. They escape back to the Dixie Boy.
One of the mouth-breather truckers (of which there are several also trapped at the truck stop) mumbles, "at least we still have electricity" whereupon the lights go out.
A bulldozer and a... well.... a.... i guess it's a military thing, sort of like a small motorized platform with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on it, arrive and shoot up the place killing several of the truckers and Bubba (Thank GOD!), make their only communication with the humans. Using its horn to sound off Morse code, the platform demands that the humans start refilling the trucks with gas or else.
Deke is required for this scene as he is the only one who knows Morse code. Before you can scream "Why God why! We worship no false idols! We obey your commandments! We've make the appropriate sacrifices! Why lay your wrath upon us this way!" Wanda June flips out and has a little Captain Kirk sized fit screaming "We made you!" over and over and over again. The platform shoots her dead.
Bill and the rest of the gang trudge out and start pumping.
King has no idea how to demonstrate the passage of time but he tried by showing a thermometer at 90 degrees, then a shot of Emilio Estevez, then the thermometer at over 100 degrees. This suggests not that time is passing, but that the temperature is rising in ten degree increments every second.
Okay, after what may be ten seconds, or fourteen hours, Emilio is pooped, so his Brett, and everyone else. Luckily the pumps run out of gas. Unluckily a tanker truck is waiting to refill them.
Bill tricks the platform with gun thingy then blows it up with a grenade.
That night they decide to flee the Dixie Boy and arm themselves with as much of the recently deceased Bubba's firepower as they can carry They make a break for a different drain this time, kill two trucks on the way out, and escape to the marina while the remaining trucks destroy the Dixie Boy once and for all.
Again, King makes this appear to have taken all of one minute.
The Green Goblin truck follows them which raises some interesting questions such as:
"How does the truck know where the humans are?
"How come the speaker at a fast food joint would yell "humans here!" Since machine have no ears to hear the cries?"
"How does a huge tractor trailer truck manage to sneak within ten feet of a supporting character who not only has a clear line of site, but is standing in front of a reflective surface?
"Just how explosive would a trailer full of toys be?
Bill destroys the green goblin truck with an RPG and they all sail off on a stolen boat into the sunrise.
End movie, locate electric knife and extension cord, place blade against belly, turn knife on.
This movie was more than bad. This movie was everything wrong with horror/monster movies all rolled into one two hour package. Aside from the clear rip-offs of better monster movies, blatant stereotyping, and horrible acting, this film was goddamn boring.
Trucks can be scary. Watch "Duel" if you don't believe me, or better yet, take a Miata out onto the Southeast Expressway at about 4PM and stay in the right hand lanes. Those trucks are scary, not because they have a grinning goblin face, but because with one little lateral movement, they could squish you against the jersey barrier.
A bunch of trucks idling around a truck stop parking lot isn't scary. You can't build suspense around them. King tried hard to make the Goblin truck the "villain" of the movie, but it doesn't wash. See, there is no clear villain in this movie and that is the fatal flaw. It worked okay in the story because the characters had no idea what was happening or why, but in the film they know that it will end in 9 days, so what's the problem?
It's hard to empathize with people too stupid to escape from a bunch of trucks.
I rented this one on VHS, though it is available from stalwart distribution company Anchor Bay on DVD. I have no idea what the special features would be, but a commentary track where Stephen King apologized all the way through the film would be a nice touch.