“Monster Trucks” starts with an adult science-fiction premise: Our obsession with fracking could threaten underground, intelligent creatures that are unknown to us. Then the film overwhelms this idea with a childish conceit: These same creatures guzzle gas, hang out with humans and love to inhabit big trucks.
Huh? It sounds like a cartoon, which this movie should have been. But this is a live-action feature, and “Monster Trucks” unwittingly makes yet another compelling case that laborious special effects offer no substitute for the emotional heft that a project like this needs.
The story centers on Tripp (Lucas Till), a restless North Dakota high school student who finds solace working on pickups at the junkyard, but then a creature — a cross between Jabba the Hutt and Jaws, only more cuddly — shows up, having escaped the evil capitalists at the fracking plant.
Director Chris Wedge imbues these beginning scenes with a nice level of suspense, reminiscent of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” the movie that “Monster Trucks” wants to emulate. But “Monster Trucks” is no “E.T.”
The crucial relationship between Tripp and the creature falls flat, and any chance of any emotional investment is thrown off the dashboard when the story focuses on the amalgamation of the creature with the truck. The monster-in-the-truck adventure makes for a decent set-piece, much like the flying bicycle moment did in “E.T.,” but it does not a movie make. As things progress, we don’t care what happens to Tripp, who has the same expression whether he’s facing the monster, dangling off a cliff or wooing the girl next door.
Fortunately, Wedge knows pacing and can stage a solid chase scene, so “Monster Trucks” feels less like an ordeal than a well-intentioned misfire made by intelligent people. This movie is for kids, and the best of this fare straddles the line of relating to children and being sophisticated enough for adults. This film is too complex for the kids yet leaves the adults feeling left out, too.
Rated PG for action, peril, brief scary images, and some rude humor. 1:44. 2D and 3D: Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond. 2D only: Winchester.