Some people might consider me a masochist for reviewing this film, but believe me, there are far worse Stephen King films out there. There’s certainly far better ones too… but also plenty that make Maximum Overdrive look like Carrie.
Based on his short story Trucks, King adhered to the adage that “If you want things done right, you have to do them yourself” by directing this film, as well as writing the screenplay. I’ve read a lot of stories about King and the making of this movie, such as: during the first day of filming, the crew was shooting a scene in the cab of a truck where the gears are shifting by themselves. Unable to get the right camera angle, King suggested “Well, why don’t we just shoot it from the other side?”. The camera crew proceded to look at him like he just passed a particularly noxious fart, as it was obvious that King had no concept of one of the cardinal rules of cinematography: you can’t move the camera across the action axis when filming a scene so as not to totally disorient the audience. The other story, which King himself has confirmed in numerous interviews, is that he was completely out of his gourd on cocaine when filming this movie. This admission does help to explain the over-the-top performances from some of his actors.
As explained at the beginning of the movie via helpful screen text, the Earth has passed into the tail of a “rogue” comet called Rhea-M. Henceforth all machines gain sentience and start turning against their human masters. At the roadside diner and gas station Dixie Boy, the employees and customers are set upon by bloodthirsty tractor-trailer trucks and must hole up inside the diner or become road-kill. The question must be asked: is this trip really necessary?
Here’s where the rubber meets the road. For Story, I’ll give 2 points (+2). It’s high-concept (machines turn on their masters) and the characters are mere sketches but the plot rambles along nicely within the framework of the story with no extraneous detours. King does a workmanlike job with the directing and the Look of the film is nothing special, so one point there (+1). Overall Casting is a 2 (+2), where the highlights are Emilio Estevez giving an understated performance as the lead and the original Commissioner Gordon (no, not Neil Hamilton from the campy TV series… I mean the original Tim Burton movies) Pat Hingle as Hendershot, the greasy owner of the Dixie Boy. Commitment to Genre garners a 2 (+2). It doesn’t shirk its duty at delivering a lot of blood and violence as a horror movie.
I’ll give 2 points (+2) for the opening scene, one of the best things in the movie, with King himself making a cameo as a customer being called an asshole by a bank’s ATM. The scene displays a bit of quick wit that is missing from the rest of the film.
The other best thing about the movie gets another 2 points (+2), almost serving as a narrator for the action, and that is the driving (pun intended) AC/DC soundtrack. One gets the idea that King wanted to do the movie just so that he could have his favourite band do the music.
One point (+1) goes to the tractor-trailer truck hauling toys, fitted with a huge, evil-looking elf face on the grill, obviously inspired by the Green Goblin from the Spiderman comics.
We’ll deduct 2 points (-2) for the cut-rate Psycho-esque musical sting every time the machines attack in the first half of the movie.
(+1) for having the balls to run over a kid with a steamroller.
One point taken away (-1) for Pat Hingle’s over-the-top performance as the repulsive southern douchebag owner of the Dixie Boy.
I will yank a whopping 3 (-3) points for the supremely annoying voice of Yeardly Smith, who here plays a newlywed trapped in the Dixie Boy with her husband Curtis. I’d be willing to wager actual money that the producers of The Simpsons, the animated family that debuted on The Tracey Ullman Show a year after the release of this film, saw Yeardly in this one and found the perfect voice for the annoying sister Lisa. A viewer will pretty much spend the whole movie praying for her to be mercifully greased by an angry truck.
One point (-1) removed for the scene with a guy taking a shit on a toilet while talking to Estevez, complete with helpful ploops and plops sound effects.
And one point subtracted (-1) for waitress Wanda June’s histrionic “We made you!” tirades against the rampaging machines.
So we end up with +5 for Maximum Overdrive. It’s not a subtle ride, with a lot of bumps in the road, but it does purr along nicely.