Sunday, May 22, 2011

Stephen King Month: Maximum Overdrive (1986)

Usually cited as Exhibit A in the case for why Stephen King should stick to writing books instead of making movies, Maximum Overdrive is really not as awful as it's made out to be. The only movie King ever directed, Overdrive is dumb and clearly a bit of a mess (King has admitted to being coked out of his mind the entire time he was working on the movie, and not really sure what he was doing), but it's also sometimes clever and fun, and if the camp moments had outweighed the plodding action sequences, it might have emerged as a genuine cult classic. Instead, it's merely an intriguing misfire.

Based loosely King's short story Trucks, Overdrive features machines (mainly big-rig trucks) coming to life and menacing human beings, thanks to some sort of cosmic radiation or possibly alien influence from the tail of a comet that is enveloping the Earth and producing cut-rate neon-green special effects in the sky. The movie starts out with a nicely nasty sense of humor, as we see the LED screen outside a bank displaying "Fuck you," and an ATM merely prints the word "asshole" over and over again. King then stages a rather amusing sequence that involves a drawbridge going up without warning, as cars, people and watermelons collide into each other.

These two bits are essentially disconnected from the main story, which takes place at an isolated truck stop where a group of people are hiding out from giant semis that have suddenly become sentient and gone rogue. It's a standard post-apocalypse collection of colorful types, including the stoic hero (Emilio Estevez). King alternates between campy touches (the sort of leader of the trucks is a toy company vehicle with a giant Green Goblin head on the front of it) and boring seriousness, which reaches its low point in the ridiculous romance between Estevez's hero and a drifter played by Laura Harrington. The supposed worldwide revolt of the machines is poorly conceived and full of plot holes (a newscaster advises people to stay from all electrical devices, while presumably broadcasting using a whole range of them), and the solutions to the problem are inconsistent and lazy.

The whole movie is lazy, which is the main problem. King goes for the easy laughs and the easy suspense, and when he's stuck in a corner he just blows stuff up (the movie's entire climax is just explosion after explosion). Overdrive is definitely not the work of a filmmaker in control of his craft, but it's also not so moronic or inept as to be unwatchable. It's a misfire with flashes of potential, and it's kind of too bad that King has bought into the dominant narrative about the movie and will probably never direct again.

How far to Castle Rock: Somewhat surprisingly for a movie over which King had complete control, Overdrive doesn't even take place in Maine; instead it's set in North Carolina.

King cameo: He plays the bank patron getting insulted by an ATM in the opening scene.

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