[2 October 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There is a rare volume of forgotten lore, a work that remains the standard bearer for such determinative discussions. The (fictional) work of wonder is called Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time and included chapters on giving Pat Sajak a talk show, the introduction of Rambo Black Shrapnel Candy, and competitive ice dancing (with recent updates including entire volumes on Bob Mould’s new techno groovin’ and the whole tween whore phenomenon). But one of the main segments of the digest deals with a very famous author. Indeed, the Stephen King portion - featuring sections of bringing his books to the silver screen as well as how this acclaimed novelist also plays lame rock and roll with a band of fellow fiction crafters - contains a subgenre centering on permitting the brazen bringer of the bestseller to direct a motion picture.
To mimic the tome’s title, it really did seem like a swell concept at the time. Film companies were buying up the rights to King’s works and, with more miss than hit, the audiences were suffering under the less-than-successful translations. So someone determined that the biggest critic of all this cinematic crap - King himself - would probably be best to helm his own horrors. Unfortunately, the result was Maximum Overdrive, a movie the equal or worse than many of the malformed features flopping all over the screen. Of course, Steve had never, ever made a movie before, but that didn’t stop Dino De Laurentiis from sticking his well-paid publishing ass behind the camera.
At the start of our story, it’s a typical day on the Earth circa 1986. Poison are a pop culture dynamo, breaking hearts and making hits. Reagan still believes it’s morning in America, even if the heavily napping leader barely sees the AM. And a rogue comet flies a tad too close to the globe and a gross green haze encases us all. During this state of cosmic mistiness, all the machines go wonky. Lawnmowers cut down their owners and soda dispensers unleash unholy flying terror from their can compartments (in both regular and diet dimensions). But the most hideous of all horrors comes when the long haul rigs, the Peterbilts and the Macks, start developing a diesel-fueled mind of their own.
Soon the workers and customers of the Dixie Boy Truck Stop notice something strange. Unmanned vehicles start showing up at the station, running over anyone who gets in their way. Among those immersed in the mayhem are short-order cook Billy; hitchhiking college girl Brett; fiery, foul-mouthed depot owner Mr. Hendershot; and Deke, the son of one of the mechanics. The humans must make a stand to protect their lives. Luckily, the Dixie has quite the armory in the basement. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to deter the demonic vehicles one bit. The survivors must learn how to pump more than gas if they intend to live through this crankcase-inspired chaos and avoid the mayhem associated with contraptions having conniptions.
Here is the problem with Maximum Overdrive in five simple words - all the characters are idiots. Every single underwritten one of them. For someone who makes his living telling stories, King is proficient at providing a fun foundation for Maximum Overdrive (though, as an example of his short story acumen, “Trucks” is not one of his better mini-macabres). For a while at least, the machines gone wild mayhem works. The opening set piece sequences—with ATMs cursing out their customers and bridges balking at the whole “opening and closing” routine—are rich in sinister silliness. They balance out some of the inanity within the set-up by highlighting the payoff potential inherent in the premise. But the minute we head over to the Dixie Boy, and King’s mindless plot pawns open their mouths to squeak, the entire enterprise goes garbage.
Never before in the history of even the most scorching summer beach read has there been dialogue as retarded as the lines spoken during the irritating interpersonal exchanges in Maximum Overdrive. Trying to capture colloquialisms and build-up individuality with dumb running verbal clicks, there’s not enough exposition or expression in the offal orations. The script makes no attempt to link up the people populating its places, so we just have to start making assumptions: that the young players will end up together, the sour old man will be the heavy, and everyone else is fodder for the frights. The characters come and go so randomly, without any effort to make an impact or logical connection to the events unfolding, that we really don’t care what happens to anyone.
Thanks to such imbecilic script issues, none of the actors here stand a chance. Emilio “Still Waiting for a Brat Pack Reunion Project” Estevez uses every expression he carries in his toolkit of method emoting—both defiant consternation and goofball smirk - to turn the hero Billy into something other than a nonsensical narrative doormat. He fails in every possible way. And whoever hired Laura Harrington to play the romantic lead across from the pseudo-Sheen must have been having a bad eye day. While it may not be fair to call this actress as repellent as a repugnant ranch hand’s jock rot, if the ugly stick fits…to be fair, Ms. Harrington is only working with what the good Lord gave to her. Too bad the big guy was obviously feeling stingy that day.
Other obvious agent firers include Yeardley Smith (practicing a countrified rube characterization that will have fans of The Simpsons recalling an overweight Lisa asking her trailer trash husband Ralph to take her to the li-bary), Pat Hingle (did the man ever look like he was regular?), and Ellen McElduff (who did go on to play important roles in JFK and TV’s Oz). There are also a couple clever blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos - Marla Maples (quick, a dollar for whoever remembers who the hell she is/was) and King himself (playing a brain dead dufus better than you’d expect from a high paid scribe) - but for the most part, this is an ensemble piece with lots of the parts either missing or defective.
And yet, somehow, this creatively bankrupt bonanza is still oddly watchable. It’s not good by any far stretch of the imagination, but it does recall the description King once gave to his books: Maximum Overdrive is the cinematic equivalent of a stack of fast food, albeit a meal left out in the sun too long and swarming with bugs. For every appetizing element - the delirious appliance-based deaths, the hilarious hick accents - there is a basic moviemaking mistake - lack of interesting characters, a completely pat third act - that thwarts all attempts at maintaining an attention span.
Watching Maximum Overdrive is a lot like living with a roommate who constantly wakes you up throughout the course of a night’s sleep (banging into walls, evading the police, et cetera). Just when you’ve gotten into a comfortable groove of bad film friendliness, one of the players will blather on like a chattering chimp and that old feeling of bored butt-bother comes calling. There may be a time in your otherwise busy life when a minutely engaging movie like Maximum Overdrive serves its entertainment purpose - and people who are partial to pathetic motion pictures may actually enjoy King’s freestyle folly - but don’t expect a great deal of the master storyteller’s talent. This movie manages to undo years of reputation gained from a catalog of classic novels.