Revisiting the film of Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive

Stephen King described Maximum Overdrive as a "moron movie." But was he right?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

The film: The Earth is passing through the tail of a comet and it causes the technology across the world to become sentient and automatically evil. Humans swiftly become the targets and a motley crew of survivors take refuge in the Dixie Boy Truckstop, including ex-con Bill (Emilio Estevez), his grumpy, power-mad boss Bubba (Pat Hingle), and hitchhiker Brett (Laura Harrington). As the trucks around them start to pick them off, or more accurately, flatten them like pancakes, they have to work together and figure out a way to defeat the sentient vehicles surrounding them.

One of the frequent responses I’ve had since I started revisiting Stephen King films is that people can’t wait for me to get to Maximum Overdrive. Given the film’s reputation, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve done anything to upset these people. And at last, the moment has arrived. This is the first time I have seen Stephen King’s first directorial effort, adapting his short story Trucks from collection Night Shift. The quality of King adaptations varies wildly and I have tried and will continue to approach each film with positivity. King himself describes Maximum Overdrive as a “moron movie” but I refused to let that put me off any initial optimism.

The core idea of it is the potential for some strong thematic work; King uses his conceit to point out our everyday reliance on technology and how pervasive it is; technology is everywhere and it wouldn’t take long for everything to go south if we lost it. That anxiety remains timely and one only has to look at Black Mirror to see how we’re still obsessed with it. This might be a metaphor that starts subtly in Maximum Overdrive but gets bashed gloriously on the nose just before the climax of the film when the humans mournfully admit that they have become a slave to their machinery. But let’s begin at the beginning.

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The film starts well enough as the machines start to go rogue, with the kind of highway pile-up sequence that a Final Destination movie would be proud of, albeit without the same visual flair. King keeps the action in cramped close-up on the traffic as the drawbridge, on which vehicles stand, starts to rise. There are cars smacking into one another, people screaming, there are even flying watermelons. When we get to the truckstop at which the siege will take place, there’s a nice, gory moment as an electric knife goes rogue on the poor waitress’ arm. See? Optimistic.

King’s ability to spin out a horror story from everyday things is one of his best assets and he indulges in it here. Vending and pinball machines become deadly, water sprinkler systems an ominous threat in the background, and it’s the most sinister an ice cream truck has sounded in a while. Duncan’s trip through suburbia and the wreckage that has been left behind including mutilated bodies and a blood-splattered lawnmower has a genuine malevolence to it. I was feeling pretty good at this point; perhaps this film was one of those misunderstood entries into King’s oeuvre…

Nope.

But what it does do is manage to get so ludicrous that it becomes amusing. In some cases, laugh out loud funny because it stops making any sense it might have had. I think we’re supposed to find the trucks circling the truckstop sinister, but there’s just something not particularly scary about haulage trucks slowly driving about. You can see those kind of scenes on the M6 of a Friday night, but that has the extra frisson of a potential traffic jam for you to worry about. Why don’t the trucks just drive into the truck stop? They’re huge. The truckstop looks like it is made of metal sheeting glued together with hamburger grease. The trucks would flatten it, and the ragtag bunch assembled inside, in seconds. Why not drive through it? You know, before they run out of gas. Just roll right over everyone. Of course, they do eventually come to the same conclusion, it just takes the whole film to get there. And after the people have left. Come on now.

It occurs to me at this point in the film that I’m not supposed to be rooting for the evil, sentient trucks to kill off the characters in so ruthless a fashion, but the humans haven’t really given me anything to cheer for. Nefarious Pat Hingle is suitably entertaining, but I’m not entirely sure I understood a line of dialogue. Meanwhile, Estevez is getting all brooding, exchanging terrible dialogue with Harrington in his tortured, stubbly bad boy way. They end up shagging, because obviously. The rest of the characters seem to be a collection of hick stereotypes, existing to yell, scream, and die horribly as the plot requires. In total, they all have about as much personality as the trucks themselves, which is very little.

King is famously criticised for not being able to stick the landing when it comes to his stories, but as I was getting to the end of Maximum Overdrive, it occurred to me that it was prime for a classic, maniacal, and enormous King ending. The destruction of the truckstop should is nicely explosive and big, but then when we get to the climactic battle, or rather, the anti-climactic battle between the Green Goblin truck and the Dixie Boy survivors, it all falls flat. It’s a one-shot-and-done deal. It’s simply not very King-like.

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And that’s perhaps the saddest thing about Maximum Overdrive. Somewhat ironically, it might be the first King adaptation in this series that quickly stops feeling like a King story. Some of the classic tropes are in there, but as the film progresses, the nuance and the menace that usually defines his work is lost. The character development, usually a strength, is practically non-existent. Perhaps some of this can be explained by the fact that he was at the height of his addictions when the film was made and learning a new creative process meant that his storytelling prowess got lost. There are enough visual flourishes in there to suggest he could make a decent director, but Maximum Overdrive would kill his directorial ambitions shortly after the film was released.

But all of this is not to say I wasn’t entertained. I was, but for all the wrong reasons. There’s a moment when Pat Hingle is wielding a rocket launcher, chomping on a cigar, and unintelligibly yelling at trucks. I can’t understand how a movie can have this kind of scene and not be very good, but that’s Maximum Overdrive for you. A well of potential, filled in with tonnes of scrap.

Scariest moment: The sight of the electric knife carving its way into Wanda’s arm and then her foot certainly managed to put me off my lunch.

Musicality: King’s favourite band, AC/DC, are on soundtrack duties here and it’s probably the film’s best feature. I do applaud the use of Ride Of The Valkyries too for the self-piloting aeroplane flying overhead. That’s a neat touch.

A King thing: A siege scenario. Maximum Overdrive and The Mist are both literal examples of a community forced to work together when they’re trapped in a truckstop and supermarket respectively, but there are plenty of metaphorical ones in other stories too, when monsters take up residence.

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