Written by Stephen King
Directed by Stephen King
Maximum Overdrive is synonymous with homicidal trucks and cars. Between Maximum Overdrive (which started out as a short story called “Trucks”) and Christine, Stephen King practically invented the trope of machines gone amuck. There are some real moments of horror, or at least revulsion, macabre funny bits, and an adrenaline fueled hard rock sound track produced by AC/DC, King’s favorite band. The motley crew that ends up trying to survive at the Dixie Boy are made up of the kind of idiosyncratic individuals that define his writing.
As a bonus we get the young, cute Emilio Estevez as our hero.
It is not, however, a good movie. It’s a deeply flawed movie. It has two major problems, and both of them are Stephen King. This is the first movie that King directed himself, and so far, the only. This is his stab at being Alfred Hitchcock instead of Stephen King. His inexperience shows. I have no doubt that with application and experience (Stephen King admitted to being ‘coked out’ during the making of the movie) that he could have become a good director. But why do that when you are already a best selling novelist?
There wasn’t enough source material in the short story to make a decent length movie. That’s one of the reasons the plot is so thin. The movie is unevenly paced. The first part of the movie is a gleeful massacre of humans by lawnmowers, steamrollers, vehicles, a soda machine and a drawbridge. But when our group gets stuck in the Dixie Boy, it slows down and becomes a cat and mouse game between the hairless apes in the building and the trucks. People have wondered why the trucks didn’t do them in right away; it should be obvious that they were thinking ahead and knew they would need people to fuel them up. Should be. It wasn’t. There are other places where foreshadowing might have helped the audience.
There are many continuity errors. Most of them are in regards to blood. It’s almost as if one shot had different standards of censorship than one immediately following it. A truck might hit someone and show no blood on it, but be bloody in the next shot. The cameras and crew are visible in reflections several times.
There are logical errors. The trucks, bulldozers and M274 Mule with the machine gun mounted on top come to life and become homicidal. Other vehicles don’t, including the newlyweds’ car, which carries them many miles without trying to kill them. I would like to think that their car liked them and wanted to carry them to safety and sacrificed itself for them, but I think that probably only exists in my head. The veritable arsenal the owner has in the basement never turns on them but instead behaves like perfectly normal inanimate weapons.
As far as acting goes, they weren’t the actors’ best performances, with the exception of Holter Graham. The kid’s acting his heart out. Poor Yeardley Smith should not have been shrieking through the movie. It doesn’t take very long before that becomes irritating instead of funny.
The second big flaw is the premise, and that was also Stephen King. Horror doesn’t have to have a logical premise or even internal consistency. It just has to grab you by the gut and hit you where your primitive fear and disgust buttons are located. We do tend to anthropomorphize machines, love them, hate them, and fight with them. We don’t fear them as much as we should, because we couldn’t live our lives, as dependent as we are on machines, if we feared them. Getting into a car to commute to work is an act of supreme bravery that we do every day.
And why not have it be a comet and weird radiation? After all, it worked on Night of the Living Dead. But, the fact that it is machinery, and the flimsy explanation of the UFO that is destroyed by an “unarmed” satellite that puts it in the realm of science fiction, which has to make scientific sense.
The premise fails miserably when logic is applied. None of the machines have any kind of brain or control center that an outside agency could use to make them behave in an autonomous fashion. Even if it was just remote control they have to be equipped with something that could receive the messages and be directed by them. Spigots can’t turn themselves on. Soda machines can’t throw out cans with more power than they were capable of to start with. The mule can’t operate the machine gun it’s carrying. None of it is the least bit believable even with aliens and UFOs. Think of what a paperweight your computer is without WIFI.
BUT…that was in 1986. Now, everything has a computer. Cars and trucks have computers monitoring their engines. They have phones in them, and can be started remotely. In the spirit of the idea that bad movies should be remade, instead of good ones, Maximum Overdrive could be redone and made more believable. Older cars, weapons and appliances could be immune to animation and homicidal tendencies. Computerized machines could be dangerous. It still shouldn’t be helmed by Stephen King. He said in the trailer, “If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself”. Maybe if you want it done right, you should hire a professional and let them do it.
In lieu of a remake, catch Maximum Overdrive on some obscure channel late at night or on a weekend. It’s a guilty pleasure. Despite its obvious flaws and the fact that it killed Stephen King’s directing career, the movie impacted our culture and influenced stories after it, which makes it a cult classic.