Throwback Thursday Movie: Stephen King’s “Maximum Overdrive” (1986)

Poster for MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986)
Poster for MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986) — image source: Cinemania

The revolt/revenge of the machines — Stephen King’s answer to Skynet.

I admit upfront that this Throwback Thursday movie is cheesy. But, as Thy Critic Man once said to me, cheese can be very tasty and satisfying to eat. That is exactly my view of MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986), which is currently a Prime movie on Amazon Instant Video. Yes, it’s kitschy, but in exactly the way that Stephen King, who wrote and directed the film, intended it to be.

For evidence of this, the audience need look no further than the opening sequence, in which King himself appears in an over-the-top cameo role. The opening titles and closing credits seem to be deliberately kitschy in a 1970s fashion. But kitsch can be a wonderful recipe if it combines elements from various genres in a delicious fashion.

The melodramatic/melocomic story-line of MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, which is based on King’s short story “Trucks,” hinges on a science-fiction horror premise: the Earth is going to pass through the tail of the mysterious “Rea-M” rogue comet for approximately a week’s time. At the exact time that this period begins, all the machines on the planet start to operate under their own volition, independently of their human owners. This starts in the opening sequence, in which the electronic sign over a bank flashes the message, “F*CK YOU!” When King’s character tries to use an ATM, it calls him an “*sshole.” Things get rapidly worse, as cars, trucks, airplanes, lawnmowers, hair driers, and a myriad of other gadgets start wiping out the population in all manner of gory ways.

King tells the rest of the story through “hicksplotation” tropes. The lead character, Bill Robinson (Emilio Estevez), is a short-order cook at the Dixie Boy truck stop near Wilmington, NC. There he is under the thumb of his boss, Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle), the redneck truck stop owner who uses Bill’s parolee status to make him work more hours than he is paid for. The tables are turned, however, when the big rigs parked at the truck stop take on a life of their own and terrorize the customers and employees. Leading the apparently possessed convoy is the Happy Toyz truck, owned by Handy (Frankie Faison).

The Happy Toyz ("Green Goblin") truck
The Happy Toyz (“Green Goblin”) truck — image source: Villains Wikia

Since Estevez is in the film, King can’t resist a reference to the work of his father, Martin Sheen. In a scene in which an airplane flies under its own power, the soundtrack includes music from the “Ride of the Valkyries,” (from Wagner’s opera, Die Walküre), recalling the famous Air Cav attack scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).

This film definitely tells a linear story, as there is practically no character development. This is not a problem, as the entertainment is all in the action. In true melodramatic American form, Bill and his comrades blast the evil machines with a cache of weaponry that Bubba had been stashing in the basement of his truck stop. However, it is Bill’s love interest, the clever and street-wise Brett (Laura Harrington), who helps him figure out why the machines have come to life and thus enables the group (minus a few expendable characters) to become survivors.

Despite Stephen King’s statements in the trailer below, this movie is not the best adaptation of his unique and compelling writing. Neither will it “scare you to death.” It is, however, a darn good movie to watch if you want to enjoy yourself by experiencing some of the best of the kitschiness of 1980s American movies. Did I forget to mention that the soundtrack is all AC/DC? Another plus, in my book.

FRISCO KID’S Rating: three stars