Maximum Overdrive~ 1986, Stephen King, USA
“If you want something done right… You gotta do it yourself…”
And so goes the memorable and woefully confrontational advertising campaign for Stephen King’s directorial debut; Maximum Overdrive. Apparently dissatisfied with how his work has been handled in the past, King has taken matters into his own hands… His horribly, horribly incapable hands.
THE PLOT: Due to a bizarre astrological occurrence, all machines on the planet Earth gain sentience and unite to destroy humanity, even though most of them wouldn’t really be able to do anything. A band of survivors takes shelter in a roadside diner called The Dixie Boy, and begin their fight for survival. This is a movie where a soda machine and a steam-roller are equally lethal, and where a semi-truck looks exactly like The Green Goblin for no reason at all. Maximum Overdrive is stupid… and it doesn’t make any sense.
The trailer is a good place to start on this. First beef; if we can’t keep him seated in front of a typewriter or laptop, can we at least keep him BEHIND a camera? Because, damn, homeboy looks like a cross-eyed denizen of that village The Grinch used to terrorize.
Stephen King; bumpkin exile from Whoville?
Secondly, hear that quasi-John Carpenter-esque music in there? Sounds creepy, huh? Building tension pretty good! Really fits the vibe… Well, apparently whoever cut that trailer together is a better director than Stephen King, because that shit isn’t in the movie. The soundtrack for Maximum Overdrive comes to us courtesy of Australian rock gods AC/DC.
I wish to be clear; I love AC/DC… And you might love your car, but you probably want it parked in your driveway and not at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Even great things need to be kept where they belong. Sadly, AC/DC does not belong in this movie, and they are not doing Maximum Overdrive any favors… In fact, their high energy brand of hard rock is borderline uplifting, and not at all scary.
There is one sequence in particular where a little boy rides his bike through a neighborhood shortly after it’s been hit by the robo-jihad. It’s a beautiful neighborhood, nice houses, nice yards, tons of corpses all over the place. The juxtaposition packs a punch, and the scene being viewed by a lone child, desperately searching for survivors from the seat of his ten speed is also pretty damn heavy. It could have been extraordinary, the kind of thing you see on “Best of” lists twenty years later, except that the rockin’ soundtrack drags you the opposite direction. So, you’re like, “oh, wow, this is kinda brutal. This is almost scary- Oh, no, wait-SHOOK ME ALLLLLLL NIGHT LONG!!!! YEAAAAH WHOOOO!!!!”
The rest of the movie doesn’t fare much better. Perhaps the use of AC/DC music suits Stephen King’s vision. I’m willing to believe that his taste in cinema runs decidedly more campy and “Tales From The Crypt“-ish than his writing. Tonally, Maximum Overdrive has a lot less in common with The Shinning than it does with George Romero’s Creepshow; another comic book camp-fest to which Stephen King also contributed… So it would make sense if this was just the kind of movie that Stephen King wanted to see… But damn, he really threw down the gauntlet in that trailer, so no matter what we can’t cut him slack if this thing sucks.
Here are some other interesting points to address;
The plot holes in this movie are huge, glaring, and constant- oh wait,YEEEAAHHH!!!! WHOOOOO!!!! DONE DIRT CHEAP!!!!!
Sorry- The music is seriously distracting. Anyway; plot holes; Where’s the cut off? A bike apparently doesn’t qualify as the kind of machine that can go all Christine on us, so perhaps they have to be electric, or gas fueled, or something? How does a pinball machine crack it’s own glass? How does an arcade machine blast somebody with lightning? How come Curtis and Connie’s car doesn’t turn against them when they’re on the run from all those killer semi trucks? Why don’t the machines just kill us all with nuclear weapons instead of trying to run us all over individually? I imagine there would be a lot more Skynet type stuff in the mix here, but this feels more like a garage door on the fritz than anything else. Also, at the end of the film, a caption informs us that a Russian “satellite” encounters a UFO hiding in the cosmic dust around Earth and takes it out with a missile or space laser or something. So, how? Why isn’t that Russian Satellite just raining death missiles down on we humans below? The aliens don’t control the satellite? Also, won’t the aliens just come back? How many humans did they kill, versus how many aliens were on board that space ship? Certainly these aliens know that you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Maximum Overdrive doesn’t gel, and if it don’t gel, it ain’t Jello.
The funniest scene in the damn movie takes place early on in the game room of the Dixie Boy. You see, when the machines first start acting out against their oppressors, most people simply interpret their attempts at murder to be a malfunction of some kind. As you would expect, the people of Earth are reluctant to jump to the conclusion that all of our machines now literally have a mind of their own and are trying to kill us… All except for one dude, who immediately knows what’s going on, THIS guy:
This is the first person on Earth to get it. For most people, if you were to walk into a room of arcade games, and they were all freaking out, you’d think, “This room sucks. These games are all broken. This is annoying. I’m leaving this room.” And then you would. Not this guy. He understands what’s going on, and interprets the electronic boops and flashing lights to be intelligent, and also disrespectful… and he takes it personally. His reaction to this electronic sass is the funniest part of the movie, but sadly, he doesn’t make it out of the room alive… Or without embodying hurtful racial stereotypes. 1986! He would have been a better main character.
Another interesting point; This is Curtis.
He’s a total nerd. Cowardly, weak, just a damp little wuss. Now, let’s look at Curtis after 24 hours in Maximum Overdrive world.
Damn! Suddenly he’s Bruce Willis in Die Hard! Seriously, what the hell happened!? Maximum Overdrive will turn your life around and transform you into a bad ass in a matter of hours. I think it might actually be a good thing. It’s probably all the AC/DC that does it. We should probably be hoping for a Maximum Overdrive type situation to happen in real life. We’d all be so awesome.
Underneath all off this, there is something endearing and very “80’s precious” about Maximum Overdrive, and it’s fun enough. It’s little wonder so many people have a lot of affection it, even if it can’t be called a good movie by really any stretch of the imagination. Somehow, in the face of all the stupid, Stephen King’s first major motion picture manages to be watchable, and probably pretty close to how he wanted it.
That having been said, as far as Stephen King motion picture adaptations go, it sucks out loud, so go figure.