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Maximum Overdrive (1986)

"This machine just called me an asshole!"

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Director: Stephen King 

Starring: Emilio Estevez, Laura Harrington, Pat Hingle, John Short, Yeardley Smith, Ellen McElduff

Screenplay: Stephen King, based upon his own short story

Synopsis: The Earth passes through the tail of a comet. Machines suddenly begin behaving autonomously, and attack people and animals. At a truck stop, tensions are running high between Billy Robinson (Emilio Estevez) and his employer, Hendershot (Pat Hingle). Hendershot wants Billy to work unpaid overtime, and since Billy is on probation, he has little choice. Suddenly, a waitress at the truck stop, Wanda June (Ellen McElduff), is injured when an electric carving-knife turns on her. A mechanic is half-blinded when a pump squirts diesel in his face. The trucks at the stop begin driving themselves, and the mechanic is killed when a truck runs over him. Meanwhile, a hitch-hiker, Brett (Laura Harrington), hears on the radio that similar incidents are occurring all over America. She and her driver, an amorous bible-salesman, pull into the truck-stop. Further down the road, newly-weds Curtis and Connie (John Short and Yeardley Smith) are attacked by a driverless truck, but they too make it to the stop, as does the young son of the mechanic who was killed. One of Hendershot's other employees reveals to Billy and Brett that Hendershot has a cache of illegal arms in the basement of the truck stop. The trapped people begin to fight back against the rebelling machines.

Comments: The machine called you an asshole, Steve? Frankly, I think it was right to do it. Unfortunately, Stephen King’s cameo appearance in the first minute of Maximum Overdrive is pretty much the film’s high point. "Trucks" was a taut, scary piece of writing; this is an overlong, fairly dull film that loses much of it’s impact by trying to explain how the whole thing started, and by assuring us that everything was all right in the end (I assume the "comet" bit was a nod to Night Of The Living Dead (1968)). It’s as if King set out to prove that he can ruin one of his stories just as thoroughly as any cheapskate, cynical, second-rate film-maker. Though King has been quoted as saying, "I may have made the modern version of Plan Nine From Outer Space", if he believes that, he’s got delusions of grandeur. The film is neither good enough nor bad enough; it’s just blah, a junk-food movie, one of those where you can tell right from the start who’s going to live and who’s going to die. In fact, some of these characters, using the term loosely, might as well have I WILL DIE MESSILY tattooed across their foreheads. They scream, abuse each other, swear a lot, and die. In the middle of this mess, Emilio Estevez and Laura Harrington are actually quite believable as the young couple, while Pat Hingle is totally unbelievable, although entertaining, as Hendershot, the foul-mouthed, bad-tempered, employee-exploiting, arms-dealing owner of the truck stop. (Proof of impact: the person I was watching the film with, who was out of the room when Hendershot bought it, commented, "I’m sorry I didn’t see that big-mouthed bastard die.") The low point of the film, I’m sad to say, is the performance of Yeardley Smith as whining, snivelling, shrieking newlywed, Connie. About thirty seconds after her first appearance, you start hoping desperately that one of the trucks gets her as quickly as possible. (This film is a very disturbing experience for people like me who’ve based their lives upon the teachings of Lisa Simpson.) On the upside, there’s a pretty good soundtrack by AC/DC, some of the violent set pieces work (I particularly liked the berserk drink machine attacking the Little League team), and the goblin-faced lead truck is memorable, although much too easily disposed of at the end. It was also kind of nice to see Wilmington, North Carolina, playing itself for a change.