(Flashback Friday: This month marks the eight-year anniversary of this slithery thriller. So here’s a look back at a curious moment in film history; an examination of movies of the “so bad it’s good” variety, and one of the few that was actually aiming for that mantle. While certainly not notable for its innovative content — or anemic box office performance — this movie proved an interesting lesson to Hollywood nonetheless. First published in INsite Boston in August 2006.)
When first I heard that Samuel L. Jackson had signed on for a movie called Snakes On A Plane, I marveled at the title’s cornball reductionism, puzzling over whether it was “so dumb it’s clever” or so dumb it’s insulting. Studio execs seldom err on the side of daring, however; I knew they’d soon trade in for a title that didn’t mock itself, and I was right. The film was rechristened Pacific Air Flight 121, and had it stayed that way, would’ve been lost forever amongst this summer’s leggier blockbusters, soon to crappify a bargain bin near you.
Instead, fans of the schlocky title balked, and so did Jackson. They wanted their snakes on a plane called Snakes On A Plane, dammit! And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Flash forward a few months and Snakes On A Plane has inspired T-shirts, websites, bumper stickers, fan art, original music, and more, thanks to fans who latched onto the campy premise early and generated an unexpected, unprecedented level of buzz online — well before the studio had released even a poster or teaser trailer. Only recently has New Line caught up with its legion of avid ophiophiliacs, shooting additional scenes to include more violence and profanity (per fan request) and sponsoring a contest with the winner’s music featured on the soundtrack. To quote the best original SOAP song: Snakes On A Plane is a major issue.
Just how did this B-movie get bumped up to first class? Clearly fans who worship a campy thriller they haven’t seen don’t expect an instant classic. This isn’t Snakes On The River Kwai or Snakes On Golden Pond. These fans want cheesy special effects, Jackson’s de rigueur badass ‘tude, and the unequivocal thrill of reptiles attacking hysterical passengers amidst turbulence. In short, they want Snakes On A Plane to be bad. Really bad. And they don’t want to be disappointed.
Who could blame them?While the mainstream often settles for movies that are merely awful, cult enthusiasts seek something far more precious. When a movie is godawful — when script and direction and acting come together to make one splendidly horrendous whole — the result is more pleasurable than most competently made films.
Compare: Steve Carrell uses “Kelly Clarkson!” as a swear word in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and it’s funny. But when Showgirls’ Elizabeth Berkeley tries her damnedest to be taken seriously while convulsing Exorcist-style all over Kyle MacLachlan in a meant-to-be-steamy sex scene, it’s fucking priceless. Showgirls, Catwoman, and Glitter rank amongst the great comedies of all time without even trying. It’s not the movies we laugh at, but the people inept enough to have made them. (If you think cult film fans sound less like film geeks and more like heartless egomaniacs unfit for public interaction, well, that’s why they gather in cults.) It’s entertainment at the expense of the entertainers.
But in an age when our biggest stars tend to be the ones we ridicule most, the line between cult and mainstream is starting to blur. With its no-brainer title, Snakes On A Plane wants to be in the cult, too, marking a symbiotic dumb-down between movies and their audience. The filmmakers want us to know they know we’re all smarter than their dumb movie, and it’s those hard-to-please film snobs who are taking the bait. Is Hollywood finally in on the joke instead of just the punchline? Or are filmmakers simply getting too lazy to entertain us the legitimate way? If they make bad movies intentionally, and we fall for it willingly, are we any smarter than the dumb movies we’re mocking?
And if film fanatics do the music and marketing (and demand reshoots), leaving the filmmakers to make fun of their own movie, have we crashed through the barrier between audience and entertainer? If so, who’s taking who for a ride now?
Only a film with the lowest of ambitions could raise such intriguing questions. As we await SOAP’s August takeoff, New Line faces a unique marketing challenge — appeal to the mainstream but quell the overexposure to fans Snakes has already charmed, lest Hollywood’s serpentine darling face a venomous backlash from the very faction that put it on the radar.
Cults, after all, tend to be small, selective groups, which is how they get away with dressing in shrouds and Nikes to commit Kool-Aid suicide. If Snakes gets too popular before it opens, it loses cult credibility, and there’s no guarantee the rest of America will eat up this cold-blooded camp so readily. Big buzz doesn’t always equal big bucks.
More likely, however, Snakes On A Plane will attract audiences both smart and stupid, cult and mainstream, to emerge as one of summer’s great successes. The SOAP phenomenon will make way for a slew of copycats aimed at the lowest common denominator, as well as more tell-it-like-it-is titles like Misunderstood Teens In Suburbs, Unlikely Nanny Has A Change Of Heart, and You’re Probably Better Off Watching TV At Home For Free Than Paying To See This New Matthew McConaughey Movie. Subtlety and tact, beware, beware… bad movie marketing has changed forever.
Not that it bothers me. A friend once got me the “VIP edition” of Showgirls (complete with shot glass and pasties) as a birthday gift; I returned the favor this year with a “Snakes + Plane” T-shirt. Like every other card-carrying cultist seeking the next ticket to godawful heaven, I plan to see Snakes On A Plane, and I plan to consume several adult beverages before I do.
That ought to dumb me down just enough.