Thursday, August 24, 2006

SHORT ROUNDS: ALL ABOUT THOSE HIGH-FLYING SNAKES AND THE PLANE THEY RODE IN ON



You’ve probably heard of the movie Snakes on a Plane. Of course you have. You’ve been hearing about it nonstop for about six months. Or rather, you’ve been hearing about the unique studio marketing campaign designed to keep the Internet buzzing about its high-concept low concept. And in the long shadow of its less-than-spectacular opening weekend box office numbers, it seems that many of those in the fan base who were first seduced by the giddiness of producing an action movie under such self-aware circumstances are now checking in with theories about why the expected audience didn’t show up in huge waves, how the marketing failed, how it might have been approached differently, and whether or not interest in the movie peaked too early—would May have been a better release date, to capitalize on the intense anticipation as well as position it more like a Bruckheimer bash rather than a Cormanesque alternative to the offerings of genuine quality available during the dog days of August? (Insert arched eyebrow here.) Some of these discussions are self-serving slices of deep-dish 20-20 hindsight served up as tasty fodder for heated-up Internet message boards, and others are characterized with genuine curiosity about what some worry might become a template for furthering Hollywood’s obsession with achieving a sort of all-things-to-all-people nirvana. (Perhaps the disappointing Snakes numbers can at least dampen those fears a trifle.)

Unexpectedly low returns on aggressively marketed studio movies-- certainly not an unfamiliar scenario to have ever played out on the pages of the daily trade papers. The success of the touchstone campaign that got all the tails wagging over Snakes-- the grassroots is-it-real-or-isn’t-it Internet push behind The Blair Witch Project-- looks like it will remain, for the immediate future, the gold standard of virtual fleecing. But other attempts to whip up a priori consensus on Web sites and chat rooms have been far less reliable—just how many studio executives, after all, were convinced that Superman Returns was solid gold based on pre-release cyberchatter? Internet enthusiasm makes for great copy in puff pieces to be printed the Sunday before a big release, but it seems that once the film gets unleashed into the real world those figures relating to audience interest don’t always make the proper translation into actual box-office numbers.

Maybe New Line and all the Hollywood stat mavens just haven't figured out yet what “X” number of hits on Snakes on a Blog means in terms of actual people who will stop surfing the Web long enough to actually go out and see a movie, even one like this. And I think the marketing department found themselves confronted on opening weekend with a vast swath of moviegoers who wouldn't pay to see a movie they've prejudged (because of all the hype they've heard, studio-generated or not) to be bad, intentionally or unintentionally. Suddenly, New Line's marketing goals became a little more daunting, their "Look, Ma, no brains" strategy a little less like a sure thing. And now, with American audiences not nibbling as hard on the Snake bait, the studio is suddenly faced with selling an action movie in foreign markets that usually take their testosterone doses a little more straight up, markets where ironic distancing from the movie being advertised in the advertising itself is less likely to be understood, therefore much less effective.

But, really, enough about the sell job. The question that actually held my interest in the weeks and days before actually seeing Snakes on a Plane was (and this might strike some as rather quaint), what was the movie like? Was the movie being sold really a deliberately-so-bad-it’s-good postmodern smirkfest? Was it an indecisive, low-ambition thriller hamstrung by the kind of ineptitude that can’t be faked—in other words, was it so bad that it was just bad? Or was it maybe a self-aware attempt at recasting familiar action-adventure molds with a minimum of winks and nudges that had a chance at succeeding as a respectable thriller on its own terms?

Snakes was directed by David R. Ellis, who previously concocted the delightfully sadistic Rube Goldberg grand guignol of Final Destination 2 and last year’s hopped-up thriller Cellular, and my anticipation of this new movie was grounded firmly in what I hoped he could bring to the party as a sly coordinator of action-movie magic. As it turns out, Snakes hasn’t the sleekness of Cellular or the gonzo imaginative conviction that goosed the imagery in FD2-- it’s a much more straightforward piece of work, by design, and as such it’s not as gaudy a showcase for Ellis’ talents with clean action choreography as those other films. Instead, it’s merely a solid, well-paced, energized effort by this director, who will hopefully be able to parlay the attention drawn to Snakes into more and better opportunities to craft amusing and wizardly action fare in the years to come.

(I couldn’t help wondering, however, what Ronny Yu, the director who was originally attached to Snakes, might have done with the same material. Yu turned the potential turd of Freddy vs. Jason into a visually deft and clever, rock-‘em-sock-‘em genre standoff that was far more fun than anyone had a right to expect. He also helped shepherd the Child’s Play series from its creative dead-end as a straightforward slasher series toward the more fancifully rude and gasp-inducing meta-comedy of Bride of Chucky and writer-director Don Mancini’s peak follow-up, Seed of Chucky. Ronny Yu could have been just the guiding hand to send Snakes into the stratosphere.)

What Ellis does bring to Snakes, however, is the ability to balance on the thin wire that segments the movie’s well-documented concept—hundreds of snakes let loose by a Hawaiian gangster on a jumbo jet as a means of ensuring a plane crash that will kill an onboard witness to a gruesome murder—between sincerely meat-headed thriller and self-deprecating, over-the-top camp for the post-Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker age. And both the director and the movie benefit in this regard by having Samuel L. Jackson’s name above the title. This actor has made a career out of embodying the very concept of inspiring laughs while at the same time asking (demanding!) that his characters be taken surface-level very seriously, as intended. Jackson, as the F.B.I. agent who is escorting the murder witness back to Los Angeles and ends up spearheading the fight against the plane’s reptilian invaders, knows exactly how to pitch this material, and he’s never once caught winking at the camera, even during the delivery of that now-famous fan-inspired line, which has the feeling of being wedged into the screenplay by committee, all right, but which also plays surprisingly well, at least with the cheering Saturday night opening weekend crowd that surrounded me and my friends.

But as a straightforward measure of indicating what the movie might be against what it turns out to be, the ultimate effect of the Snakes marketing deluge can be said, I think, to be a textbook case of truth in advertising. The movie never once reveals itself to be anything beyond the claims of the title, and consequently it never accumulates an extra level of social satire or psychological subtext to which some of the best drive-in exploitation-type fare (like Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 or Lewis Teague’s Alligator) could lay claim. On the other hand, if you don't want to see a movie about snakes overrunning a plane and laying the bite, in some excruciatingly creative and funny ways, on a series of B-movie stock passengers, at least you have a fair idea of what you’d be missing.

The happy surprise is that it turns out Snakes on a Plane is not, in the Jerry Bruckheimer-Michael Bay "tradition," an overinflated blockbuster full of B-movie allusions, but instead a bona fide heart-and-soul cheapie. (Sort of-- what $40 million doesn't buy these days, eh?) It's a real exploitation movie in the best sense of the word-- this movie often feels, sounds and looks like it could have come straight out of the disaster movie movement of the early to mid 70s. And so does that passenger list, which includes an insufferably haughty British prig, a high-maintenance model-type (complete with pillow-perched Chihuahua), a stoic flight attendant on her last run before a long-overdue career change, a young mother and her newborn, a pair of pre-teen brothers, and even a OCD-plagued hip-hop star and his portly entourage who all, refreshingly, have something more to do than stand around fleshing out racial stereotypes. It even does a good job (intentional or not) replicating the clunky narrative setups and exposition of a ‘70s disaster epic—the movie starts off feeling like it might not shed the veneer of cheese evident in these opening scenes, but it eventually takes flight and gets better, funnier and more exciting as it hurtles along toward its white-knuckle climax. And along the way the snake action—real, CGI, rubber, whatever—hits a lot of “boo!” bull’s-eyes and heights of genuine, slithery fear too.

Snakes on a Plane is a wild, chipper, economical good time, if you’re inclined to accept it on its own terms—that is, a relatively straight action thriller with a healthy sense of humor, not a Rocky Horror irony-a-thon ready-made for mid-flight audience condescension. It balances jolts and laughs in a fashion that rarely tips too far in the wink-wink, nudge-nudge direction, and I had a genuine good time in its company. And maybe even more importantly, I didn't feel unclean afterward, as if I'd been cruelly duped or abused by some cynical marketing campaign, or my own desire for cheap thrills. Snakes on a Plane may have been sold as though it was intended to be all things to all people, but thankfully it plays like a movie intended for true believers-- thrill-seekers in thrall to the kind of exploitation fare typical of a Saturday night bill at the drive-ins of 30 years ago. The movie is smarter than advertised too, and it has fun simply running full tilt with its goofy high concept, and that includes delivering a lot of the gore and nudity and tough, nasty talk that earmark its true roots.

As my friends and I all walked out afterward, we were happy to discover that we all enjoyed Snakes on a Plane to one degree or another. (Even my wife, eternal good sport and serial avoider of movie violence that she is, had to admit she had fun, though often with her eyes closed.) We hit the escalators to the parking lot and chattered amongst ourselves, and I realized I was coming off the same kind of thrill that I experienced after seeing something like Death Race 2000 on its original release, a piece of pulp widely assumed to be irredeemable trash that turned out to have a vitality and charge all its own. Snakes on a Plane has a similar sort of B-movie buzz, and a hiss and a rattle to boot, but only time will tell if it ends up having the kind of enduring appeal that movie has enjoyed amongst the genre cognoscenti. Whatever the movie's fate on the cultural landscape, I'd like to think that somewhere in the Movie Afterlife over this past weekend, the likes of Irwin Allen and Jennings Lang and William Castle, final box office numbers be damned, were observing, smiling and saying to each other, "Damn, I wish we'd thought of that!”

(Portions of this article first appeared as a comment provided to Jim Emerson's Scanners blog.)

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Apparently, though, for some genius the movie’s concept wasn’t high enough. In a move that would have horrified even William Castle, two live rattlesnakes were turned loose in an Arizona movie theater this past weekend that was showing Snakes on a Plane.

Good story, except for one thing: a day later police are claiming the "Snakes in a Theater" story is a bit of a hoax. And even in this follow-up story about what turned out to be a nonstory, there's still room to mention the movie's disappointing opening weekend grosses. Where's Howard Beale when we really need him?

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Blogger Dave Robidenza, who runs the show at American Waste, had a wittier, less potentially homicidal, 100% hoax-free way of having fun with the whole Snakes on a Plane idea. He details, in the afterglow of seeing the movie at the Mission Tiki Drive-In this past weekend, some imaginary recasting of Samuel Jackson’s testy F.B.I. agent and invites your contributions as well. This has the makings of a delightful parlor game, don’t you think?

1 comment:

Brian said...

I still haven't seen the film, but I liked Vern's take on the hype