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August 3rd, 2006


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11:41 pm - Snakes on a Plane and the Decline of Western Civilization ~or~ Where is your Juggernaut now, Moses?
I got into two discussions at work today about Snakes on a Plane. One of the people I talked to swears that it's going to be the best movie ever. The other one refuses to see it and refuses to engage in any real discussion of the film. He's like that about a lot of entertainment: he knows what he likes, and he can make a good guess as to what he won't like.

I guess I should explain what Snakes on a Plane is, since I know for a fact that everyone reading this isn't aware of it. Ellen's mom admitted ignorance at Ellen and Charlie's housewarming party a couple of weeks ago, and my parents -- who read my journal occasionally -- are probably in the same boat. So, briefly, there's a movie coming out on August 18th. It stars Samuel L. Jackson and is called Snakes on a Plane. Guess what it's about? Several months ago, the absurdly literal title caught the eye of the sort of people who like to generate buzz on the Internet and they responded by generating a lot of buzz on the Internet. Parodies of the film popped up overnight, along with lengthy dissertations on how Snakes on a Plane will be the best movie ever. When the title of the film was changed to Pacific Air Flight 121, Samuel L. Jackson and countless (potential) fans were upset. The title reverted and New Line Cinema (the studio behind Snakes on a Plane) began to take serious notice of the Internet following. Inspired by the countless bloggers, message boards, and gossip forums, New Line called the actors back for five additional days of shooting to add more profanity, gore and nudity (per this story on NPR) bring the film from a PG-13 rating to an R.

New Line Cinema is making a prefab cult classic. Snakes on a Plane (hereafter referred to as SoaP), has its following before the movie is even out, and this is a dangerous thing. I'll explain why.

The appeal of SoaP, in theory, at least, is that it's a bad movie. People love bad movies. We love implausible plots, overacting, and visibly cheap special effects. We love it when good ideas go horribly (but funnily) awry in the hands of bad writers and directors. Pauline Kael, the mother of modern film criticism, once said that "[m]ovies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them."

Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space is the classic example of great trash. It has often been cited as the "worst movie of all time," but it's really far from it. First of all, "worst movie of all time" is a completely subjective honor. Second, Plan 9 shows at dorm room parties and film festivals year after year. More likely, it's the Worst Movie Anybody Cares to Remember, or possibly the Most Inept Movie You Can Sit Through While Still Enjoying Yourself. It was a truly disposable piece of low-budget sci-fi, virtually indistinguishable from the hundreds of other equally schlocky films made in Hollywood around the same time. Somebody just happened to latch on to the wobbling tombstones and terrible dialogue, and made Plan 9 synonymous with all that is trashy in cinema. Plan 9's following comes largely from the fact that it was an earnest effort on the part of Mr. Wood and his conspirators to make something great. There's nothing deliberately bad about Plan 9, and that's the source of its charm.

SoaP will have exactly the opposite problem. SoaP is trying to be great trash, but it's really just a deliberately bad A-movie masquerading as a B-movie. We've seen this done before with movies like Mars Attacks!, which received a lukewarm reception from critics and moviegoers alike. Snakes on a Plane would face the same fate, if not for the careful attention New Line is paying to our response to their viral marketing.

SoaP is audience participation film making. They made the film, we fell in love with the idea, and then they re-tailored the film to what they think we want to see. This sort of market research, however accidental (as it was in the case of SoaP), simply doesn't work. Ultimately, movies become cult classics because they strike a chord with a large audience who wouldn't otherwise share much common ground, and it's almost always an accident. Hollywood has tried time and time again to quantify the things that make a movie culturally resonant, and these formulas unfailingly produce forgettable crap. Consider Gigli, which was engineered to specs delivered by market research. The focus groups said we wanted hitmen, lesbians, Christopher Walken, and Bennifer (v1.0, on the eve of their becoming a punchline). Gigli bombed, and it's not because the focus groups were wrong. It's because focus groups tell us what we think we want, not what we like. The difference is bigger than you might realize. Back in 2003, I would have told you that Gigli failed because we like to be pandered to except when we can tell that that's what's happening. I've changed my mind. I think it simply boils down to the fact that when it comes to mass media, it's easy to identify the elements that make a hit movie (or book or song or whatever), but not so easy to assemble them into one. We don't know what we like until we're actually watching it.

SoaP is forcing its way into the realm of cult classics. There's so much interest in this movie that it will definitely do insanely good business at the box office. It doesn't matter whether it's a good movie or not -- it will still seem (but only seem) hip and ironic, and it will get the same reaction either way as we sit there, smugly congratulating ourselves about how much smarter we are than a movie with the audacity to call itself Snakes on a Plane.

Here is what I think will happen with SoaP: it will lead the box office on its opening weekend, and the built-in audience will ensure that ticket sales stay high for some weeks. The DVD release will also perform well, and after that point, the fervor will die. We'll have forgotten what was so great about SoaP in the first place, because in fact there's nothing great about it. It's made-to-order and pre-chewed so that we know exactly what we're getting, we'll revel in it's dumbness, and in a few months the novelty of "ooh! This is exactly what I expected!" will wear off and we'll be left with a by-the-numbers action/suspense movie that would embarrass even Steven Segall.

By that time, however, the damage will already have been done. When the (already guaranteed) box office returns from Snakes on a Plane are counted, they will set a precedent, and we will be stuck -- at least for a couple of years -- with this audience participation style of Hollywood film making. Most movies probably won't be affected, but I cringe to think that I'll hear "You have no chance to survive, Mister Bond. Make your time. Ha, ha, ha," in Casino Royale. If Wanda Sykes ever stars in Peanut Butter Jelly Time, I'm throwing in the towel.
Current Mood: annoyed

(27 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:valec
Date:August 4th, 2006 04:52 am (UTC)
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I thought you were going to mention the awesome punk/metal documentaries - Decline of Western Civilization Part1/Part 2 respecively, haha

I think SoaP will be crap, and yeah, not in the good way. I think you've really hit teh nail on the head.
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From:sacredspud
Date:August 5th, 2006 04:34 am (UTC)
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Aww, shucks... Thanks! You should call me when you're in town. I'd like to see you.
From:xmerrie1039x
Date:August 4th, 2006 07:24 am (UTC)
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I liked Mars Attacks.

I was also twelve when it came out and it stuck with me...which doesnt excuse the martian tattoo, but I still love it.

Anyway, this SoaP movie sounds SO terrible. Like I was saying at your place earlier, I have an eye for good "bad movies" and I know what I'll end up liking before it even comes out...and this movie sounds so ridiculous in a BAD way...

I'll not see it until the hype dies down, far after it comes out on DVD.
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From:fuzzyinthehead
Date:August 4th, 2006 12:32 pm (UTC)
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How's Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD for bad? Which I think should be next on the list for what the Orpheum shows at midnight fridays, when they restart the program. Ya know, sos I's can sees it.
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From:agaysexicon
Date:August 4th, 2006 07:41 pm (UTC)
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See, that comment was totally me. Not Liz. I really need to double check whose computer I'm using at the time I post stuff. This isn't the first time I've done it, either.
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From:sacredspud
Date:August 4th, 2006 02:32 pm (UTC)
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I love Mars Attacks!, but most of my friends didn't like it very much, and neither did the critics. I still think they just didn't get it, didn't appreciate it as satire.
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From:evil_jim
Date:August 4th, 2006 08:01 am (UTC)
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But are you going to see SoaP?
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From:sacredspud
Date:August 4th, 2006 02:03 pm (UTC)

Current Mood: Sheepish

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Admittedly, yes, I am going to see Snakes on a Plane. I promised Gemma months ago that I'd go with her, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't curious. I expect to have a good time laughing at a bad movie.
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From:koriandrkitten
Date:August 4th, 2006 04:39 pm (UTC)

Re: Current Mood: Sheepish

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Yay! We definately aren't going opening night...it'd be suicidaly stupid.
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From:nocturne152
Date:August 4th, 2006 11:14 am (UTC)
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Ah, but Snakes on a Plane? There is a nationwide Fark gathering to see this, and I happen to be organizing the local chapter.
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From:sacredspud
Date:August 4th, 2006 05:31 pm (UTC)
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Yeah? Huh. When's that? Opening night, I suppose.
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From:nocturne152
Date:August 4th, 2006 07:39 pm (UTC)
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Opening day, actually. I'm planning to do a midafternoon matinee with a cookout beforehand.
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From:angelic667
Date:August 4th, 2006 12:41 pm (UTC)
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I would like to see this movie. It will surely be as good as the SNL skit called "When Cobras Attack" based on the same concept. ^_^ It's a comedy, right? Right???
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From:sacredspud
Date:August 4th, 2006 05:30 pm (UTC)
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I'd really like to make a parody trailer of SoaP using clips from old silent movies: "Enough! I'm at wit's end over these damnable snakes on this damnable aeroplane! Fasten your restraints, fellows, I am going to open the blasted windows!"
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From:r3507
Date:August 4th, 2006 02:15 pm (UTC)
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Thing is, Hollywood is getting pretty good at making movies that make money without anybody really feeling strongly about them - see Wild Wild West, or MiB 2. They stumble occasionally, but the formula works more often than not, which is why it's still around.

I actually wrote about SoaP a while ago, and commented on the same phenomena of internet parodies sneaking into films. I don't think it's an inherently horrible thing, but it could get old real fast.

My biggest fear is that this will become another formula for Hollywood - make quirky movie with A-list actors, watch geeks line their pockets. Action movies are too high-budget for this sort of thing to be attempted too often - I'm thinking we're going to get a spate of comedies and talking head movies that endeavor to be as strange/endearing as possible. Which could be the rebirth of Marx Brothers-style comedies, or it could be the start of five years of crap before they stop trying.

I'm not hopeful.
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From:sacredspud
Date:August 4th, 2006 03:31 pm (UTC)
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Thing is, Hollywood is getting pretty good at making movies that make money without anybody really feeling strongly about them

I didn't really harp on this, but that's my other big problem with SoaP. It's going to have some degree of cultural significance, if only because it's exemplary of what I called "audience-participation film making." Hollywood is about making money, not art, and I don't really fault them for that, but it saddens me to see them sacrifice longevity in favor an exceptionally lucrative flash in the pan.

Oh, and not to split hairs, but I liked MiB2. I thought the first MiB was all unnecessary exposition; reiteration of the information I'd already gleaned from the movie poster. MiB2 was closer to what I'd expected of the first movie. Wild Wild West, on the other hand, is apparently only well-liked by engineering professors. I have two friends from two different schools who had to write papers on the plausibility of the technology in Wild Wild West. Short answer: while impractical, everything in the movie was possible by the 1860s, with the exception of the bionic rednecks.
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From:r3507
Date:August 4th, 2006 04:48 pm (UTC)
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MiB may have contained information you gleaned from the movie poster, but it was targeted at a mainstream audience that had only a vague idea about the mythology behind the "Men in Black." That kind of exposition may be what differentiates the traditional formula from the quirky movie proto-formula. I hated MiB II because it committed the cardinal sin of sequeldom - it undid the events of the first film, and then re-hashed them. Movies like that can be enjoyable, but never memorable.

WWW is, I think, a massive source of shame for everyone involved. Will Smith specifically said that he felt like telling people "it's a bad movie, don't see it!" when it was released. The shame comes not strictly from the quality of the movie (which was sub-par, but nowhere near Hollywood's worst), but from the fact that it was sub-par and still made solid money. That kind of thing makes actors and directors hang their heads, but it makes studio execs light up: "We can make money on our films independent of their quality? Excellent!" It's not that Hollywood hates making quality films, it's just that, well, it's hard to control for quality. Much harder than controlling for hiring stars and staking out a weekend where your film opens alone, for instance.
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From:seanorange
Date:August 4th, 2006 06:00 pm (UTC)
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Speaking of Wild Wild West, check out this video of Kevin Smith telling the story of how he became a writer for the now-defunct Superman Reborn/Lives project, and his brush with the producer who would go on to make Wild Wild West...

~Sean
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From:seanorange
Date:August 4th, 2006 03:03 pm (UTC)
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Strong theatre and DVD sales...?

I don't think the quality is going to matter. Sounds to me like it's going to be (artificially) popular enough to push it into sequel territory, which is probably where the (snake) shit is gonna really hit the (engine) fan.

~Sean
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From:sacredspud
Date:August 4th, 2006 03:38 pm (UTC)
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I wouldn't be surprised if we did get a sequel to SoaP, though I'm not expecting one. My prediction (and understand that this is pure conjecture) is that the sequel will bomb, either because it's just as bad as the first movie and the magic will have worn off, or else because it's a more conventional movie. I'm picturing Army of Darkness, but in the present day and with snakes.
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From:seanorange
Date:August 4th, 2006 04:09 pm (UTC)
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And yet I love Army of Darkness.

~Sean
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From:r3507
Date:August 4th, 2006 04:39 pm (UTC)
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Army of Darkness probably isn't the best comparison because it was the B+ level sequel to a pair of really low-budget movies. I'd venture over half the audience that saw Army of Darkness hadn't seen either of the Evil Dead movies (on first viewing, anyway).

A more accurate parallel would probably be a theoretical Army of Darkness sequel - the audience already knows the characters and the quirks, so it's unlikely sheer weirdness and audience affection would be enough to carry the film.
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From:seanorange
Date:August 4th, 2006 06:15 pm (UTC)
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I've been thinking about this, and it suddenly reminded me of a couple of things.

First, there's that "I'm the Juggernaut, bitch!" line in X-men III. I'm not saying that fan fervor got it put in there, but it's definitely a reference to fan material.

But even moreso, there's this Transformers movie coming up next year (for those who don't know, it's a live-action flick by Michael Bay, produced by Dreamworks (and Spielberg specifically)). They're keeping an ear to "the community" for what they want to see. It's amazing. And horrible, because I know how this "community" can be. Sigh. Yeah, just watch Clerks II and you'll see what I mean.

This thing's firmly in Bay's control, but it's interesting to see how they're striking a balance with this. Not quite the same thing, because this is another installment of a franchise, unlike a movie that's coming out of the ether and creating a fanbase before anyone ever experiences it. But still.

I forgot what my point was.

~Sean
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From:sacredspud
Date:August 4th, 2006 06:59 pm (UTC)
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Wait, what's wrong with Clerks II? Seriously, I've paid no attention to the internet buzz surrounding it and have really only been looking at the PR materials put out by Kevin Smith and the studio, so I don't know what you're referencing. Fot what it's worth, I liked Clerks II a lot, but I walked into it pretty much expecting exactly what I ended up getting. Smith is becoming a better writer and director, and that's the biggest difference between Clerks II and his other work. By now he's learned how to control pacing and multiple story arcs. The jokes aren't as rapid-fire, but I think the quality of his films is getting better.

Regardless, I think I know what you mean regarding Transformers, but as a complete TF outsider, I'm unqualifed to guess as to whether or not it will be any good.
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From:seanorange
Date:August 4th, 2006 07:10 pm (UTC)
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What? No! Clerks II was fantastic! I saw it twice in as many nights. I'm referring to Elias as a representative of the Transformers "community".

Did you see the story Caleb put up about getting a message from Zac during the Elias/TF spiel? Naaah, never mind.

~Sean
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From:sacredspud
Date:August 4th, 2006 07:12 pm (UTC)
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Oh. OHHHHHHH. Gotcha. No, I didn't see that message, but I guess I'll check out Powet to read about it. What'd it say, "heck bemble?"
[User Picture]
From:seanorange
Date:August 4th, 2006 08:31 pm (UTC)
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Snakes on a Plane and the Decline of Western Civilization ~or~ Where is your Juggernaut now, Moses? - Garmonbozia for the soul.

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