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.