Snakes on a Plane

I happened to be reading Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture this weekend as I was thinking about the blog hype for Snakes on a Plane (IMDB). The film has been anticipated for its potential B-movie schlockiness and for the role of fans in pushing New Line to retain its original title and to revise the film from a PG-13 yawner into an R-rated film with added violence, nudity, and profanity. As Stephanie Zacharek points out, the fan involvement has transformed SoaP from a film into an event, perhaps the most enthusiastically anticpiated film event of the summer, at least among its hardcore fans who have what Zacharek describes as an “ownership stake” in the film. And I think that Jenkins’ discussion of the “collective intelligence” of online forums and discussion boards devoted to popular culture texts offers a useful way of thinking about the appeal of what might have been a quickly forgotten action thriller. Instead of dismissing Snakes as a form of “prefab populism” as Chuck Klosterman has, I would read SoaP as licensing some valuable conversations about popular culture, specifically about the processes by which films are manufactured and marketed.

Before I go too far with this analysis, I should say that I genuinely enjoyed the film. The ultra-thin plot is hardly worth recounting. Super-competent FBI agent Nelville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson, playing his star persona to the point of parody) is commissioned to guard surfer dude Sean on a flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles, where he will testify against a ruthless crime boss, Eddie Kim. To prevent Sean from testifying, Kim’s thugs smuggle snakes into cargo. At a timely moment, a pheremone is released that will make the snakes go wild. They attack in pretty much every imaginable way, biting into a woman’s breast as she seeks to join the mile-high club, crawling up muumuus, crawling up through the plane’s control panels, you get the idea, until Flynn, Sean, and a soon-to-reire flight attendant, Claire (Julianna Margulies) fight back. Several of these scenes are filmed in green snake-vision, mocking the sinister POV shots of more serious action thrillers.

But, as you might imagine, it was far more fun to watch the audience response. At the Saturday night screening here in F’ville, audience members gleefully mocked the pseudo-sincerity of the newlyweds who honeymooned in Hawaii, but obviously the most exciting moments were the nods to the internet culture (Sam Jackson’s f-bombs, the gratuitous nudity, etc), and these moments, at lest for me, represented one of the few times in recent memory that audiences seemed to view themselves as a collective entity, and that’s what I enjoyed most about the film. Here, I think New Line’s decision not to screen the film for critics was an effective one, not because bad critical reviews could have hurt the box office (SoaP was and is pretty much critic-proof) but because it required critics to take the audience’s response to SoaP into account as they were writing their reviews (perhaps most evident in Zacharek’s review, but also see Manohla Dargis and James Berardinelli).

And here is where I think Jenkins’ discussions of fan culture are pertinent. The involvement of fans in shaping the film, at lest in my reading, allows fans to feel at least some stake in a popular culture that seems disconnected from them and their interests and desires. And even if New Line’s decision to change the film was calculated to maximize profits, conversations about SoaP have become, by extension, conversations about popular culture in general. In discussing the five days of re-shoots edited back into the film to acheive an R-rating, James Berardinelli observes, “All of this stuff is clumsily edited in. It doesn’t take much imagination to re-construct the PG-13 cut. The film probably would have worked better if it had been envisioned as a hard R from the beginning.” But in my reading that’s part of the point for me. By calling attention to the clumsiness and gratuitousness of the edits, we can, by extension, discuss the ratings system itself. By not screening the film for critics, we can provoke conversations about how we watch movies and why audiences matter, about the limits of evaluative film criticism. Even the schlockiness of the visuals (the CG-animated snakes are clearly fake) can provoke conversations about how special effects shape our expereince of watching a film.

Whether SoaP replaces Rocky Horror as “the greatest audience participation movie of all time,” as Pete Vonder Haar of Film Threat imagines, remains an open question. But I think SoaP has helped to revive some questions about our investments in popular culture and that’s pretty cool.

8 Comments »

  1. marc Said,

    August 20, 2006 @ 5:04 pm

    4-Day weekend gross (including midnight shows): $15.25 mil
    3-Day: $13.85 mil

    Maybe word of mouth will boost second week sales, but I doubt it. I think that, once again, there’s something to be said for internet culture shaping the feeling of ownership in our media, but, for my part, I can’t imagine we’ll see this sort of tactic used again on such a wide scale. SoaP is, and always was, a niche film, and no amount of hype can push it past that point.

    My only regret is that I didn’t see it this weekend with a packed audience. I won’t be going now.

  2. Chuck Said,

    August 20, 2006 @ 5:34 pm

    It’s worth asking whether the film would have done any better with a more traditional marketing campaign, but you’re right to note that the box office is less than stellar.

    I don’t think that word of mouth will affect box office significantly at this point, but the “feeling” of ownership is still worth thinking about (even if that feeling is somewhat of an illusion).

    If I hadn’t seen SoaP Saturday night, I probably wouldn’t have seen it. I really did enjoy SoaP, but it would have been significantly less enjoyable with a smaller audience.

  3. marc Said,

    August 20, 2006 @ 8:36 pm

    Yeah, I’m pretty jealous that you go to see it with an audience.

    It pays to remember, though, that the pitch, casting, and initial production on the film was originally geared towards playing it straight– Pacific Flight 151, I believe, was the chosen title (after, of course, SoaP). Sam Jackson slips in an interview that the title should stay and that’s that– a cult phenom is born. But the margins aren’t quite as large as appeared….

    I guess what I’m saying is that with a traditional marketing plan, this would have bombed even worse (I think this has to be considered a bomb in some sense, even if it makes a tidy profit). Not as bad as Serenity, but a bomb nonetheless.

  4. Chuck Said,

    August 21, 2006 @ 11:07 am

    It looks like New Line is mildly disappointed with the box office, although the film will make a small profit via DVD and TV sales. The audience in F’ville seemed less versed in the hype than more urban, hipster audiences might have been.

    But this New York Times article provides a nice wrap up of New Line’s reaction to SoaP’s reception.

  5. marc Said,

    August 21, 2006 @ 11:51 am

    Here’s another nice take on what happened by Devin Faraci over at CHUD:

    http://www.chud.com/index.php?type=news&id=7448

  6. Chuck Said,

    August 21, 2006 @ 12:19 pm

    Just adding a direct link, but that’s a pretty smart read on the SoaP hype.

  7. Seb Said,

    August 21, 2006 @ 3:43 pm

    Although this movie isn’t raking it in, it seems like a good sign that the film was made the way it was. I feel lucky to live in this day and age. We have so many choices in terms of media consumption, that there’s bound to be things we’ll enjoy. Plus, with the internet, I feel the audience has gained a lot of power and a greater voice. Hollywood will find it harder and harder to make money on bland movies, I don’t say bad movies, because at least bad is something, bland is worse.

    Anyways, I’ve been enjoying your site!

  8. Chuck Said,

    August 21, 2006 @ 3:56 pm

    One of the articles I was reading this morning–I believe it’s the NYT article cited above–described an explosion of indie film production as studios become increasingly averse to taking creative risks as budgets continue to rise. I think the CHUD article is probably right that New Line misread the netroots “enthusiasm” for SoaP, especially given the tepid box office. That being said, it certainly feels like we’re in a moment of transition.

    Thanks for the kind words. I just discovered your blog via Technorati, and I’m looking forward to following it in the future.

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