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.