With only its so-honest-its-hilarious title, 'Snakes on a Plane' invited the masses to spoof the film, design posters, and even write dialogue. It's a wicked good time, but is it a good thing?
"49. The relation between boredom and Camp taste cannot be overestimated. Camp taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence." -- SUSAN SONTAG, "NOTES ON CAMP"
Snakes on a Plane" opens Friday at multiplexes around the country. Whether it's a good movie or a dreadful movie is, to everybody except the bean counters at New Line Cinema, beside the point. Even they may be in on the joke, though: There have been no advance screenings of the $30 million high-flying action film, for critics or anyone else, not (the studio claims) because the movie stinks from the neck down but because what's most fun about ``Snakes" has been the Internet-driven hype that surrounds it. That hype comes down to one thing: the boneheaded comic purity of the movie's title.
Snakes. Snakes on a plane. What more do you need to know?
Well, this: Samuel L. Jackson cussing up a storm as an FBI agent trying to protect a witness from hundreds of nasty reptiles while trapped in a tin can hurtling 30,000 feet in the air. But, really, ``Snakes on a Plane" says it all, doesn't it?
In the year since a Hollywood writer named Josh Friedman posted on his Web diary that he'd been script-doctoring a movie of that title, the ``SoaP" meme has grown like Topsy. It's the latest iteration of viral marketing, an Internet kudzu that initially took on a life of its own against the wishes of the film's corporate keepers. And it's almost certainly the most visible example of a sensibility that didn't exist before the digital revolution: Mass Camp.
``41. The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious."
When word got out that the film's studio, New Line, had changed the title to the supremely bland ``Pacific Air 121," the blogosphere erupted in rage. The suits didn't get it: What was exciting people was the notion of B-movie junk that for once declared itself as B-movie junk. The original title pulled away the velvet Hollywood curtain of hypocrisy and called the thing for what it was: product. Such honesty was delightful, crass, and cheering, as if ``Jurassic Park" had been retitled ``Steven Spielberg Presents Very Realistic Dinosaurs Eating People."
The studio backed down. ``Snakes on a Plane" it was. Then things started getting strange.
Go to Google and type in the film's title, in quotes. You'll get around 12 million hits, precious few of which go back to New Line's corporate site. Once surfers got wind that Sam Jackson was starring in a movie called ``Snakes on a Plane," people started making T-shirts, launching websites, creating parody trailers of the movie they wanted to see. A Georgetown University law student named Brian Finklestein started Snakesonablog.com, which became both a one-stop news outlet for fans and a way for New Line to reach them.
The phrase itself entered the slacker lexicon, replacing ``[expletive] happens" as a nod to the ways in which the universe can throw Zen curveballs. Did a tree fall on your car the day after you made the final payment? Snakes on a plane, man.
``43. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal."
The studio decided to play ball, if that's what you want to call throwing your marketing plan open to the whims of thousands of bloggers. Tapping into a movement that had already produced bands with names like Snakes on a Jefferson Airplane, the studio hosted a ``SoaP" songwriting contest and was deluged with 500 entries. More intriguingly, director David R. Ellis and others involved with the project looked to the fan base to dictate the film they were making. In this, they were abetted by their star, who had from the beginning been a profanely vocal proponent of both the title and the cheesy thrills it promised.
Jackson publicly groused about having to make a PG-13 movie when the material clearly warranted a hard R rating. After looking at an early cut, studio executives agreed and Ellis went back for five days of reshoots that include a graphic mile-high sex scene and fresh helpings of herpetological gore. The filmmakers also looked to the Net for the catchphrase no one had thought to put in the screenplay. If people wanted to hear Jackson bellow ``I've had it with these [expletive] snakes on this [expletive] plane," their wish was now granted.
With that addition, ``Snakes" went boldly where not even ``The Blair Witch Project" had gone. The fans were now writing the script.
And what's wrong with that?, wonders Ellis. ``Given the groundswell on the Internet and the fans' desire to hear Sam in all his glory, we were thrilled we got five extra days to do the things they wanted us to do," the director says, speaking by phone from the South Carolina set of his next film, a thriller called ``Asylum." Ellis is unapologetic about letting the inmates take over the ``Snakes" asylum; it's an audience picture, he reasons, so why shouldn't the audience have a say? ``We had the unique opportunity to embrace what they wanted to see before we finished it," he says. ``We had a chance to listen to the fans and give them exactly what they expected."
Regardless of how the movie turns out, a line is being crossed here, and it raises questions that don't have quick answers. Should audiences have a hand in how a movie is made, even an out-and-out crowd-pleaser? At what point in the process does a director become part of the marketing team? Is this a bad thing or does it just rubber-stamp a practice increasingly part of the cost-conscious film industry? Can studios even hope to control the use of the blogosphere as a marketing tool?
They'll certainly try. ``I've gotten calls [from filmmakers] asking how we can do this again," says Snakesonablog.com's Finkelstein. ``I'm sure you'll see other movies with silly titles. The very smart thing New Line did, though, was to do nothing. No posters, no trailers. They recognized people were attracted to it on their own. And people, online especially, are very aware of what's organic and what's false, and if it's false they shy away."
Moviegoers should also wonder if the results will be better films or more films driven by consensus. The two are most certainly not the same thing. Critic Chuck Klosterman recently worried that we may be entering an era of ``the Wikipedia version of a movie," and his concerns are well-founded. We go to movies -- even honest schlock -- not to see what we expect to see but to be surprised by what we hadn't yet considered.
``55. Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation -- not judgment. Camp is generous. It only seems like cynicism."
All right, maybe this is taking matters too seriously. ``We're not making a political statement," Ellis says. ``My only hope is that we entertain people for an hour and a half and take them away from all the other [expeletive] in the world." Well said and on point, yet it ignores the very real fact that we've already had our fun with ``Snakes on a Plane." As long as the movie delivers more or less what it promises -- snakes, plane, Sam Jackson in righteous kick - ass mode -- that will be the icing on a cake the culture has already eaten. You could even argue that a great ``Snakes on a Plane" might mess with the mass contact high. (An uninspired action retread, on the other hand, would be a quickly forgotten bummer.)
Still, don't think for a moment that audiences have hijacked the ship of Big Media. The permutations of creative online infringement -- fan fiction, viral videos -- don't supplant corporate entertainment but parallel it, feeding off the host object like remoras clinging to the underbelly of a shark. We need the cluelessness of the studio attempts to wring our cash. How would we make fun of them otherwise?
`` 45. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture."
In the end, the ``SoaP" phenomenon doesn't just wink at the reductive machinery that boils any movie down to its pitch-worthy essence. It celebrates that winking and turns it into a mass cultural act, one in which the pleasures of so-bad-it's-good trash cinema are exalted in place of craft, art, good moviemaking. It's about how clever we are, not how good or bad the movie is. ``Snakes on a Plane" is Camp for a World Wide Web of dandies.
``New Line had a unique situation here," says Finkelstein. ``They essentially had a giant focus group that gave them a chance to make the movie people were asking for. The question now becomes whether we really want to see the movie we were asking for. "
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.