Sunday, August 20, 2006

Snakes at the box office

It appears that SNAKES ON A PLANE topped the weekend box office race, although the final tally is probably lower than what fans and industry watchers were expecting. The film should still prove to be a financial success even if it's not as big of a money maker that all of the internet fervor indicated it might be. Honestly, modest returns will probably help the film become the cult movie it was destined to be.

About half of the film's business came from the late Thursday night and Friday screenings, which isn't a surprise. The hardcore fans turned out immediately and sought reviews on opening day. My site traffic saw an incredible spike on Friday, approximately nine times more than I usually get. (By my count I was the eleventh person on Rotten Tomatoes to post a review link, which went a long way toward snagging readers.) Traffic returned to normal levels Saturday and Sunday, which tells me that interest in the film didn't extend much beyond the core group.

I imagine that SNAKES will take a hard tumble at the box office in subsequent weeks. With everything oriented on opening weekend, that's the fate for most films, although SNAKES may prove to be particularly vulnerable since the majority of its audience probably have seen it. Still, smart theater operators ought to hang onto it for awhile for late night screenings. It's really the only time to see the movie.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Snakes on a Plane

SNAKES ON A PLANE (David R. Ellis, 2006)

The act of moviegoing, of seeing a film with an audience, has taken its share of knocks in recent years. Ringing cell phones, talkative patrons, and endless pre-film advertisements are common reasons why some claim not to bother with heading to the local multiplex to see the latest Hollywood releases. Better and more affordable home theater systems and a shrunken theatrical-to-home video window have led to some deciding that waiting for the DVD is good enough.

Leave it to SNAKES ON A PLANE, a modestly budgeted action movie about air passengers being attacked by serpents, to provide a shot in the arm for the theatrical experience. Here’s a film that isn’t ruined because people are whooping it up and talking back to the screen but enhanced by their enthusiastic dialogue with it. SNAKES ON A PLANE may not be a good movie by conventional standards, but with the proper amount of love via audience participation, this genre picture is exactly the sort of silly fun that mega-priced, B-grade tentpole films often fail to be.

The film’s interactive element is in its DNA. That great title, four words that tell potential ticket buyers everything they could want or need to know about the movie, caught the attention of the internet community early on. Fans made blogs, t-shirts, and songs about the film even though much wasn’t known about it beyond the title and its star, Samuel L. Jackson. When rumors popped up that the title was being changed to the terminally dull PACIFIC AIR FLIGHT 121, the online outcry against the supposed switch probably ensured that SNAKES ON A PLANE would stick. Why not give the customers what they want? What they wanted was SNAKES ON A PLANE.

The studio took things a step further by incorporating a line for the fans. Jackson’s emphatic exclamation of his character’s dissatisfaction with the high-flying snakes has been well-publicized and will certainly be the loudest moment when the crowd roars its approval. In spite of all of the names in the credits, SNAKES ON A PLANE long ago ceased to belong to the filmmakers when obsessed fans accepted it site unseen as their own.

The story of SNAKES ON A PLANE is practically secondary as long as it delivers mile-high serpent on human action, but if you must know… As FBI Agent Flynn, Jackson escorts Sean (Nathan Phillips), a vital but reluctant witness for the prosecution, from Honolulu to Los Angeles so he can testify against murderous mobster Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). Kim is unable to get to Sean via the usual methods, so he turns to a plan the feds are unlikely to have anticipated. Snakes from all over the world and of every color and size are secretly put on board the red eye South Pacific Airlines flight. The leis in the cargo hold are sprayed with pheromones that make the snakes aggressive. Two hours into the five hour trip the snakes are released to wreak maximum havoc.

SNAKES ON A PLANE has been put together in a manner befitting its schlock cinema roots. The characters—the badass cop, the flight attendant on her last shift, the spoiled blonde, the nervous boys flying alone, the uptight elitist—are all one-note because snakes don’t care about the backstories of their dinners. The camera placement, screenplay, and dialogue, save for a few quotable bits, are functional more than anything. Director David R. Ellis has demonstrated skill with setpieces in FINAL DESTINATION 2 and CELLULAR, the latter of which was a higher quality B-movie than SNAKES, but he isn’t called upon to do much here beyond showing snakes attack.

Whether it is was intended to be a comedy or it morphed into that when the internet buzz began, the choice to play SNAKES ON A PLANE sincerely but for laughs is its saving grace. It’s funny because it’s gloriously stupid and doesn’t nudge the audience’s ribs to make sure the joke is being understood. Such prompting is unnecessary for a group that was in on the joke before they saw a frame of the film.

There aren’t many actors who could have pulled off the SNAKES trifecta of being stone serious, tongue in cheek, and supremely cool as Jackson. He seems to be having as much fun making the movie as the viewers are watching it. This won’t be remembered as one of his great performances—the material he’s working with simply isn’t good enough—but it helps solidify his status as a symbol of movie cool now and for years to come after he’s retired.

The midnight movie has gone by the wayside, but SNAKES begs to be seen late at night with a rambunctious crowd. What better time is there to encourage audience participation? SNAKES ON A PLANE lifts off when strangers and friends come together to hiss in giddy expectation and in approval. It isn’t great filmmaking, but it is a great experience. Why shouldn’t there be enough room among the moviegoing choices out there for something as dumb and enjoyable as SNAKES ON A PLANE?

Grade: B-

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Snakes on the brain

So the blogging and posting of TV reviews has been slow on my part for the last month or two. I'm taking some vacation time next week, so hopefully that'll let me get back on track here.

Meanwhile, the big news is that after months of speculation, anticipation, and more internet buzz than you can shake a stick at, SNAKES ON A PLANE will finally be seen tonight. I'm not thrilled that New Line didn't screen it for the press, although tonight's 10 p.m. show will be a de facto media showing since a bunch of critics are meeting for dinner and drinks and then going to the film. OK, so I'd rather not have dropped $9.50--thanks for the extra dollar online fee for non-Movie Watcher club card holders, AMC--but this is a rare case in which I'd rather see the film with what is sure to be a rowdy crowd of ticket buyers than with my peers or contest winners.

The media SNAKES frenzy peaked a couple months ago, but this first screening ought to bring out the hardcore enthusiasts. Whether the film stinks or not, the moviegoing experience should be a blast. Unless New Line mounted the most brilliant viral marketing campaign ever, the SNAKES ON A PLANE phenomenon has come entirely at the grassroots level. It's pretty stunning when you consider that it isn't a franchise film with beloved characters but a trashy genre pic. I hope to love every minute of it.

Assuming SNAKES is a success--at its production costs and the amount of people who want to see it, how can it not be?--is it too much to ask that we not get a bunch of studio imitators? I don't mean the quickie direct-to-video rip-offs like the already available SNAKES ON A TRAIN but the inevitable copycat films from other genre divisions. The key aspects for this particular film are Samuel L. Jackson and self-generated fan enthusiasm. The latter is probably due in part to the former. Jackson is still one of the coolest guys on screen, which should help his films and his reputation age well in years to come. Still, even with Jackson, SNAKES mania on the internet has reached a level that a marketing department is not capable of producing. Enjoy the unexpected financial awards this film will likely deliver and let it be.

At the minimum I'll post some reactions, if not a review, of SNAKES ON A PLANE late tonight. Plenty of other critics will probably be doing the same thing. Let's hope it's because we're thrilled with what we've seen.