by Patrick Bromley
I have railed on before about how cult movies cannot be manufactured on purpose. The same is not true of exploitation movies, which are manufactured by definition. The difference is in the terminology. "Cult" movies belong to their "cults" -- they are films that have been embraced by a specific audience, but typically not by the mainstream. It is the viewer who discovers the film, who brings others on board, who gradually creates the phenomenon we call a "cult hit."
Exploitation movies, on the other hand, are created by the filmmakers, the promoters, the studios -- whoever it is that has decided to package a film together specifically to "exploit" a single element or trend. There is intent there. The 2006 movie Snakes on a Plane tries to have it both ways, cynically manufacturing its own cult mythos while still boiling down to a simple exploitation movie in which snakes are on planes. Or just one plane.
Sean, a dumb surfer (played by Australian actor Nathan Phillips), witnesses the murder of a D.A. at the hands of gangster Eddie Kim in Hawaii. He's put into protective custody under the watch of FBI agent Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) and boards a plane to testify in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, Eddie Kim wants Sean dead and has a ton of fucking time on his hands, so he concocts the stupidest murder plot possible: he loads Sean's plane with dozens of poisonous snakes, who begin attacking once the flight is in the air. People die! Cartoon snakes strike! Kenan Thompson makes jokes! Snakes on a Plane!
The good news? There is a LOT of the plane. Truth in advertising, that.
An honest exploitation movie -- or a more confident group of filmmakers -- would have played this material straight. But everyone involved with Snakes on a Plane wants us to know that THEY know it's funny, so they fill it with all kinds of comedic bits, every one of which is less funny than the title of the film. So we the fat lady who sleeps through the first snake attack and thinks that a snake slithering on her is someone touching her, which we are supposed to laugh at because no one would touch a fat person. We have Rachel Blanchard as a spoiled girl with her little handbag dog, and I guess it's supposed to be a big laugh when the asshole on board feeds the dog to an enormous python, because ha ha fuck little dogs (and fuck Paris Hilton, too). At least the movie has the good sense to acknowledge that the guy responsible is a big asshole and has him eaten by the python, too.
The movie's most offensive use of "humor" is in its depiction of the male flight attendant, who everyone thinks is gay because gay people are hilarious. When one of the passengers gets snake venom in his butt, the male flight attendant offers to suck out the poison and the response is NO WAY!! Because that guy is probably gay, and we don't want a gay person saving our lives, because people might think we're gay. Everyone rolls their eyes and gives each other little knowing looks every time Gay Flight Attendant suggests that he is straight, because NO FUCKING WAY is he straight. And then at the end it's revealed that HA! he is straight and has a hot girlfriend who loves him. And we laugh again, because we thought he was gay! His sexual preferences will never stop being funny! And too bad all those innocent people died on that plane, too!
And thank goodness they did. Had Snakes on a Plane become a monster hit, there's a good chance it would have taught Hollywood all the wrong lessons. Sure, there's some amount of course correction in the process of making any movie -- you want to appeal to your audience as best as possible -- but there is a difference between making some edits after test screenings and going back in to add a bunch of shit to your movie because the internet thinks it would be hilarious. They changed the title from Pacific Air Flight 121 back to Snakes on a Plane. Ok, that's a no-brainer, because Pacific Air Flight 121 is literally one of the worst movie titles I have ever heard and Snakes on a Plane is really good. At least it has personality. And it's apparently one of the reasons Sam Jackson signed on to the movie, so he was able to flex a little bit (once the internet had chimed in) and get the title changed back. But then they also went back in and shot stuff to make it Rated R -- including a bunch of Samuel Jackson swearing and boobs and stuff -- and even Jackson saying the line the INTERNET IRONICALLY WROTE FOR HIM. The hipster tail was wagging the square Hollywood dog, and the result is the movie equivalent of Poochie.
Director David Ellis began his career as a stunt coordinator before graduating to shooting 2nd Unit on a over 40 movies, including Waterworld, The Perfect Storm, Patriot Games and motherfukkin' Kuffs. His early efforts as a director showed a ton of promise: Final Destination 2 improved on the original movie in every way and remains the best example of that mostly not-good franchise. Cellular was even better; Ellis took a stupid premise and really sold it by casting it with great actors and treating the material seriously. It helped that the screenplay was by Larry Cohen who, for all of his shlocky output, really knows how movies work. You don't have a career as long as Cohen's without understanding how movies work.
Snakes on a Plane was launching Ellis to the big time, not because it had a considerably higher budget or an A-list cast, but because there were so many eyes on the movie that it had the chance to be his calling card. And it wound up being his undoing. From the flat, ugly photography to the miscalculated humor to the reliance on terrible computer effects over practical stunts, every mistake Ellis makes in Snakes would be repeated on an even greater scale in his next two movies, The Final Destination (easily the worst in the franchise, making Ellis responsible for both its highest and lowest points) and Shark Night 3D.
When it was announced that Ellis had died in early 2013, I was sad -- not just because he left behind a family and people who loved him, but because he was once poised to be a great genre director. Unfortunately, Snakes on a Plane offered him two divergent paths. He took the wrong one.
The legacy of Snakes on a Plane is that it ushered in the era of what I have come to call the "Snakes on a Plane defense" of a movie, in which someone argues that a movie succeeds because it includes what it in the title. Snakes on a Plane is a good movie, this defense argues, because it features SNAKES on a PLANE. This is the definition of circular logic, but it goes a little deeper than that. It is a defense used by assholes.
It's one thing for a movie to deliver on its promise. I don't have a problem with that. But including some snakes and at least one plane is not the same as delivering on its promise. This kind of thinking lowers the bar for all movies, and Hollywood doesn't need any help with that. No one ran out of Star Wars in 1977 screaming that it was a great movie because it showed stars and some wars. They had better reasons than that -- like the fact that Star Wars provides us a lot of the things for which we go to the movies.
There is an implicit douchebaggery to the Snakes on a Plane defense in that it suggests I'm the asshole for not liking it. "It had SNAKES on a PLANE! What more do you want?" Sure, I'm the snob. This argument came up a lot back in 2007 when Transformers made all of the money. Suddenly, I was Mr. Monacle P. Turtleneck, turning up my nose at the very idea of a fun summer blockbuster. "It's a movie about giant robots fighting," the mouth-breathers would shout, the scent of Mountain Dew heavy in the air. "What do you expect?" How about a GOOD movie with giant robots fighting? My problem with Transformers is not that Michael Bay dared to make a movie about giant robots fighting. My problem is that he made a really shitty movie about giant robots fighting (and for the record, they BARELY FIGHT.) The material is less important than how it is approached -- or, as the great Roger Ebert used to say, "Movies are about what they are about but about how they are about it." I will never understand why people like Transformers, and a lot of them do.
Another crippling choice made was to have the snakes be almost all CGI. I understand the logic behind the choice -- it would hard to wrangle that many snakes and to get them to leap out and attach themselves to boobies and dicks, because snakes don't leap out and bite boobies and dicks -- but it trashes what little appeal the movie has. Using real snakes would have the impact of all practical effects: we wonder how the hell they did it. It would have given any audience member with an aversion to snakes the skeeves. CGI snakes don't have that effect. I have a tough time watching Arachnophobia because real spiders crawl on real people. If the spiders were just pixels added after the fact, there is no impact. I have said it before and I will continue to say it: there is very little that is scary about a cartoon.
Junesploitation has been a lot of fun -- a reminder of how a movie can have a crazy premise, little money, lots of violence and nudity and manage to be a lot of fun. Snakes on a Plane has all those things, too, but for being a modern-day exploitation movie, there's none of the charm of exploitation. The movie is too busy being "fun" to actually be fun.