“Snakes on a Plane” is Hurting America


I toyed with the idea of going to see Snakes on a Plane last night in order to be able to write a negative review about it with more credibility.

I even considered the idea of making it seem like I went to the theatre with the expectation that the movie would be fun, thus lending my negative review the credibility of an aggreived victim of entertainment industry hype.

But (as should be pretty obvious by now) I have no desire to see the movie, and I do not actually expect it to be fun. In fact, I am 99% sure that the movie is complete crap, even without seeing it.

I have the intellectually honest “right” say the movie is probably god-awful for the same reason that the “prefans” who’ve been psyched about the film before seeing it had the same “right” to expect that the movie was probably going to be awesome. But I think I am more correct than the prefans for two reasons:

  1. I think I’ve been better at reading between the lines of the movie’s reviews, the previews, and Samuel Jackson’s own statements about the movie: All are unified in stopping noticably short of saying the movie is actually a good movie, usually saying that the movie is, at best, “so bad it’s good” — a genre of movie that I don’t think should be rewarded with unquestioning praise, or for the most part even made in the first place.
  2. If I have to be told in advance — by the makers of the film, even! — that the movie is going to be “so bad it’s good”, then my anti-marketing bullshit detector kicks in and alerts me that maybe the movie is just plain bad.

What’s worse, the broader movie industry’s embrace of this movie is obviously and depressingly cynical and crass. Watching Samuel Jackson and Jon Stewart talk about the movie on the Daily Show, I couldn’t help but read between the lines a little:

JACKSON: I’m pretending to be excited about this movie just so I can get people to go see it and I can make a ton of money.
STEWART: I’m pretending to be excited about this movie because every time I mention it the audience goes crazy. They love it when I say “motherfuckin”. It’s so easy.

JACKSON: Heh, tell me something I don’t already know.

I mean, the movie’s signature line (“I want these motherfuckin’ snakes off this motherfuckin’ plane!!”) was added to the film after filming was completed in response to the internet hype. The movie was basically “retro fitted” to transform it from crappy b-movie to manufactured popular phenomenon.

Irony Co-Opted

Watching “so bad it’s good” movies was never a mainstream thing to do, much less what movie producers actually want their audience to do. When you go to see such a film, you laugh at the movie’s producers (“Did they actually think this was a good idea??”), not with them. That’s the fun of it. But now apparently this has changed. Now a movie can actually wear “bad” reviews as a mark of pride, and can even get movie reviewers to say, essentially, “This movie is bad. Go see it now!”

And as a cultural trend it isn’t even all that cool. Because of the open and widespread movie industry embrace of the flick’s badness, how cool can one be going to see it even with “ironic” intent? It’s like when Urban Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch started making T-shirts intended to look like they were found in a thrift store — I just feel bad for the people who are only now catching on to the fashion trend. In short, it’s not only that I suspect that the movie is intellectually inferior, it’s also just plain empirically uncool to jump on a fashion or posture years after it was interesting and hip.

A “Real” Cult Classic (with Snakes!)


As a contrast, let’s look at Ken Russell’s genuine cult classic The Lair of the White Worm. It has all the right elements: (a) some bizzarely interesting characters and surprisingly off-kilter acting (epecially Amanda Donohoe, pictured here), (b) truly terrible special effects, done in earnest but hilariously dated today, (c) weirdness everywhere, from the props and sets to the music score, (d) some absolutely excellently irreverent plot elements the likes of which Hollywood wouldn’t dare make today for fear of boycotts from the Christian right.

Among many other hilarious scenes, it has the best snake-biting-someone’s-dick-off scene ever (something Snakes on a Plane apparently attempts, too). Satanic orgies, Hugh Grant, human sacrifice — all this without any Hollywood-manufactured “so bad it’s good” hype.

The makers of The Lair of the White Worm actually thought they were making an excellent movie, and ended up making something that is surprisingly great in some ways and obviously bad in others — making it interesting to watch on several levels, and thus truly “so bad it’s good”.


Am I snobby? Sure, very much so. I’m an intellectual snob, and probably a little bit of a style/fashion snob, too. What’s wrong with that? The opposite, being uncritical and accepting of what the media tells you you’re supposed to like, is what keeps the really great works of art, those that are “so good it’s great”, from getting made and seen in the first place.

If it wasn’t for snobbery in the animation world, for example, we’d still be living in a world of Hanna-Barbera retardation instead of having mega-popular Pixar hits and widely-available Japanese animated features. If it wasn’t for snobbery, we’d still be watching truly and deeply idiotic TV shows like Starsky & Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Brady Bunch, and the old Battlestar Galactica instead of The Sopranos, Lost, Deadwood, and the new Battlestar Galactica.

Think of the success of independent films and music in the last 20 years, where mass-market crap has lost significant ground to clearly higher-quality products. In top 40 music, we’ve gone from Poison to Radiohead. In film we’ve gone from The Goonies to Lost in Translation. It was snobbish producers and snobbish fans who gave this new generation of quality entertainment the attention and money they needed to even to exist, flying in the face of the success of the more popular and far dumber products that preceded them. Snakes on a Plane is, I think, a bit of a step backwards.

Fun vs. Good

Jeff Croft argued, as many many others have in defense of bad blockbuster movies over the years, that a movie can be fun without being good — and that there’s nothing wrong with that. He asks the essential question over at Brian Ford’s Newsvine blog: “What’s wrong with making a movie for the experience of it?”

The answer is easy: if a lot of people see the movie, the movie studios will make dozens more like it, and “so bad its good” will become the dominant theme of movies for the next 5 years or more, much like reality TV was dominant for 5 years. Only when people sober up and realize “My God, what have I done? For years I’ve been pretending to have an IQ of 50 in order to be entertained!” will the studios finally wake up and start spending money on “actually good” movies.

When it comes to fun, I think good movies are more fun than bad ones. Maybe I’m too old (I’m 35) to find “fun” in experiencing something completely “bad”. Again, I suspect that the “fun” of seeing thoroughly bad movies is the equivalent of the “fun” of getting drunk with a bunch of friends and getting in a fight, breaking some windows, or sleeping with someone who would normally disgust you. Sure, it was fun at the time, and maybe will lead to a fun story to tell your friends, but really: was it worth it?

I suppose I am likely to hear some lively disagreement on this topic, especially since I am in a way accusing SoaP fans of helping to ruin the quality of movies in general. I look forward to hearing opposing views.

Oh, and I did go to the movies last night. I saw An Inconvenient Truth. An actually-good movie.


17 responses to ““Snakes on a Plane” is Hurting America”

  1. david weinberger made the same point the other day about hollywood trying to push out copycat, viral-fun movies in the future… but eventually failing because we’re not that dumb.

    he also argues — and i agree — that we’re the ones that initiated this — latching onto the goofyness of this flick and the classic image of samuel “shaft” jackson battling snakes on a mfkn plane; we’re the ones that created mashed up media of soap to share how much fun we were having; we’re the ones scrambling to make wiki-scripts of one-liners for enjoying at the shows as if we’re at a midnight showing of rocky horror.

    if you think an internet meme running out of control is dumb by default, well, then i understand your position. i felt the same about that “fours” meme from 6 months ago… but i’ve had so much fun with the SoaP stuff that people have created… and in the end, the movie was simply *a lot* of fun.

    an inconvenient truth: sometimes fun is all you need.

  2. I know you’re not dissin’ The Goonies

    Anyway, I think these arguments are a bit silly. I just saw SoaP and thought it was ok. It’s no Evil Dead 2 but it’s not horrible. I had a pretty good time but I doubt, when all is said and done, it’ll make all that big of a splash…

    There’s probably quite a few examples of worse movies that will have done better than this one.

    ANYway, I think you’ve got a right to your opinion, but I don’t think I’m down with the idea that all movies need to somehow be what you’d consider “good.”

    My guess is you like a different breed of film and frankly I want to be able to hit the cinema for a movie like SoaP every once in a while. Fun IS good in my book.

  3. sean: I think you’re misinterpreting me — I have no beef with the phenomenon of internet hype influencing a movie. It’s the fact that such hype may allow Hollywood to get away with foisting more and more bad movies on the American public using our uncriticalness as a lubricant. That’s what annoys me.

    Keith: I don’t think I’m down with the idea that all movies need to somehow be what you’d consider “good.”

    It’s not that I think movies need to be what I consider good. I just ask that people save their praise for movies that they think are good. Actually good.

    I wouldn’t assume that you and I have radically different tastes in the types of movies we might like. There’s probably a lot of overlap — Evil Dead 2 for example. Where we probably disagree is in the threshhold of what makes a movie worthy of being called “good”. This may come across as snobby, but maybe what I am willing to call a “good” movie might be a significantly smaller percentage than what most other people might. For example, I think that the last three Star Wars movies were complete garbage (not just partially garbage, not just Jar Jar, but everything about them), and that Magnolia is one of the worst movies ever made and is intolerably painful to watch. Those two opinions are likely to put me in a minority even among people who consider themselves geeky film buffs.

    I suppose there should be a new kind of movie reviewer for today’s critical world, one who doesn’t actually care about movies but cares more about cultural phenomena. Such a reviewer would be as well-qualified to write about Snakes on a Plane as they would be qualified to write about, say, the latest ring tones on mobile phones or what the scene is like at a hot nightcub. In other words, they’re not really movie reviewers at all, because the movies aren’t really about the movies but about the social connections surrounding the movie and the feeling shared by everyone seeing it. These movies are are something else, something immune to criticism.

    Is that how I’m supposed to look at something like Snakes on a Plane?

  4. Sure, I guess so. I’ll admit, one of the reasons why I went was for the hype. I was thinking of it as kind of event — not just a movie. In many was I wasn’t disappointed. I had a good time.

    As far as movie criticism goes I usually don’t pay much attention — for the very reason you talk about here — snobbery. I’m a pretty good judge on what I’ll like and what I won’t. I’ve been watching movies for a long time!

    I don’t mind critisim, and I sure don’t mind people expressing their opinion. I guess it just…I don’t know, bothers me, when I feel someone wants to see a change based on what they feel is “good.” Which is kind of what I’m hearing from you. Maybe it’s not good enough for you and yeah, you have a high bar, but if we only had movies critics liked, I’d have missed out on some of my favorite movies.

    I saw SoaP and I thought it was decent. Actually decent. I’m glad I saw it. I liked the last three Star Wars movies ok — and really enjoyed Episode III. I thought it was good. Actually good. ;0)

    But I know what it’s like to not agree with the majority. I absolutley hated Crash — thought it predictable, contrite, corny and just plain boring — and just about everyone I knew loved it. I really didn’t get why and still don’t. But, hey, to each his own.

  5. how else can you look at a movie called snakes on a plane?

    film can absolutely be an art form, and i have a pretty critical eye along those lines as well. but my overarching point is that sometimes a movie can be a lot less (or more) than an art form… and that’s okay too.

    hollywood has been cranking out shit for years. successes like SoaP won’t alter their studio strategies any more than a die hard or rambo or any other blockbuster with a hero character has…

  6. Keith: I agree completely about Crash!

    sean: I think we’re getting somewhere — some movies aren’t, as you say, “art” at all. It reminds me, now, of a recent issue of New York magazine in which they explained their 1-5 “star” rating system for their restaurant/food review section. They explained that a pizza restaurant or even a tiny outdoor tamale stand can earn 5 stars as long as it is the best for what it is. So as long as we’re all clear about what “it” is when it comes to movies (that is, as long as the movie reviewer is clear “I am reviewing the cultural phenomenon, not the artistry of the movie”) then maybe I wouldn’t be so put-off by so many people’s positive reviews of certain kinds of movies.

    I tend to watch most movies at home on my embarassngly huge TV. I watch a movie almost every day, sometimes twice a day (seriously, I do), either on TiVo or Netflix, so I do see a lot of ’em. But one thing I can’t experience in this way is the crowd phenomenon, so I am left to judge most movies the same way: how entertaining they are for me & my wife to watch at home. I can actually imagine SoaP being fun to see with a bunch of friends and a hip flask, but it’s very hard to imagine it would be fun to watch at home.

  7. Jeffrey Avatar

    I can’t really agree with you. I think that the best way to make a film successful is to give the audence exactly what they want. In this case they wanted to see Samuel Jackson saying “Mother Fucking”. Maybe they got that urge from Chappelle’s Show. Crap or not this movie is going to make alot of people happy.

  8. Jeffrey: I agree with you completely. I thought it was obvious that I’m not here to tell Hollywood how to make a movie succeed financially! I just want to be able to understand what someone means when they say a movie is “good”.

  9. John O'Leary Avatar
    John O’Leary

    Just to join the chorus: Neither I nor my entertainment choices are often described as light-hearted or fun-loving, but I still went to see SoaP on Friday and had fun. As has been said, it was more of an event than a movie. It was fun to be in a theater full of people hissing, yelling, and throwing stuff at the screen, and it was also fun to watch something that encouraged you to let go of your critical faculties and take it easy. Relax, the movie said to me. Quit being so serious all the time. I found it oddly refreshing.

    Since it was an event rather than a movie, I don’t see any DVDs being sold. I do imagine it will see plenty of play at college campuses and at midnight at your local arthouse (if there are any arthouses left that don’t take themselves seriously all the time)/brew & view, etc., though.

    I do agree that the film is potentially dangerous, though, in that since Hollywood loves to do the same thing over and over, if this is a hit, we’ll get blugeoned to death with similar movies over the next couple years. Finally, it is true that manufactured camp was much less satisfying than the real thing.

  10. i commented as if it went without saying that i classified SoaP as something other than film… or even as a movie… and i don’t know if i would classify it as an event either…

    a lot of lines were being towed in the “experience.” at times, i couldn’t tell if the stiff acting of the actors was a direction decision or a natural result of the talent level. i mean, it was a strange mix — almost like the director wanted the dialog to feel exactly like the lines of a comic book sequence coming to life; you know, just a bit off.

    so many of the snake scenes were gratuitous and goofy (snake biting a tit on the nipple, a guy’s johnson while taking a piss, swallowing an annoying mini-dog, etc.), but the tempo of the movie was serious (akin to a disaster flick), it kinda threw me off in an interesting way.

    again, it wasn’t a great film, but the off-screen buildup and participation mixed in with the result of the end experience, well, it was pure fun.

    dude, get out of the apartment and take your wife on a fun date. 😉

  11. mike harper Avatar
    mike harper

    I like Jackie Chan films. Not the recent stint where he’s teamed up with an American actor and speaking English, or even the much older goofy-yet-classic ones like Drunken Master. I mean the ridiculous, horribly-acted, films with bad dubbing and crazy stunts. Rumble in the Bronx, anyone?

    There’s a tradition of such films that are by no means critical darlings, nor are they universally panned. They’re niche films that fulfill a need for entertainment. Samuel Jackson signed on for Snakes not because it was a chance for great theater — let’s face it, this is the same man who made The Red Violin and Deep Blue Sea in the same year, he knows the difference. He signed on because he thought the pitch was worth it — snakes.. on a plane! I believe the internet hype started when he mentioned it in an interview, along with the fact that he was adamant the title remain the same.

    I’m still skeptical of the fact that the studios caught on to the fandom that can now exist pre-film in our socially networked age, but I can’t see that working out for a number of movies. Audiences are gullible, but marketing is still a hit-or-miss field.

    I’d rather see an occasional film like this than the latest Bruckheimer movie, or whatever Michael Bay has attached his name to. At least in Snakes the audience manipulation is acknowledged.

    For another recent classic (with even worse acting) I’d recommend the made for tv movie, “Spring Break Shark Attack.” The beginning of Snakes made me remember it…

  12. mike: I agree I’d rather see SoaP than any Bay or Bruckheimer schlock. That’s a very good point.

  13. When “Army Of Darkness” came out, Bruce Campbell said in an interview that it was a movie made “by morons for morons”. Snakes on a Plane is the same thing.

    There is always going to be a market for low-brow movies. The only thing remarkable about SoaP is that it’s using a new marketing strategy to attract people on the appropriate mental level while evading the scorn of critics (who, because they have some modicum of intelligence, frequently tend to favor higher brow entertainment).

    That evasion of critics is cause for concern, perhaps, but not necessarily for the reasons you stated. SoaP’s ad campaign (and accompanying shut-out of the critics) is the movie industry’s most ambitious attempt to date to sidestep the now traditional process of movie presentation and critical filtration. It’s a big leap forward from the “Blair Witch Project”‘s comparatively modest internet campaign.

    I would suppose some clever movie exec thought they would be ‘eliminating the middle-man’ by doing this. What they have actually done is offended the news media. (Take a look at Time Out London’s article about the movie.)

    If all movies become marketed like this, then the critical advance screening would cease to be. But even if that happened, I still don’t think it would dumb down Hollywood’s output any more.

  14. Sometimes, an inconvenient truth is all the fun you need.

  15. While Lair is an amazing flick, and wholly deserving of Good Cult Film status, I must throw my personal favourite snake-oriented b-film into the ring:

    Cobra Woman, 1944, starring the fierce Maria Montez in a dual role. It’s worth seeing for the Cobra Dance alone, but you’ll stay for the impossibly brilliant lines.


    I actually *liked* Snakes on a Plane, but that was due to the audience, not the film. Much like Rocky Horror, it’s the audience that makes the film worth seeing. Do I think this will become a modern RHPS? Not on your (or my) life. The “experience” makes it worthwhile. Would I even Netflix SoaP? No SoaP, radio. without tens of fans screaming things at the screen, it’s just not that interesting.

  16. Okay, well according to “Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog“:

    Al of Londoun ys aflame wyth newes of the grete entertaynment of ‘Serpentes on a Shippe,’ the which ys perfourmed ech daye by the menne of the gild of beekeeperes (and thus ys ycleped a ‘b-movie’).

  17. Deja Vu looks pretty interesting. Kilmer and Denzel are some of my favorite actors.