Mass hiss-teria: Snakes Alive!

Described as 'the best worst film of the decade,' Snakes on A Plane is the first script influenced by bloggers. The result is a truly awful movie, so bad it may become a cult hit, says David Usborne
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The Independent Culture

The world witnessed many important events last week. England were knocked out of the World Cup, suicide bombers killed dozens in Iraq and another dangerous stand-off erupted between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This one, however, you may have missed: the Hollywood film studio, New Line cinema, released the first official trailer for its upcoming thriller, Snakes on a Plane.

There is still time to catch up, however. New Line, for reasons that will become apparent, decided to give exclusive rights to air the promo not to television channels or even to cinema chains, but to the internet site, Yahoo! Before reading any further, fire up your computer, call up the site and take a look. The thing is all of 30 seconds long and features the requisite gravelly voiceover and scenes involving the star, Samuel L Jackson, in mega-testosterone mode.

Now, most of you will probably have reached a similar conclusion: "Good Lord, this film [it opens on 18 August] looks to be the worst load of Hollywood hog-wash ever put on screen. What were New Line thinking when they commissioned this from director David Ellis?" A few of you, however, may have been tickled by a second instinct. This film looks set to be so terrible, that you may just be forced to shell out your hard-earned cash to watch it. There are worse ways to spend a rainy afternoon than by settling in the darkness of your local cinema to indulge in a film so irredeemable that it is, in some strange, ironic way, absolutely wonderful. It wouldn't be the first time that celluloid cretinous became kitsch.

Do not for a second imagine that there is more to this film than is suggested by the name. Snakes on a Plane is about just that. Not that there is anything wrong with the idea. The film-makers have simply taken two of our most commonly held phobias - fear of flying and of snakes - and fused the two together. Hitchcock would be impressed. "Please be careful opening the overhead compartment ... a giant boa constrictor may fall in your lap."

Here is the plot, such as it is. An FBI agent, played by Jackson, is escorting a Mafia don from Hawaii to the US mainland where he will testify in a trial. The mobster and his minder are on Pacific Air Flight 121. Also on board, however, is a bad guy who wants the putative witness dead before he touches down in Los Angeles. His weapon is a case stuffed with hundreds of venomous snakes - vipers, adders and, yes, those muscle-bound, fang-bearing constrictors. When the aircraft reaches 30,000 feet, the latch on the case is undone and out come the serpents.

Mass hissteria (I make no apology) breaks out and Jackson takes charge. Don't ask how the snakes got by security or how it is that all the bullets Jackson fires off don't doom the plane before the snakes do. Just sit back and ask yourself why you didn't dream up this winner of a screenplay.

But it is not just the baseness of its artistic content that demands we pay attention to this reptilious bilge. Hard though it may be to believe, the promo release last week did attract considerable attention, even earning coverage on television news bulletins in America. Indeed, there are references to it all over the media in the US and around the world. "The Best Worst Film of the Decade" is the plaudit from Wired Magazine. Elsewhere, commentators are describing Snakes on a Plane as a seminal turning point in American culture.

The clue to all of this is in the choice of Yahoo! for the trailer. Welcome to the first film shaped not just by its screenwriters, cinematographers and directors but also by you, esteemed denizens of the world wide web.

That Hollywood is becoming a hostage to the internet is not a new story. The marketing lieutenants of every studio long ago realised that crafting the best-possible promotional material for a new release is no longer enough to guarantee good box-office. Films can either be propelled towards fabulous profit or consigned to the wilderness of the DVD shelves before they even open, depending on what kind of buzz circulates in cyberspace. Word of mouth has been supplanted by word of keyboard. Indeed, most studios work feverishly to manufacture enthusiasm on the web ahead of every new release to bolster their chances of commercial success. Even positive reviews by established film critics can be neutralised if the blogosphere buzz for your feature is overwhelmingly sour. The strategy of using the internet as a sounding board for a project's commercial potential can be traced back to the 1999 film, The Blair Witch Project, which rocketed into cinemas fueled almost entirely by online buzz.

But the process has been taken several steps further forSnakes on a Plane. For the first time, bloggers have been allowed to influence the film's content. It even happened with the title. When Ellis, its director, briefly flirted with a blander name - Pacific Air Flight 121 - the blog crowd, who had been following the film's development, rebelled. They said Snakes on a Plane should be the name. Ellis backed down.

When it came to the title, Jackson also made his feelings known. Clearly, he had come to understand the kitsch-potential of the film as early as anyone. "I got on the set one day and heard they changed it [to Pacific Air Flight 121]," Jackson told USA Today, "and I said, 'What are you doing here? It's not Gone With The Wind. It's not On The Waterfront. It's Snakes On A Plane'."

But it is the input of the cyber-surfers that has really mattered. It started back in August last year when Josh Friedman, a screenwriter who was approached to buff up the film's script, began his own blog on his experience with the film. He used it to advertise his attachment to the film's title. "Not as a movie," he posted, "but as a sort of philosophy. Somewhere in between 'C'est la vie', 'Whattya gonna do?' and 'Shit happens' falls my new Zen koan, 'Snakes on a plane'."

Friedman's involvement with the film was, as it happens, very brief. But by posting his blog, he provided the spark for what eventually became a Vesuvius of internet enthusiasm. Search "Snakes on a Plane" on Google.com and you will discover more than 3.8 million different references to it. The internet is meanwhile clogged with blogs dedicated to discussing the film.

In other words, all these internet nuts who have nothing better to do with their time than to shadow the progress of a film being made in Hollywood have become so gloriously - or inanely - creative about Snakes that Ellis actually went back and re-shot some of the film to change it accordingly. Hitherto, this is something a director might do after screening his film to a carefully selected audience in Hollywood. But this is something new. It is as if the screening was opened up to amateur critics in every corner of the globe. These are your potential audience, so it makes perfect sense to pay attention to them.

"I had the luxury to go back and tailor the film exactly like the fans demand and expect," Ellis said. Nicholas Kazan, a Hollywood screenwriter, explained the significance of what Ellis has done to the Los Angeles Times. "This kind of feedback is very specific. And for a writer working on a script or for a director/producer/writer looking at a finished movie, when you hear these comments you respond to the ones which feed you. You respond to the ones which you think, 'Oh my God, I wish I had thought of that. That would make the movie better'."

It may not be a surprise that what the internet critics were demanding was more gore, more profanity and more nudity. And so that, with his re-shooting, is exactly what Ellis has given them. The probable result is that Snakes will end up being awarded an adult R-rating by the censors in America, but New Line is apparently comfortable with that. Because, through the power of the web, they think they have found their core audience.

Ellis is hopes he will get his reward for listening to the fans when the film opens next month. In its opening weekend at least, Snakes promises to be the first really bad film in a long time to enjoy big box office. If that happens, it may be that the credit will go less to Ellis and Jackson and more to the movie-bloggers. On the other hand, success may come purely from delicious awfulness.

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