Friday, August 18, 2006

Movie death (a Snakes Spoiler)

SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading if you don't want to learn some key plot elements of "Snakes on a Plane."

As I was watching "SoaP" last night, I thought about movie deaths. The biggest mistake a movie can make is killing off the wrong person. Audiences will forgive cardboard dialogue and superficial characters. They won't just forgive preposterous plots, repetitive formulas, and logical inconsistencies; they often seem to prefer them. But they won't forgive the death of a character who should have been alive at the end of the movie.

I don't mean that they can't kill off a likeable character. On the contrary, the character whose entire purpose in the movie is to die so the hero or heroine can have a learning experience is an honorable tradition. My personal favorite of the DBTA ("dead by third act") crowd is Anthony Edwards as Goose in "Top Gun." He's pretty obviously gone from the first time we see him but as soon as he sings with his pretty wife (Meg Ryan!) and adorable child, you know he's got to die, not just to move Maverick's story forward but to get out of the way. He has no story arc; he is already perfect; in other words, he's toast.

Some movies that make big mistakes in killing off the wrong people are "The Great Waldo Pepper" and "Diggstown." Enough spoilers -- I won't say any more about them here.

One of Snakes' strengths is its solid understanding of all the different reasons we can feel satisfied with the death of a character. Old-timer/veteran turning the reins over to our leading man/lady with a sentimental Hollywood send-off? Double check. Supercilious Brit? Oh yeah, and in a suitably gross-out manner. Funny looking fat lady with a flask? Yes, some darkly comic relief. People having sex in a bathroom? Yes, with an extra helping of puritanical relish on the side, please (see also Halloween, Friday the 13th and all those other dead teenager movies. Captain of the flight, to get him out of the way to create more (MORE!) of a sense of danger? You betcha! On the other hand, a baby or two adorable children? Don't even think about it!

All of the deaths in "Snakes" make some sort of moral sense. They fit the innate story template I think of as buried even deeper in the lizard brain than food and shelter. There are sad, dignified deaths, comic deaths, gross deaths, but they are all somehow just (as in fair, not as in merely) deaths. Except one (and I'm not referring to the pets). It's that sweet newly married couple. What did they do to deserve that end? That's my point.

Oh, and if you've seen the movie, check out Slate's spoiler report
podcast with one of my very favorite movie critics, Dana Stevens. I love this new Slate feature, reviews for people who have already seen the movie, and I enjoyed her point about the movie as a response to post 9/11 security issues. I raised that issue obliquely in my review, but think her more forthright take is terrific.


David Apatoff said...

What, married couples don't die?

Reel Fanatic said...

I think it was that Kenan Thompson actor who pointed out people should go see this movie because all of the black guys survive for once .. convoluted logic, perhaps, but I can see his point .. as for Snakes, I'm gonna go see it today, and can't wait

curdiemer said...

I didn't know you had a blog!

Hi Nell, I love your movie reviews on yahoo. You are so witty. I just saw Ultraviolet (even though I had already read your review) and was going to blog about it, but needed some quotes from your review (giving you proper credit, of course).

Goose dies in Top Gun???

Nell Minow said...

Great point, Reel Fanatic! Many thanks, and let me know what you think of the movie. I was very surprised that it made only $15 million.

And thanks, Curdiemer! Great to hear from you and I'd be honored to have you quote from my review anytime.

amit acharya said...

hey nell,

this might seem kinda out of context, but i saw ur review page for the 1st time a few days back, and liked it so much that i checked for the reviews of many other movies... including my favorite - love actually...
and these phrases in the review r just too much - 'big, big feelings that may make us crazy and miserable, but remind us that we r alive, and why we r alive' and
'love-emergency lessons in both drums and portugese'!!
as an aspiring story writer, i just wish i cud express myself this way...

Nell Minow said...

Amit, a compliment like that is never out of context! Thanks very much. You made my day. Thanks for writing and please write again any time.

Tulan said...


U know i wasnt going to see the movie since none of my friends like snakes nor do i . i hate them so bad that if i saw them on TV i could hardly sleep. Well guess what happened these other day when we leaving our friends house. A big black snake in garage. it slithered away. maybe we scared him. But n e ways after reading u r review now i wanna go see snakes on plane no matter what.