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
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.