Celebrating the movies of the late David R Ellis

Feature Sarah Dobbs 31 Jan 2013 - 07:15

Director David R. Ellis, of Snakes On A Plane fame, died earlier this month. Sarah remembers why his films were kind of great…

Usually, if a film isn’t screened for critics ahead of its release, it’s for a good reason. It’s because it’s terrible. But back in 2006, when Snakes On A Plane wasn’t shown to the press, it wasn’t because it was bad. It was because it didn’t matter. Nothing any critic said about Snakes On A Plane would affect whether the public went to see it or not. They’d already made up their minds for themselves, based solely on its wonderful title.

Luckily, the film pretty much lived up to the promise of its title. It was bold, brash, silly, and a hell of a lot of fun; the kind of popcorn experience that makes you feel like the ticket price was money well spent. And for that, we’ve got director David R Ellis to thank.

A former surfer turned stuntman, Ellis had been working in Hollywood since the 1970s. He both performed and coordinated stunts in dozens of films, including Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Scarface, and Lethal Weapon. In the late 80s, he moved behind the camera to act as second unit director on films including Fatal Attraction, Patriot Games, and Forever Young. So he’d been in the business a long time before directing his first film, the Disney lost pet movie Homeward Bound 2: Lost In San Francisco.

Confession time: I haven’t seen that. But I have seen the second film he directed, Final Destination 2. It’s pretty great, for many of the same reasons as Snakes On A Plane: it’s deeply silly, but it’s so over the top, so devoted to its ridiculous premise, that you somehow can’t quite help being won over by it. It includes two of the best scenes of any Final Destination film, too: the opening disaster, a huge explosive pile-up on a freeway, and the kitchen scene where Evan, a recent lottery winner who survived the crash, ultimately meets his grisly end thanks to some soggy spaghetti.

Ellis seemed to choose projects that had a certain kind of imagination – usually, something high concept that allowed for exhilarating visuals. Cellular, starring Kim Basinger, Jason Statham and Chris Evans, is another film along similar lines. It’s a slightly daft thriller that relies on its hero never letting his mobile phone’s signal drop, lest a woman he’s trying to help gets murdered by her kidnapper. Cue lots of running around and shouting, plus an unlikely number of crazy stunts and explosions. The whole thing is so preposterous it verges on genius.

Which brings us back to Snakes On A Plane. Ellis directed seven films in all, but Snakes On A Plane will be the one he’s remembered for, and the one that best sums up his vision. It’s a film that feels very eager to please, especially because Ellis shot extra footage after internet commenters demanded it, adding in extra violence so it could get the rating the internet thought it deserved. But that just makes it more endearing. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s one that, if it happened to be on TV tonight, you could happily watch and enjoy all over again.

Way back in the early days of Den of Geek, I wrote about how much I loved Ellis’s films - you can find it here - and, re-reading that now, I still feel the same. Maybe David R Ellis wasn’t a director whose films would make you cry. They probably wouldn’t change your life. But they were a lot of fun. There was an energy and exuberance to his filmmaking that set him apart from a lot of other B-movie directors, and that’s why he’ll be missed.

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