I want these motherfucking snakes off my motherfucking plane.
2006 seemed like such an innocent time. Before political flame wars over Presidential candidates, before utter despair and abject abuse became the common tenor of Twitter (hell, before the nascent social networking thingamabob was even out of its infancy), before the apocalypse seemed nigh, we, as an Internet nation, were obsessed with one thing and one thing only: snakes. Or, more to the point, snakes… on a plane. Yes, over a decade ago, we became tickled pink over an innocently goofy B-movie so simple that it was spelled out completely, right there, in its own title. Except one damning thing happened as a cheerfully innocuous hype train slithered on: We forgot the movie. And for the first time in our modern Internet-besotted culture, we learned that the focus of hype is nowhere near as important as the hype itself.
SNAKES ON A PLANE has, alongside fellow Geek-culture victim SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, became shorthand for how our desire to have a thing — our industrious, self-made attempts to turn it into an object of cultural fetish — has become more important than having the thing itself. Back in the latter half of ’05 and first acts of ’06, you couldn’t throw a stone on the web without hitting a piece of fan art, a homemade parody or demands to have the line that kicked off this article written into the script — months before the movie even came out. Hell, the SNAKES ON A PLANE phenomenon was in full effect when the movie was still in production leading distributing studio New Line Cinema and director David R. Ellis to rework the film according to online petitions. Make it R-rated (Ellis reshot scenes with added gore and serpentine carnage.) Keep the ridiculous title (SNAKES ON A PLANE was originally a working title, and New Line was going to release the film under the generic moniker PACIFIC AIR FLIGHT 121 until fans — and star Samuel L. Jackson — convinced them otherwise.) Add that damn line! (Which was, in fact, created by a fan, Chris Rohan, in a parody video during the build up.) Through most of the year one of thought that this crazy little killer snake movie was going to be one of the biggest hits of the summer, base don fan obsession alone. By the time the final piece of the Snakes puzzle finally came out — the movie itself — however, the hype train had reached its end. People loved the concept. They didn’t give a rat’s ass about the result.
The box office failure of SNAKES ON A PLANE — an opening weekend under $14 mil, a final domestic gross of $34 and worldwide haul of $62 million on a $33 million dollar budget — was a wake-up call to Hollywood, proof that just because audiences get excited for your film doesn’t mean they actually want to see it, a disheartening fact only underscored by the similar failure of SCOTT PILGRIM just a few years later. Only that film has gone on to join the ranks of beloved cult classics, oddball projects that may have bombed hard on initial release but became legends in the years since (there’s a throughline from that Michael Cera project to the likes of FIGHT CLUB, REPO MAN, and BUCKAROO BANZAI.) SNAKES, more ignominiously, has been all but forgotten, it’s false-hope march to prom queen victory a curious footnote in the high-speed race of Internet culture.
When SNAKES was first conceived, it was never meant to be more than a modest, minor B movie. It was originally thought up by David Dallesandro way back in 1992, with a simpler concept (one snake loose on a plane) under the title VENOM, but was rejected by major studio after studio until 1999, when an exec from MTV Films showed interest, followed by New Line. By the time it got into production, it was originally to be directed by FREDDY VS. JASON and BRIDE OF CHUCKY director Ronny Yu, before being taken over by FINAL DESTINATION 2‘s Ellis. Jackson signed on to the project on title alone, justifying it with the claim that this would have been the kind of romp he would’ve flocked to the theaters as a child.
In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that this film was the kind of project that would inspire impassioned responses and its own hit theme song. (As I type this, I have just finished listening to the same-titled song, put together by an emo supergroup named Cobra Starship conceived solely for the purpose of recording the song. They, in fact, may the most enduring aspect of the Snakes phenomenon, as enlisted frontman Gabe Saporta, opted to continue it as a real band for several years, even notching a minor pop hit in “Good Girls Go Bad” with one-time TV starlet Leighton Meester.) It’s a goofy throwback to all-star disaster movies like AIRPORT with Jackson surrounded by one of the unlikeliest ensembles in history: Julianna Margulies, Bobby Canavale, Kenan Thompson, David Koechner, Lin Shaye, a pre-fame Taylor Kitsch (whose entire role seems to exist of joining the “mile die” club) and comedian Flex Alexander (you know, from the legendary sitcom HOMEBOYS IN OUTER SPACE.) The plot is a convoluted excuse to justify having hundreds of venomous serpents let loose in an airplane cabin: FBI agent Jackson has to escort a star witness (WOLF CREEK‘s Nathan Phillips) to trial to testify against an Asian crime lord, and the snake attack is the criminal’s assassination attempt. Yes, seriously. It’s all a rather convoluted plot to execute a star witness — a sort of marriage between ’80s Cannon fodder and a goofy killer animal flick.
In other words, not exactly a film you take seriously. In fact, its the kind of high-nonsense adventure they rarely make anymore, and even when they did make them, would often go to drive-ins, not multiplexes. Though they would still boast the occasional star: the film’s original title bears a striking resemblance to a 1982 cult film of the same name, which had kidnappers Oliver Reed and Klaus Kinski trapped in a house with a black mamba. That gave SNAKES a certain heritage to old school grindhouse and exploitation fare for many horror fans, especially with its hilariously mean-spirited initial snake attack, which has a bunch of unsuspecting extras getting munched and bit in every tender spot you could think of (yes, there.) Which makes it doubly weird that it became such a viral phenom before viral was even a buzzword — and not at all surprising that it’s main legacy is that of a cautionary tale.
The movie was merely the sad punchline to a joke that had gone stale, an afterthought to a mutual, shared mass delusion. It didn’t matter that the movie isn’t actually that a bad — a kicky and over the top creature feature disaster flick that only takes itself seriously enough to not come off as rib-bruising wink wink, nudge nudge joke (though it could’ve used a touch of the cheeky satirical madness of someone like Joe Dante.) . Maybe that’s exactly why it failed to work on the audience, that after months of “ain’t this a goof?” affectionate mockery, they were shocked — shocked! — to discover that, hey, this was a *real movie*. The SNAKES legend would repeat itself, nearly a decade later, in the rises of both THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE and SHARKNADO, but those movies were successes — even establishing franchises! — precisely because they were the kind of chintzy kitsch garbage that audiences expected them to be; they lived down to the junk promise of their titles.
YouTube was in its infancy when SNAKES ON A PLANE came out. Facebook was a month away from becoming public, Twitter a wee babe. Sure chat rooms and MySpace and Friendster already existed to bring together disparate individuals in a digital tangle of lives and faux-friendship, but the constant memeification of our pop-cultural content — the meta-mining of art for cheap, quick humor — was nowhere near the sensory-overload deluge we have today. But thanks to an unassuming little monster movie, the floodgates were opened. Everything became a joke, a put on, the hype the whole point, movies an afterthought. People have forgotten about SNAKES, but we are all still living with what slithered out of that airplane way back in 2006.
Tags: Bobby Canavale, David Koechner, David R. Ellis, Elsa Pataky, Flex Alexander, Julianna Margulies, Kenan Thompson, Lin Shaye, Nathan Phillips, new line cinema, Planes, Samuel L. Jackson, Snakes, Sunny Mabrey, Taylor Kitsch, Todd Louiso