Film and TV

Don't Look Back in Adder: Revisiting Snakes On A Plane

Ten years ago, America was a markedly different place: Immigration and privacy were two political hot button issues, Hollywood was abuzz with talks of a new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and a young Beyoncé stole our hearts. But as Dylan from Beverly Hills, 90210 once said, "The times, they are a-changin.'"

The year 2006 also saw the release of Snakes on a Plane. It’s perhaps easy to forget, in an era when movie advertising has practically achieved sentience, the extent of the hype surrounding the film. This was a movie fueled by a marketing blitz not seen since The Blair Witch Project (the good one). New Line leveraged the then-fresh phenomenon of YouTube — as well as blogs, message boards and other sites — to encourage fans to create content to further maintain buzz. Was it going to be "good," necessarily? Probably  not, but the push behind it seemed to indicate the film would be a hit.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. SoaP did respectable business for a horror movie, nothing more, and a blow was dealt to the idea that Internet hype could fuel actual box office results, albeit a temporary one (*cough* Hardcore Henry *cough*).

Certainly one can’t say the movie was in any way misleading: Snakes on a Plane had serpents. On a flying machine. It's not easy maintaining anticipation via word-of-mouth when there are literally no surprises in the film (although the guy bit on the penis might disagree). If anything, SoaP suffered because it offered exactly what it advertised, and not a hell of a lot else.

There are a couple of reasons for this, but they all boil down to New Line mistaking virtual hysteria for actual butts in seats. We see parallels these days in so-called "slacktivist" activity, like sharing Facebook memes or re-Tweeting a particularly biting political comment. None of this usually results in real-world change, just as creating digital fan art for a movie from your desk is a lot easier than going to an analog theater and paying [motherfucking] money for a [motherfucking] movie ticket.

Online hype was also the reason for 11th-hour reshoots designed to inject (sorry) some R-rated shenanigans, including a sex scene and a handful of f-bombs. The results were incongruous at best, and often seemed out of place among the rest of the film's relative goofiness. It should also be noted that Samuel L. Jackson wanted an "R" rating from day one.

Jackson famously agreed to star based on the name of the movie alone (even though "Snakes on a Plane" was only a working title at first). The script was rejected by all 30 (at the time) Hollywood studios, before Craig Berenson at DreamWorks remembered it. Jackson's involvement also convinced both Julianna Margulies (Claire, the flight attendant literally one day from retirement) and David Koechner (co-pilot Rick) to sign on. No word on whether the three are still on speaking terms.

And the movie itself? It's fine, everything is fine. Snakes on a Plane doesn't really blow the doors off the, uh, venomous infestation subgenre, but it's certainly no worse than, say, Kingdom of the Spiders. And compared to the typical SyFy offering, it's practically Suspiria.

Naturally, the premise is ludicrous: FBI agent Neville Flynn (Jackson) and his partner are escorting a witness to a mob murder from Hawaii to Los Angeles. As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of criminal infrastructure knows, the best way to take out a witness is not to shoot him, or hit him with a car, or drop him down an elevator shaft. No, the best thing to do is bribe an airport security guard to look the other way while you sneak a time-release crate on board the plane that will release some 500 venomous snakes, thereby killing (one hopes) the witness, as well as any other folks who might happen to be traveling with him and whom he might have told about the crime after a few too many vodka tonics.

Not too subtle, you say? Our country abandoned subtlety when a sitting President landed on an aircraft carrier under a "Mission Accomplished" banner. Sure, Mr. Kim (the bad guy, played by Byron Lawson) could easily have put a bomb on board or stashed a small amount of nerve agent in a carry-on, and either of those would have provided the same results. Instead, he elects to go through untold effort and expense in order to sneak an assload of snakes onto a commercial jet. You just don't see that kind of dedication to your craft these days, my fellow Americans.

It's just a shame sales were so disappointing, because we never got the chance to see what new permutations of the [A Thing That Scares People] + [Another Thing That Scares People] formula might be in the offing. Snakes plus fear of flying was only a wonderful jumping-off point in exploiting our worst fears. I mean, just imagine these possibilities...

Spiders on a Clown
Donating Blood to President Trump
Public Speaking in Front of Sharks
Drowning in Ghosts

Snakes on a Plane  is in some ways both the best *and* worst movie ever made. Pros: Snake-O-Vision, enough serpents to make a herpetophiliac spontaneously combust, and it's an enjoyable movie to see with a (preferably drunken) crowd. Cons: pretty terrible computer animation (even by 2006 standards), the non-CG snakes are obviously non-venomous, and the whole film has the feel of a 1970s-era Irwin Allen flick.

Maybe that last one isn't such a bad thing after all. Too bad they couldn't whip up a computer-generated George Kennedy cameo.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar