Can you remember where you were when you first heard the title Snakes On A Plane? Try and put yourself back in that mindset for a moment. It’s tough, sitting here in 2016, to remember how outrageous it seemed. After all, we live in a world where a movie called Sharknado not only exists, but has three sequels, the most recent of which even has a Star Wars joke for a subtitle (The 4th Awakens). Fan fantasy concepts like ‘Batman vs Superman’ have been turned into $250 million movies. I mean, there’s even a Grumpy Cat film. Nowadays, if something goes viral online, there’s a very good chance Hollywood will shell out for the movie rights.
But back in 2006, an idea like Snakes On A Plane was sort of exciting; firstly, because of the concept, which sounds pretty bonkers, and secondly because the title was just so goddamned literal. You knew where you were with a title like that, and for a lot of us, where we were was in a cinema seat, waiting for the mayhem to kick off.
But while Snakes On A Plane was a medium-sized hit when it came out, it seems to have been kind of forgotten about now. And that’s a shame, because it was both a trendsetter and also a pretty fun movie in its own right. So let’s take a look back and see if we can’t reconnect with our 2006 selves after all…
Chances are, you haven’t thought about it in a while, so let’s start at the beginning of the story. The original treatment, titled Venom, was written by David Dalessandro back in 1995. But despite his best efforts, no studios wanted to touch it. The idea lay dormant until a few years later, when an exec remembered reading the script and pitched the idea to his colleagues over drinks. Snakes On A Plane was born (remember this if anyone ever tells you not to write while drunk).
The film was picked up by New Line in 1999, with Ronny Yu tapped to direct. The project was mentioned in trade papers, and the title caught the eye of Samuel L Jackson. He’d worked with Yu before and was soon on the phone, agreeing to star in the movie without even reading a script. The project went into development, with new writers brought in to punch up the script and even a new director, David R Ellis, hired to take the reins.
One thing didn’t change, though: Samuel L Jackson, and his dedication to an improbably silly sounding film.
To begin with, the film press wasn’t entirely sure what to make of Jackson’s attachment to a project that sounded so much like a trashy B movie. But he couldn’t have cared less. In an interview with Cinemablend, he shut down the whole conversation by explaining, “I did this movie because it was the kind of movie I would have gone to see when I was a kid.” He didn’t pretend it was art. He just said he wanted to make a fun movie. He was all in, and he wasn’t letting anyone tell him otherwise.
There are two more Samuel L Jackson-related stories you’ll know about this movie. The first is that, at some point, the studio started to worry that Snakes On A Plane was a title that gave away too much about the movie, and for a while, it was set to be released as Pacific Air Flight 121.
But Jackson was having none of it. He’d signed onto a movie called Snakes On A Plane, and he was going to be in a movie called Snakes On A Plane. He argued with the execs and the title was changed back.
The other story? Well, that’s one that does feel a bit more 2016. When the movie was announced, the internet got a bit obsessed with it. Fan sites were set up, parody videos were filmed, t-shirts were sorted, and for a while, there were even fake trailers floating around.
One of those trailers had Jackson reading a line about “these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!” At the time, the film included no such line. It was set to be a PG-13 affair, with minimal sex, violence, and swearing. But after taking note of the internet buzz? New Line ordered five days of reshoots, and the film’s rating was bumped to an R. Jackson got his famous line, and the film got a hell of a lot darker.
Watching it with that in mind, you could probably figure out exactly which scenes were shot on those five days. But you’d also have to concede that the film would be a lot less fun if the studio hadn’t decided to up the ante and throw in all that extra material.
It’d still probably work, mind you. What’s really striking about Snakes On A Plane is how carefully constructed it is. It starts in Hawaii, where various pretty young things are hanging out on the beach, surfing, and generally enjoying themselves. Then it quickly disrupts all that loveliness by chucking in a violent murder by a twisted mobster, an exhilarating chase scene as Sam Jackson’s Agent Neville saves a witness from certain death, and we’re off.
Or, almost off. The basic premise is in place – there’s a baddie, he wants to kill someone, and it’s the goodie FBI agent’s job to protect the witness by flying him out of the state – but there’s a surprising amount of time spent setting up secondary characters. The movie is set on a 747, and though there’s some exposition about the plane being mostly empty because it’s at an awkward time, there are still quite a lot of people on that plane.
That’s exactly what a movie like this needs, of course; more people means more cannon fodder. But more of them than you’d expect get a bit of backstory, and almost every second of it will turn out to be relevant later in the movie.
There’s the lustful couple keen to get in one another’s pants (who’ll end up killed by snakes when they sneak off to join the Mile High Club in the toilets). There’s a super-famous rapper who’s afraid of germs (and will end up causing a scene later when he freaks out over all the dying going on around him). There’s his computer game obsessed bodyguard (who’ll end up using his gaming skills to land the plane). There’s the posh girl taking selfies with her Chihuahua on her smartphone (who’ll end up using it to send photos of the snakes to a venom expert on the ground). And there’s the rude first class dude (who’ll end up getting the second biggest cheer of the movie when he’s finally swallowed by a snake).
It’s a lot to take in, but it’s well done. All in all, it takes around half an hour for the snake action to kick in, by which time you’re pretty familiar with what’s happening, who everyone is, and how the plane’s laid out. It’s hard not to be a little bit impressed with how much information the film manages to deliver without you quite realising how much you’re being told – there are even jokes set up that you won’t notice until about an hour later, when they pay off. For a stupid movie, it’s pretty smart.
It’s kind of lavish, too. Obviously, Snakes On A Plane is part of a tradition of creature features, and most of those tend to be cheap B movies. But its production budget was around $36 million, which isn’t small change. Okay, it’s not exactly a $200 million blockbuster, but unless they’re Jurassic World, those kinds of genre films nowadays tend to be capped off at around $3 million – or, you know, much lower, and they go straight to streaming services. From the off, everyone involved knew Snakes On A Plane was a daft thriller, but it had a fair bit of money behind it.
And you can see it on screen. Samuel L Jackson is obviously the most famous and therefore highest paid face, but you’ll recognise most of the other actors, too; there’s The Good Wife’s Julianna Marguiles, TV Clueless’ Rachel Blanchard, Anchorman’s David Koechner, and Lin Shaye of, well, being Lin Shaye fame. Beyond actors, there are several locations, including the stunning Hawaii location stuff.
Then there are the effects. The snakes are a mixture of practical and digital effects; there were real, live snakes in the mix, including a 250lb, 17 foot-long Burmese python called Kitty, but any time you see snakes interacting with actors in the film, they’re either animatronic or CGI.
It’s easy to be dismissive and assume CGI effects are cheap, but there are a lot of snakes in this film, and though, yeah, they don’t look entirely real, they generally look real enough. (They definitely look more convincing than anything you’ll see in a Syfy Original movie.)
I’m not saying it’s a perfect movie, of course. It’s a dopey thriller, so there are plenty of flaws, if you want to see them. It’s a bit overlong, and the middle section drags a bit, especially if you’ve seen it before and the shock value of all the snake attacks has worn off. (That one that goes for the eyeball, though? That one’s hard to feel indifferent to. Eeeek.)
The violence and humour don’t always sit comfortably beside one another, because the violence is often really extreme, and it happens to characters we’ve been primed to quite like as well as the ones we don’t, while the humour is often broad and silly. But it works enough. It gets away with it, not least because the triumphant safe landing of the plane and sweet ending mean you can walk out of the cinema (or, er, turn off the DVD) on a high.
Plus, of course, so many of us were primed to love it before we ever bought our tickets. Snakes On A Plane might be one of the first times the internet felt a sort of sense of ownership over a movie, because of the reshoots and the title changes and the trailers. It felt like the fans had been involved in making it, and so we kind of had to love it.
Now, of course, it all too often feels like movie studios have been listening to the internet, and that isn’t usually a good thing. Films that try too hard to pander to their target audience often end up feeling messy and compromised; while we might think we know what we want from a movie, it’s the surprises we really fall in love with, and those can’t be crowdsourced on Twitter.
Somehow, though, Snakes On A Plane made it work. Partly, that’s down to the late David R Ellis; the stuntman-turned-director didn’t direct many films, but the ones he did are all pretty solidly competent, with Snakes On A Plane the most competent of them all. He was making a film that sounded like a punchline, and could easily have become a laughing stock, but he turned in a silly, gory, scary, tense, and gleeful thriller that was far better than it needed to be.
But mostly? This movie owes its existence to Samuel L Jackson. If he hadn’t spotted that article in a trade magazine, and then done everything in his power to make sure it came out exactly as ridiculous as it needed to be, even down to being willing to make fun of himself and his onscreen persona, it never could’ve happened.
So thanks, Mr Jackson. Because as well as making a film for the big kids in all of us, he’s made a film that feels, actually, like a fun piece of cinema history. Snakes On A Plane is a last hurrah for the big budget B movie; a snapshot of the pre-iPhone, pre-global financial crisis world; and a harbinger of internet movie campaigns to come. And if that’s not enough to convince you it’s worth a rewatch, I don’t know what is.
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