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Snakes, Planes and the Triumph of Ironic Appreciation

Glenn McDonald

Does the Snakes on a Plane phenomenon signal the End of Days in Hollywood?

A lot of people don't know this, but there exists in the Judeo-Christian tradition a body of apocryphal texts � companion passages to the Biblical book of Revelations � that mention Samuel L. Jackson by name.

The apocrypha are writings that, due to the typical infighting of bitchy little Gnostic scholars, never quite made it into the Bible. The established church does not believe these writings to be canonical, but then again, the established church thinks that dinosaur fossils are cosmic pranks scattered about the earth to test our faith.

Anyway. Like many PopMatters readers, I suspect, I tend to keep a sheaf or two of Hellenistic Judaic texts on the nightstand for light bedtime reading. You can only breeze through so much James Joyce before you start to feel like you're slumming. Imagine my surprise when, in a section of passages presaging the end of the world, I came across the following:

And lo, unto the land of Babel shall come a man, one like unto the Son of man, clothed with rich garment down to the foot, and girt about the ears with a Kangol cap. And he shall be called Samuel, son of Jack, with an "L" in there somewhere, and speaking with a great voice, as of a blasphemous trumpet, he shall banish yon serpents from the sky�

When I read this I thought: Sonofa . . . they're talking about Snakes on a Plane!

On reflection, it's entirely unsurprising to me that Snakes on a Plane may be one of the signs of the Apocalypse. Actually, just about any summer movie in wide release these days could be interpreted as such, but there's something about SoaP that seems epochal.

For the unfamiliar, SoaP started out as a screenplay destined, it seemed, to be a 3 am feature on the SciFi channel at best. Somehow, the script landed in the lap of discerning thespian Sam Jackson, who inexplicably and immediately signed on. The story goes that, when Jackson got involved, the pleasantly surprised studio tried to class up the project and change the title to "Pacific Air Flight 121". But Jackson demanded they keep the original name. A mad prophet in a barren land, Jackson alone saw the potential behemoth that lay slumbering beneath that title.

Snakes on a Plane Casting

Word eventually leaked to the trade magazines and websites that there was a movie, now in pre-production, that was actually called "Snakes on a Plane", and that it was about exactly what it said it was about. This piqued the skepticism of many, and for several months it was unclear whether the entire story was an elaborate hoax. (In fact, one of the very first SoaP reports appeared on the forums at the Museum of Hoaxes.) Eventually, New Line Cinema and Jackson went public, confirming that the movie was indeed in production, that it was slated for a summer 2006 release, and that yes, goddammit, it was called "Snakes on a Plane".

Almost immediately, SoaP became an unprecedented phenomenon in Hollywood's weird and unknowable world of marketing, movies, and commodity. Hundreds of online fansites popped up instantly, and soon SoaP was being covered in every entertainment publication and broadcast on the planet. It seems we of the Internet generation, weaned since babes on irony and kitsch, were simply waiting for this one exquisite moment of trash culture to fully galvanize and display our might. The phrase itself entered the lexicon via the Urban Dictionary as "a simple existential observation that has the same meaning as 'Whaddya gonna do?' or 'Shit Happens'".

Guy 1: (irate) Dude, you just ran into the back of my SUV!

Guy 2: (calm) Snakes on a plane, man. Snakes on a plane.

Meanwhile, YouTube sprouted SoaP-themed DIY videos by the dozens, and several online retailers began vigorously ignoring licensing issues with bootleg SoaP t-shirts and merchandise. The best shirts employ a minimalist graphic style that distills SoaP to its essence: [picture of snakes] + [picture of plane] = [picture of crashing plane]. Check it out here at One particularly viral artifact was an audio recording of a Sam Jackson soundalike screaming, simply and elegantly, "I want these motherfucking snakes off this motherfucking plane!"

Snakes on a Plane: How Hollywood Really Works

So overwhelming was this sudden groundswell of SoaP appropriation that, in March, New Line actually went back and shot five more days of additional footage, adding gore, nudity, and language to take the film from a PG-13 to the hipper R rating. They've skewed the advance trailers and ads to reflect this new arch, self-aware approach, and even added a scene with the "motherfucking snakes" line, verbatim, from the viral Internet track.

In other words, everything about the movie � from the script to the entire pre-release marketing plan � has been retooled in response to audience reaction that began before the project even started filming. And it looks like it's going to work. Most summer movie prognosticators have slotted SoaP into their top five probable moneymakers for 2006, along heavyweights like The Da Vinci Code and Superman Returns. All because of those four incredible, ridiculous, utterly evocative words.

It's all so strange and modern, so mind-twistingly meta, that I have to believe we're approaching some end-of-days scenario in Hollywood. I'm just watching it unfold, like a natural disaster, or baseball's pathetic National League West. A highly-placed source in the Hollywood marketing community recently told me � and I'm really not making this up � that the SoaP phenomenon has executives scared to death. These guys spend a lot of money trying to sell us what they think we want. When an empirically bad idea can become a monster summer blockbuster on the strength of out-of-control digital-age irony, the whole traditional movie marketing system is in jeopardy.

In that regard, at least, the SoaP phenomenon is fascinating -- a rudderless new paradigm of promotion in which consumers ironically hype the product to themselves. The Hollywood-Internet feedback loop has gone totally haywire with this one. It's like a global improv comedy festival out there, with thousands of multimedia riffs on a single premise. There are even some preliminary sequel concepts. (My enduring favorite: Snakes on a Plane 2: Bears on a Train).

It's safe to say, in fact, that the real pop cultural impact of SoaP has already peaked. That's the apocalyptic part: Here we have a massive, Internet-mediated audience response that is more entertaining and significant than the film itself. Which, kindly bear in mind, has still not yet been released.

Ah, well. What are ya gonna do? Snakes on a Plane, man. Snakes on a Plane...

Snakes on a Plane on CNN

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