Snakes On A Plane ten years on: How a daft name created a cult sensation
Snakes On A Plane

Ten years ago this week, Snakes On A Plane roared into cinemas

The premise of the genre movie was simple, and unashamedly stupid.

Two FBI agents battle to save themselves, their key witness, and the passengers of a commercial airliner when some very nasty criminals unleash a plethora of slithering poisonous creatures at 40,000 ft.

Cue mayhem.

99 times out of 100, a flick like this is churned out, released, and then promptly forgotten.

But Snakes On A Plane was different.

A legend is born

You might not believe it, but Snakes On A Plane was some fourteen years in the making.

The film in its final form was originally pitched in 1999, based on a script called ‘Venom’ by David Dalessandro. And that screenplay itself originated all the way back in the early 90s.

Most executives hated the idea. Having been roundly rejected in the mid ’90s, and with suits turning up their noses second time around too, it seemed it was unlikely to get any serious backing. But ultimately, a certain degree of star power intervened.

Samuel L Jackson, hardly a stranger to bizarre movie roles, jumped at the opportunity to get involved once New Line picked it up. Ronny Yu, who directed him in zany crime caper The 51st State, was attached at the time, and Jackson loved the concept.

But he loved something else about the project even more.

What’s in a name?

Without doubt the most important factor in getting Snakes On A Plane off the ground in the first place, and attracting a snowballing degree of widespread interest, was its title.

A catchy, cheesy, B-movie moniker that succinctly summarises the daft set-up, studio chiefs were somewhat embarrassed by the film’s working name – even going so far as attempting to retitle the project as ‘Pacific Air 121’ – but such moves were rebuffed by its star.

Speaking ahead of its release, Jackson remarked:

“The title was what got my attention. I got on the set one day and heard they changed it, and I said, ‘What are you doing here? It’s not Gone with the Wind. It’s not On the Waterfront. It’s Snakes on a Plane!’

“They were afraid it gave too much away, and I said, “That’s exactly what you should do. When audiences hear it, they say, ‘We are there!'”

And that’s exactly what happened.

Snakes On A Plane

The bold, blunt, attention-grabbing promise of entertaining schlock to come was what won the movie a colossal, enthusiastic fanbase, before anyone really knew anything about the finished product.

In an age where we’re used to super-fandom revolving largely around established comic book properties and reboots, it’s strange to think that comparable hysteria would arise around something like a mid-budget tongue-in-cheek thriller with a silly name. But arise it did.

There were high-profile talk show spots and major magazine covers, and the movie even inspired a hastily-assembled rip off film, called ‘Snakes On A Train’, at a time when ‘Mockbusters’ were far from as prevalent as they are today.

But it was cinema-goers themselves who drove the publicity machine.

People designed their own T-shirts, fan fiction, posters, trailers, novelty songs, and parodies, and shared them across the web.

In perhaps one of the most interesting instances of fan feedback influencing a film’s content, a pivotal catchphrase in the movie was largely informed by online suggestion and excitement.

Long before it even landed in cinemas, Snakes On A Plane was a pop culture phenomenon.

The final product

Snakes On A Plane

On its release, the film – perhaps inevitably – divided critics. Though it won surprisingly positive reviews overall, and won a certain degree of begrudging respect for serving up pretty much exactly what it said on the tin.

Crucially, the public rushed to see it in droves, and seemed generally happy with what they got.

Audiences actually cheered when Jackson let rip with the movie’s most famous line, a fan service wink at the absurdity of the title and premise itself.

(Incidentally, the TV edit of the outburst, which turns the obligatory use of ‘motherf***ing’ into something far more surreal and kid-friendly, is a delight).

Connoisseurs of entertainingly terrible movies – ourselves included – may paint a different picture, however.

There is an often unintentional, lightening-in-a-bottle art to creating a genuinely great bad film, and when viewed in the cold light of day, Snakes On A Plane’s deliberate attempts to aspire to comedy-horror greatness don’t always hit the mark.

Believe the hype?

In many respects the final film is pretty mediocre. A middle-of-the-road monster movie.

It’s hardly a laugh riot throughout, and though its reputation (and the attention at the time) make it memorable a decade on, much of its actual action is completely forgettable.

There’s hints at something more gleefully OTT here: the couple attacked while attempting to join the mile-high club. The gigantic CGI snake that’s like something out of the climax of Cabin In The Woods.

But there are far more rewardingly silly thrillers out there.

Hell, you could argue Snakes On A Plane isn’t even the best bad flick involving massive snakes to get a mainstream cinema release. That honour goes to the genuinely hilarious Anaconda, from the late 90s.

Not that it mattered, of course…

A roaring success

The film went on to make a hefty $62 million at the box office (double its budget), and another $32 million in DVD sales in the United States alone.

Not bad for an R-rated flick in general, and certainly not bad for a ludicrous creature feature, which started life as a B-movie script in 1992, and ultimately rode a wave of intense hype off its daft name alone.

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