Snakes on a Plane
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Credit: New Line

This Week in Genre History: The internet birthed Snakes on a Plane, and it flew too close to the sun

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Aug 19, 2020, 1:00 PM EDT (Updated)

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released. 

I already know you’re not going to believe me when I say this if you weren't around for it, but I’m telling you, it is absolutely true: When Snakes on a Plane was approaching its release on Aug. 18, 2006, it felt like not only a massive, massive deal — it felt like every fan’s dream. It felt like, for once, we were being listened to. 

Yes, it sounds bizarre, but the difference between online fandom now and online fandom 14 years ago is vast — and I’m not sure we’re going in the right direction. Now, if enough angry dudes start pounding their keyboards hard enough, they can create a Snyder Cut of Justice League that, by nearly every account, didn’t really exist until they griped it into the world. Not only can fans be heard now, they, in a social media age, essentially dictate most of what is made. If you get enough of your friends to demand another Sharknado, you’ll get one.

But in 2006, no one in Hollywood listened to people online, and why would they? The internet was mostly seen as a bunch of blog nerds; there was no TikTok, not much Twitter, barely even YouTube. So when word got around that Samuel L. Jackson had signed on for a film in which there were snakes on an airplane, we internet nerds of the time created what we’d now all just call a meme. Suddenly, Snakes on a Plane was not just one of New Line’s cheapo releases; with massive, tongue-in-cheek internet buzz, it became a major release. We demanded the studio listen to us, and it did.

But maybe it shouldn’t have.

Why was it a big deal at the time? New Line almost buried this movie, and with good reason. The studio was so surprised that an actor of Samuel L. Jackson’s caliber signed onto the film that it read about the deal in the trades and actually called him to confirm. The film was almost called Pacific Air Flight 121, but then word about the film — which features, well, snakes on a plane — hit the internet, and from then on, people couldn’t stop talking about it. It became a way to show you were in on a great in-joke: You even saw memes of Jackson, in Jules from Pulp Fiction mode, screaming, “I have had it with these motherf***ing snakes on this motherf***ing plane!” 

When that happened, New Line realized it might have something. It immediately changed the film’s title to what it should have been all along and brought back much of the cast for reshoots, beefing the film up and trying to go Full Online by earning an R rating from the previous PG-13 one. And yes: They did film a scene in which Jackson indeed does say, “I have had it with these motherf***ing snakes on this motherf***ing plane!”

And with that, the internet had made it happen. This was really quite remarkable at the time — you’ll have to take my word for it.

What was the impact? New Line legit thought it had a hit on its hands. Everyone on the internet was talking about it, after all! The company expanded the number of theaters the film would be showing in, it launched a huge advertising campaign, and it set up a website where fans could send messages in Samuel L. Jackson’s voice to their friends and family’s phones. There was even a spinoff book released! The movie was the future of marketing: internet, fan-based marketing. This was going to change the world.

Then the movie was released, and it turns out... the buzz didn’t mean that much at all. The movie did debut at No. 1 at the box office, but just barely beat Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and rang in at $15 million, many millions less than what New Line had been expecting — and certainly not enough to justify all the marketing expense. That became even more clear once Snakes on a Plane collapsed in its second weekend, falling all the way to sixth place.

As it turns out: Snakes on a Plane probably should have been low on New Line’s radar all along. The studio’s head admitted that the film turned out to be a "dud."

Has it held up? It’s very strange to watch Snakes on a Plane today. Two-thirds of the movie is a forgettable low-budget action movie that everyone involved in seems to be sleeping through. And the other third, presumably the reshoots, feels like every actor basically screaming to the camera, “Hey, internet, how do you like this?” It feels like the film equivalent of that Shia LeBeouf meme where he poses for all your GIFs; it is barely a movie at all.

In short, Snakes on a Plane feels as constructed and insincere as any other studio movie, really. Though it is always fun to watch Samuel L. Jackson yell.

But even though it doesn’t work, and it didn’t do well, it very much augured the future that was waiting for us all. Listening to fans and doing exactly what they said was a crude instrument deployed in a hacky way in Snakes on a Plane, but eventually, Hollywood would figure out how to get the formula right. Snakes on a Plane may have been the first studio film largely written by the internet. A decade later, it would feel like they all were — for better or worse.

Will Leitch is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Tim Grierson review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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