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The Hijacking of 'Snakes on a Plane'
With 'Cocaine Bear' poised to take advantage of a viral marketing campaign, it's worth looking back at a strange case of giving the internet what it wants.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana
“I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.” — Kurt Vonnegut
Cocaine Bear comes out on Friday. It is about a 500-lb black bear who ingests a duffel bag full of cocaine and presumably does the bear version of Al Pacino’s rampage at the end of Brian De Palma’s Scarface. The trailer, as of this writing, has over 15 million views on YouTube, and it’s chock-a-block with pop culture references, like Ray Liotta, in his final screen performance, evoking the coked-out Henry Hill from the third act of GoodFellas and Isiah Whitlock Jr., the man known for saying “sheeeeeeee-it” on The Wire (and on a talking bobblehead), looking loaded for literal bear. The based-on-a-true-story angle provides an additional hook, though presumably this won’t be the grim tale of a black bear found dead of an overdose in northern Georgia and later taxidermied and displayed at a mall in Lexington, Kentucky.
The marketing campaign for Cocaine Bear—really, just the conceit for Cocaine Bear—is a prime example of Hollywood astroturfing a cult movie, seeding the idea of an offbeat, water-cooler phenomenon before anyone even lays eyes on it. On a low enough level, such ideas can be enough, like say “a tornado full of sharks,” which can slip on the SyFy channel on a nothing budget and inspire four sequels, three spin-off films, and a whole cottage industry of cheap, high-concept horror-comedies that are infinitely more pleasing in theory than reality. But the most obvious precedent for Cocaine Bear is Snakes on a Plane, a mid-budget 2006 action film starring Samuel L. Jackson that was simultaneously elevated and condemned by sparking the public’s imagination. There was never going to be a film called Snakes on a Plane that was to be taken seriously—the film itself is keenly aware of that—but the online frenzy not only hijacked its reception, but changed it in a material way.
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Shortly before Snakes on a Plane finished principal photography in September 2005, a news item announced that the film’s title, previously changed to Pacific Air Flight 121, had been reverted back at Jackson’s request. That the film was ever called Pacific Air Flight 121 is a significant piece of the story, because it suggests an effort to distance itself from its own inherent silliness. Picking up on the news, screenwriter Josh Friedman—who’d just written War of the Worlds with David Koepp and had carved out a place for himself in the blog boom—wrote a hilarious post about his own experience in the process, when producers were assessing him for possible script doctor work. On a conference call, he made it emphatically clear that he loved the original title and they absolutely could not change it under any circumstances. (The response, from another writer on the call: “Well, we’re were thinking, we need to make it a little scarier, a little more thriller-y, something not so camp.”) That was the end of Friedman’s involvement with Snakes on a Plane, but he did spark this important piece of kindling:
Now out of both loyalty to the sacred bond between studio and screenwriter and also a serious desire to keep getting hired in this town, I will not give away any of the plot details of SNAKES ON A PLANE. But know this. As the great Sam Jackson would say: There are motherfucking snakes on the motherfucking plane.
And with that, Snakes on a Plane changed direction mid-flight, as internet buzz coursed through its system like venom from the world’s deadliest reptiles. Though the film would be released in mid-August 2006—the release calendar equivalent of what basketball fans call “garbage time”—New Line decided it was not finished shooting, after all. So in March 2006, five days of reshoots were added to bring the film more in line with the camp classic people were expecting, including more violence to push it from a PG-13 to an R rating and the addition of its most famous line, not so much written into the script as downloaded: “Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!”
What people on the internet could not have known at the time is the weird incongruity of the line in the finished film, which of course they had not seen. The public had, in effect, offered notes on a screenplay they had not read and the studio had accepted them. That makes Snakes on a Plane a little different from the tweaks that studios will sometimes order after a test screening suggests that some stretch of a film isn’t working or the ending needs to be changed. The filmmakers were being asked to punch up an imagined film rather than the one they had finished shooting the year before. That’s not to say there’s a massive contrast between the two things—Amadeus was not being retooled into Porky’s here—but there’s a notable incongruity, like slightly mismatched puzzle pieces fused together by an insistent thumb.
The director of Snakes on a Plane, David R. Ellis, had already established himself as B-movie schlockmaster for New Line. He had followed up the second (and, according to me, best) of the Final Destination movies with Cellular, which was essentially a tech-updated version of Phone Booth (and, like Phone Booth, rooted in a Larry Cohen script). It’s not as if Ellis doesn’t have a sense of humor—it would be foolish to make a film called Snakes on a Plane without one—but camp comedy isn’t the central thrust here, which might explain why this expected phenomenon wound up slipping away in the late-summer doldrums. A truer point of comparison would be the steady supply of Die Hard in a… thrillers that had been pumped out over the previous 15 years or so, often genetically spliced with Speed, a.k.a Die Hard on a Bus. (The most gloriously absurd of the bunch: 1999’s Chill Factor, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Skeet Ulrich as civilians who have to drive a chemical weapon around in an ice-cream truck, because it will explode if the temperature exceeds 50-degrees Fahrenheit.)
It’s fitting that Jackson, who starred in the late-to-the-party Jaws knockoff Deep Blue Sea, would be the right man for this late-to-the-party Die Hard knockoff, and his unpretentious bravado does right by both films. (His justification for appearing in Snakes on a Plane proved to be evergreen: “People go to movies on Saturday to get away from the war in Iraq and taxes and election news and pedophiles online and just go and have some fun and I like doing movies that are fun.”) There’s not a single wink of knowingness to Jackson’s performance as Neville Flynn, an FBI agent assigned to protect a witness (Nathan Phillips) due to testify against Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson), the sadistic leader of a crime ring. In transporting the witness from Hawaii to Los Angeles for the trial, the FBI attempts to pull off a ruse by putting him on a commercial flight rather than a private jet, but Kim is on to them.
The snakes on this plane are time-released from the cargo hold after takeoff, and pheromones have been added to the leis on board to make them aggressive. Pheromones are like cocaine for snakes, apparently. An overqualified Julianna Margulies co-stars as the flight attendant who helps Agent Flynn improvise a response to the chaos—Keri Russell is seemingly the Margulies of Cocaine Bear—and other recognizable faces slip into the film, too, including Bobby Cannavale as an agent who somehow isn’t a double-crosser, Todd Louiso as an exotic snake expert, and David Koechner as a handsy co-pilot. There’s also a pre-fame Taylor Kitsch as an early victim, who joins the Mile High Club before a snake cancels his and his girlfriend’s membership.
Kitsch’s death is kitsch: The snake, introduced via an unfortunate green-tinted POV cam that persists throughout, slips through a hole in the bathroom ceiling and chomps the naked woman square on the nipple. The film returns to the bathroom later, when a male passenger unzips to pee (“How’s my big boy?” he asks) and, well, you can see where that might be going. Here and elsewhere, Snakes on a Plane does have a sense of its own juvenile silliness, not unlike Davis’ Final Destination movie, which includes a remarkable sequence where a dislodged barbed-wire fence carves through a character’s torso like a hunk of Swiss cheese. It is fully aware that a gangster unleashing a time-released, lei-triggered, multi-continental assortment of poisonous snakes on a passenger plane is the most absurd of sinister plots.
And yet, it’s not self-aware. That’s where the pieces don’t fit between Snakes on a Plane as the internet imagined it and Snakes on a Plane the actual movie—and, based on the trailer alone, it would appear to be the difference between Snakes on a Plane and Cocaine Bear. For all the last-minute tinkering, internet virality did not lead to real-world success, with mediocre box office and ho-hum reviews. But even without the reshoots, it’s hard to imagine a version of the film that isn’t the ragged, disposable, mostly entertaining B-thriller that it is, which might have seemed like typical August fare at the time, but now, per reaction to the Gerard Butler-time passer Plane, feels like low-stakes ambrosia. This is not an argument for reviving a lost masterpiece from 17 years ago, but for returning the victim of a cultural hijacking. The war in Iraq is still with us, as are taxes and election news and pedophiles online. And Samuel L. Jackson still has a movie you might enjoy on a Saturday night.