Plot: Hawaii, the present. Gangland figure Eddie Kim executes a district attorney who is building a case against him. Tourist Sean Jones witnesses the murder and is swiftly identified by Kim’s mob. FBI agent Flynn rescues Sean, and convinces him to testify against Kim in Los Angeles. Though a heavily guarded private jet is dispatched as a diversion, Flynn arranges to get Sean to LA on a commercial overnight flight. Kim learns of this plan, conceals a collection of poisonous or otherwise lethal snakes in the cargo hold and sprays the garlands to be draped around the passengers’ necks with a pheromone that will drive them into a killing frenzy. Flynn and Sean take over first class, displacing businessman Paul, toy dog-clutching glamour girl Mercedes and the entourage of rapper Three G’s. The snakes get loose and bite and kill many passengers and crew. Paul feeds Mercedes’ dog to an anaconda, which then eats him. As Flynn copes with the situation, he bonds with both Sean, who acts heroically, and flight attendant Claire. On the ground, Flynn’s superior and a snake expert track down Kim’s snake supplier, who is coerced into giving a confession which will result in Kim being indicted for mass murder. Before landing Flynn shoots a hole in the plane, and the snakes are sucked out. With the pilot and co-pilot dead, Three G’s videogame-expert bodyguard Troy successfully lands the plane. The survivors are treated with anti-venom while Sean and Flynn arrange dates with the cute stewardesses; later, they take a surfing holiday together (adapted from Newman 81-82).
Film Note Superficially, Snakes on a Plane is a Hollywood “novelty” product, a typically exploitative crowd-pleaser that does not lend itself to symptomatic readings. The film is seemingly uninterested in coherent narrative direction, expressive mise-en-scène, or in-depth characterization, instead preferring to revel in the incongruence of its initial premise, its solipsistic performances and a knowing acknowledgment of its ridiculous narrative operations. However, analysis of Snakes’ production, marketing and film style reveals the film to be an exemplar of “the age of postmodern cinema”, a clear indicator of a wider postmodern condition shaping US culture that disavows any extant political content (Boggs and Pollard 175). The film also reveals how Hollywood movies reflect the historical and cultural context in which they are produced almost in spite of their attempts to claim otherwise. In the case of Snakes this engagement comes through an unwitting regurgitation of a broad post-9/11 social anxiety.
The perils of postmodernism Attempts to define the “postmodern” are paradoxical: indeed, one of the generally accepted tenets of postmodern theory is a rejection of “grand narratives”. However, certain characteristics recur in critical writing on the subject. Tom Boggs and Carl Pollard, for example, note that “…in its elaborate celebration of images, glamour, and spectacles, [the cinema] arguably contained strong elements of the postmodern ethos from its very inception at the turn of the century” (171). This “postmodern ethos” can be summarised as the propensity of a text, in this case a film, “….to be non or anti-essentialist… [providing no] fixed meaning” (Hayward 160), to see “…the past as a supermarket source that the artist raids for whatever she or he wants” (Hayward 163), and to acknowledge (or even celebrate) that “we now live […] in a world of simulations, of hyper-reality, which has no reality beyond itself” (Hill 98). As I will describe below, these general tenets can be seen clearly in Snakes.
A major contributing factor to Snakes’ postmodern style is its troubled production, including significant post-production changes as well as a period of reshooting. While the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a takeover of MTV Films by New Line were unavoidable setbacks (forcing prudent narrative adjustments), a change in director due to creative differences meant that the title, rating and content were also altered late in the day. This disorganization is arguably a contributing factor to Snakes’ incoherent look and feel, exemplified by a narrative littered with disjointed episodes and instantaneous transformations in mood and aesthetics. To take one example, romance and comedy are uncomfortably juxtaposed with tension and horror. At the film’s climax, Mercedes is almost sucked out of the plane, yet Ken comes to her rescue at the last second; the pair then share longing looks suggesting romantic feelings that can’t help but appear incongruous in a setting surrounded by their fellow passengers suffering horrible deaths.
Director David R. Ellis (who replaced Hong Kong horror-comedy director Ronny Yu in pre-production) stated that the reshoots were conducted to answer fans’ demands for more gore and violence, while other claims suggested “…the re-shoots weren’t prompted by the fans but rather existing footage that already was a hairline into R territory” (Kit). Further confusion regarding the intended tone and mood of the film are evidenced by the change of title from Snakes on a Plane to Pacific Air Flight 121 during production. Ellis claimed that the title alteration was “…pursued to attract actors to the project, and because studio executives thought [that the original title] was too silly and gave too much of the plot away’ (qtd. in Kit). However, in response, star Samuel L. Jackson declared; “We’re totally changing that back. That’s the only reason I took the job; the title” (qtd. in Beaks 21). Such confusion among the film’s creative personnel is indicative of the commercial over-determination of Snakes and this willingness to engage in content re-positioning in order to meet a variety of (sometimes conflicting) market demands may well be the dominant factor shaping postmodern cinema.
Postmodern cinema is recognized for “eclecticism, the mixing of avant-garde and popular conventions […] and an ironic play with surface signifiers” (Hill 100). Further, Boggs and Pollard argue, “…postmodern film narratives and styles tend to be broken, discontinuous, and pastiche-like, perhaps aesthetically compelling, but rarely consonant with anything but the most ludic or surreal discourse” (172). The film’s reliance on miscellaneous generic elements (without calling on the wider genres from which they have been taken) arguably exemplifies this tendency to reduce cinema to a repository of different styles. Snakes is an amalgamation of recycled motifs taken from the horror, romance, action, comedy and disaster movie genres: a terrorist threat to plane travel recalls Air Force One (1997), the creature-inspired comedy recalls Arachnophobia (1990). Samuel L. Jackson’s characterization of Flynn references his earlier roles as Shaft in Shaft (2000) and Jules in Pulp Fiction (1994). Indeed, many of these films are themselves avowedly in a postmodern mold, with the latter two pastiches of 1970s blaxploitation. The film also riffs on low-budget “creature features” such as Anaconda (1997) and Lake Placid (1999), which themselves draw on conventions dating back to Universal’s “monster” pictures of the 1930s and 1940s. These genre fragments are combined and filtered through a B-movie aesthetic, exemplified by soft-core sex, gratuitous gore and poor-quality CGI.
This amalgamation of different film styles and deliberate “shlocky” special effects evokes Frederic Jameson’s proclamation that “images (or signs) are simply used to satisfy consumers’ voracious appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudo events and ‘spectacles’” (18). Jameson argues that postmodern film represents a new, depthless culture of “the image or the simulacrum”, something that can certainly be said of Snakes. For example, when an (unnamed) man is bitten in a toilet cubicle, the snake’s appearance oscillates from a rubber re-creation, to computer effects, to a blurred POV from the snakes’ perspective and then finally to a shot of a real snake slithering under the passenger seats. This bricolage of different styles points to an emphasis on spectacle rather than any coherent aesthetic, and makes no attempt to depict a unified diegetic reality.
Parallels might be drawn between Snakes’ combination of disparate aesthetic styles that produce a commodity with no clear purpose and the fragmentation of US party politics. Here, individual figureheads attach party politics to specific debates such as abortion and gay rights, and thereby reject an overarching theme or common party direction. Instead of a coherent political programme, they instead deliver policy in media soundbites. Political groups and leaders contest a narrow middle ground: policies are arguably subject not to an ideological drive but rather to presenting a voter-friendly media image. These different positions rarely add up, much like the narrative in Snakes, and both can be seen as examples of the depthless culture of the image Jameson identifies.
Exploiting 9/11 According to John Hill, Hollywood blockbusters “innoculat[e themselves] against being read too straight” (101). Independence Day (1996), for example, invests “its conservative militarism with a measure of tongue-in-cheek knowingness” (Hill 101). In Snakes, although the general tone is playful and postmodern, characters are also continuously instructed to stick together, possibly indicating a political message. A businessman, a high-society “princess” and a celebrity rapper are all relegated to the economy-class compartment, forcing them into the same situation and environment as the general populace. Here, hierarchies of race and class, as well as boundaries between the sexes, are broken and the characters are united by fear, cooperating in Hollywood’s formulaic and familiar survivalist narrative paradigm of ”us” versus “them”. This united front arguably mirrors the jingoistic patriotism that appeared in political speeches and media headlines in the US in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as in television programmes such as 24 (2001- ongoing). Here, US popular culture focused on stories of selfless heroism and solidarity, while simultaneously fostering support for a commitment to war.
Mike Chopra-Gant describes how in the news “real events are [in some cases] constructed […] using the templates of fictional narrative cinema” (100). This is perhaps a result of the fact that Time Warner, owner of New Line Cinema, also owns CNN: one media conglomerate is responsible for both televised news as well as escapist entertainment. This blurs the distinction between fact and fiction and was exacerbated by the fact that, “several weeks after the attacks, the Bush administration called on Hollywood directly to help ‘communicate’–or rather, market–the new war on terror to the American people” (Faludi 6). Bush declared that, “this is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace” and that “America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism” (Bush). It is little wonder that some have since described the events of 9/11 as “just like a film” (Chopra-Gant 100).
The American public’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks was contradictory. E. Ann Kaplan suggests that she herself was endemic of this, “…experience[ing] the multiple, spontaneous activities from multiple perspectives, genders, races and religions or non-religions. Things were not shaped for a specific effect, nor apparently controlled by one entity” (13). Kaplan argues that the reaction of Americans to the events conveyed a postmodernist multiplicity, prompting confused and contradictory emotions. Kaplan states that “[t]he gap where the Twin Towers had stood in the weeks that followed became a space full of horror but also of heroism” (12). Further complicating a reading of the American mindset, Susan Faludi uses phrases such as “cocooning” and “still sleepwalking” in her descriptions of the America public, who she claims were protected from reality by the media following the attack (2-4). On the other hand, 9/11 has been often cited as a day when the populace was awakened from a dream state; their comfortable hyper-reality was threatened by an attack that physically shook the ground they stood on, and fomented an interest in contemporary politics and world events rarely evident in the 1990s. Snakes therefore emerged into a climate of contradictory attitudes, the mentality of the American public caught in flux.
Snakes was initially conceived in 1999 so its genesis lies in the period preceding 9/11. However, somewhat inevitably, Snakes was influenced by, and attempted to exploit, a climate of fear that developed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Initially studio executives were reluctant to engage with 9/11. This led to the postponement of Snakes’ production in the same way that Flightplan (2005), another film showing in-flight terrorism, was delayed. These films re-emerged a number of years later as part of a cycle that sought to exploit the now more distant, though still keenly remembered, anxiety felt in the aftermath of 9/11. Films featuring claustrophobic in-flight terror such as Snakes, Flightplan and Redeye (2005) were arguably designed to exploit audiences’ desire to return to the event. As the producer of Flightplan, Robert DiNozzi, puts it, by 2005 “…post-9/11 is a different animal. We take advantage of the level of tension and paranoia that is out there now” (qtd. in Kit). Other films released in 2006 such as United 93 and World Trade Centre offered more direct (and sentimental) accounts indicating Hollywood’s attempt to cater to a variety of public moods post 9/11.
Fans as authors Possibly Snakes’ only claim to a unique space in film history is the pre-release hysteria it generated in the online community. Unlike The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Cloverfield (2008), films that generated internet sensations through their highly calculated online promotions, the reaction to Snakes was spontaneous, organic and ultimately opened up extensive possibilities for film production and marketing. Simply the announcement of the film’s title prompted a surge of interest on the internet, as “…over 2 million people visited the film’s official website before any paid promotion was instigated by New Line” (Klady, Mitchell and Mitchell 5). Members of the public formed discussion groups, produced T-shirts, comics, photo-groups and formed internet ‘tribes’ to celebrate the possibilities of the film based on the title alone. Excitement was intensified with the casting of Samuel L. Jackson (who went public with his own enthusiasm for the project). Snakes became an internet phenomenon without incurring major marketing costs, a phenomenon which New Line took note of.
Ignoring the inevitable copyright infringements of fan-produced material, New Line approved re-shooting certain scenes to incorporate the suggestions of fans. As such, the audience–who are often perceived as passive viewers–became active participants in the film’s production process. As Chris Hewitt notes, “…it’s a movie that’s not only been supported by fan interest but shaped by it…[it] took fan interaction to a whole new level” (93). George Waud, Vice-President of Development at New Line, indicates that though the studio were happy to engage with this fan interest, they were unsure what approach to take: “…Our feeling was always confused, we shouldn’t f**k with this […] so we had nothing to do with it. We just let it happen” (qtd. in Hewitt 93). However, despite Waud’s rhetoric about Snakes representing a new democratic approach to filmmaking, New Line actively sought to exploit the situation: they embraced merchandise made by fans but also produced their own commodities, such as T-shirts, calendars, pendants and posters, all of which were sold via the official website and Amazon.com (partially owned by Time Warner). New Line also actively encouraged fan participation by adding links and tools for website creation and development on their official page. They collaborated with social network ‘Tagworld’ for an online music competition, and set up a downloadable customised phone call by Samuel L. Jackson. Evidence of a contradiction between New Line’s apparent ease with fans’ shaping and promoting the film, and their desire to maximize profit was demonstrated by the declaration that there would be no press screenings. New Line claimed it was so fans would get to see the film first. However, others have alleged that the decision was taken out of fear that potentially negative reviews arising from such screenings would harm the film’s chances and damage the positive pre-release buzz generated by the internet interest.
The term ‘world wide web’ was invented in 1989, and the 1990s and early 2000s has been an era defined by the rise of the internet and an online generation. The internet arguably epitomises postmodernism, and cyberspace has been read as a cipher for philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s notion of hyper-reality. Here, our “new social reproductive order [is] based upon communication and the circulation of signs” (qtd. in Hill 98). Web-based communications are a symptom of an increasing detachment from reality. Ideas are connected with an abstract string of URLs, existing in a digital universe where identities are often uncertain: bloggers remain faceless, their social, racial and sexual identities frequently deemed irrelevant. Computer game environments such as World of Warcraft and Second Life allow the creation of virtual avatars who lead a life separate from their users. Hall describes the postmodern subject as having, “…no fixed, essential or permanent identity… assuming different identities at different times” (qtd. in Hill 97). Richard Maltby defines Hollywood’s commercial aesthetic as determined by a similar principle, an opportunist congregation of different elements that are determined by “multiple logics” and “competing and conflicting impulses” (51). The two are undoubtedly similar, but were ultimately incompatible in this instance. Therefore, New Line’s dependence on the forced augmentation of these two unpredictable entities is arguably a core reason for Snakes’ failure at the box office. Despite the internet furor, Snakes took only $15.2m on its first weekend, and its theatrical run ended less than a month after release.
Lacking a unified aesthetic and narrative coherence, Snakes became a victim of Hollywood’s own contradictory postmodern commercial aesthetic. The film’s postmodern and amorphous relationship with its contemporary audience and events, as well as the oscillation between moods and point of views, resulted in a convoluted commodity and a confusing experience. Strangely however, Snakes’ demise has not marked the end of Hollywood’s indulgence in “fan-friendly” (arguably) unadulterated trash. Films in the Snakes mould are continuing to be made, fuelled by the success of 3D, including Piranha 3D (2010), Shark Nights 3D (2011) and the upcoming Piranha 3DD (2012). Whether this cycle will ultimately prove successful may rest on Hollywood coming fully to terms with the unpredictability of the internet.
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Bush, George. “Statement by the President in His Address to the Nation”. The White House.com. Sep. 11 2001. Web. 28 Dec. 2008.
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Hewitt, Chris, “The New James Bond? There’s No Snakes In That!” Empire. 207 (2006): 92-96. Print.
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Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London & New York: Verso, 1991. Print.
Kaplan, E. Ann. Trauma Culture: The Politics of Terror and Loss in Media and Literature. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005. Print.
Kit, Borys, “Fan frenzy for snakes is on a different plane”. Hollywood Reporter.com. 23 Ma. 2006. Web. 20 Dec. 2008.
Klady, Leonard, Robert Mitchell and Wendy Mitchell, “Snakes on the Brain.” Screen International 1558 (August 2006). 4-5. Print
Maltby, Richard. Hollywood Cinema. London: Blackwell, 2003. Print.
Newman, Kim. “Review: Snakes on a Plane”. Sight and Sound. 16.11 (2006): 81-82. Print.
Written by Julian Ross (2009); edited by Ben Skelton (2011), Queen Mary, University of London.
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Copyright © 2012 Julian Ross/Mapping Contemporary Cinema