A column about snakes and planes

Flying isn’t what it used to be. For years now, the security wowsers have been whittling back the enjoyment of what was once one of life’s true pleasures. They took our boxcutters and scissors – terrible news for those who need to complete inflight craft projects. They took our liquids, punishing anyone who needs to reapply hair gel over the Pacific. They’ve even taken away our laptops and iPods on some flights, forcing us to endure the built-in entertainment system – or, worse still, talk to other passengers.

I haven’t been reduced to listening to the Qantas inflight audio in years, thankfully, but when I last did most of it seemed to be hosted by Mike Hammond. Really, how much more of this we can take?

While the actual act of flying is becoming increasingly stressful and unpleasant because of these restrictions, aeroplane disasters are becoming a popular culture staple. Lost memorably begins with one, and United 93 and World Trade Center are only the latest in a long line of films to use them as a backdrop for drama. But all these stories have been unrelentingly serious. It’s been a long time since a comedy was set on what’s now our scariest form of transport – right back to Flying High, probably.

But now there is Snakes On A Plane, the movie with the most brilliantly literal title in cinema history. When you hear it, along with the fact that it stars Samuel L. Jackson, the movie practically writes itself. And that’s exactly what happened on the internet. Thousands of bloggers were so taken by the name, with all the cheesy B-movie goodness it promises, that they began producing sample dialogue, song, movie posters – even mocked up scenes. Never before has such a thin premise produced such an avalanche of content.

The studio, New Line, was initially worried that the project was heading too far down the camp road, mistakenly believing that the best marketing pitch would be that the film realistically evoked the scenario of a crate of snakes getting loose on an aeroplane. They changed its name to Pacific Air Flight 121, and reined the script in, aiming for a PG rating. The internet exploded in criticism, and so did the film’s star, who had decided to commit to the project purely on the basis of its schlocky title.

Sensibly, the studio gave into the baying of the blogosphere. They changed the name back, and added an extra 5 days of shooting – almost all adding graphic R-rated (in America) scenes. Jackson had made the excellent point that when hundreds of snakes appeared mid-flight, people might swear a little, and the studio even added the line that the fans had predicted must surely be in there, and hadn’t been, when Jackson exclaimed “I have had it with these mother&$%#^@ snakes on this mother%$#%$# plane!” Giving the film a dramatic turning point as deliciously obvious as the film’s title. And lo, the fans were happy.

Our jaded, media-saturated society can see through marketing hype. But the hype over this film came from the grassroots. So much of the internet is about large communities agreeing on what’s funny, and even though the studio initially fought against the self-conscious ridiculousness of their film, they guaranteed themselves an instant audience when they decided to embrace the corniest B-movie conventions.

Nowadays, we see potential aeroplane disasters on the nightly news as well as at the multiplex. So it’s no wonder that in an increasingly worrying world, we are crying out for self-consciously silly entertainment. While reality remains this dramatic, the market for escapist silliness will remain strong. Which is why I’m currently developing a comedy-horror movie, Giant Squid On A Chairlift. (Tagline: “It really sucks. You.”) I just hope Samuel L. Jackson’s available.