Hollywood’s most anticipated movie opens today, Snakes on a Plane—perhaps you’ve heard of it? Here is my prediction: It will fail. It will fail because it is already a runaway success. Or, the title is. And, really, the title is the film.
The genius of the title is that it capitalizes on two basic fears. Many people are afraid of flying. And who isn’t creeped out by snakes? Like peanut butter and jelly, Lennon and McCartney, Sacco and Vanzetti, it’s a killer combination. But critics and ultimately moviegoers will condemn the film for failing to deliver on the promise of the title, and on this score they will be correct. Because no matter the film’s merits, it can never match a title so powerfully evocative that everyone who hears it instantly creates the perfect horror movie in their head.
Screenwriter Josh Friedman writes a Hollywood-insider blog about his adventures in the screen trade, “I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing.” He recounts getting a call from his agent early in the Snakes development process; he took the meeting entirely because of the title. “It’s perfect. Perfect. It’s the Everlasting Gobstopper of movie titles,” he wrote. “What else do you need to know? How the snakes get on the plane, what the snakes do once they’re on the plane, who puts the snakes on the plane, who is trying to get the snakes off the plane…This is not for you to ponder. There are snakes on the plane. End of fucking story.”
Exactly. And end of movie. However star Samuel L. Jackson saves the day is, at this point, beside the point. Once film geeks became aware of the title, the international cabal of Internet-connected, overly media-savvy and -saturated fanboys sprang into action, making up their own Snakes on a Plane. From blogs such as Snakes on a Blog and Snakes on a Whatever, to YouTube trailer mashups, the movie quickly became a paradigm, a tabula rasa onto which everyone could project their own snake onto their particular plane. So the movie disappeared into the construct: Whatever on a Whatever.
The Snakes on a Plane that exists online best captures the essence of the title. Against all the possibilities that the online community has already presented, and continues to generate, even the great Mace Windu is powerless.
The closest comparison with the Snakes phenomenon is The Blair Witch Project in 1999. Though that film’s Internet buzz was in part studio generated, what the films share in common is that they are more concept than motion picture. Everyone I know who saw Blair Witch after it was featured on the cover of both Time and Newsweek hated it. And rightly so. Lured by the hype over a seemingly nonfiction horror flick, what moviegoers saw on the screen was a whole lot of blackness and shaky camerawork worse than your grandfather’s home movies.
It had to be fake, yet I and many others were more than willing to suspend our disbelief. However, I saw The Blair Witch Project once and never felt the need to watch again. Even on cable. Snakes on a Plane will be the same. Hear the title and you’ve already seen it. And you’ll never see it again.
Illustration by Doug Boehm