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The Comedy of Errors

15 Years Later: Snakes on a Plane

18 August 21 words: Jamie Morris

Screen co-Editor Jamie Morris looks back on one of the best-worst movies ever made...

Director: David R. Ellis
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Margulies, Nathan Phillips
Running time: 106 minutes

If any film ever embodied the question “How did this get made?”, it’s Snakes on a Plane. Back in 2006, LeftLion listed it as one of five upcoming films to avoid, but we suggested that it “could be a contender for funniest movie of the year”. Fifteen years later, the brazen B-movie has garnered a reputation as the epitome of the so-bad-it’s-good subgenre that’s been kept alive by the likes of the Sharknado franchise. 

The ridiculous concept began as a pipe dream from university administrator David Dalessandro, who was inspired by a magazine article about tree snakes climbing onto planes in Guam during World War II. Dalessandro connected this image to the heart-pounding thrills of James Cameron’s Aliens and was convinced that “snakes on a plane” had cinematic potential.

Dalessandro’s script was rejected by thirty Hollywood studios before the Mutual Film Company decided to bite, and New Line Cinema came on board as a distributor soon after. Action director Ronny Yu was initially attached to helm the film (albeit later replaced by David R. Ellis), which brought it to the attention of his colleague and star-to-be Samuel L. Jackson.

“I knew I was going to do the movie when I saw the title,” Jackson told TIME. “I've always watched movies like that and they're funny and more exciting in some ways than doing regular dramas or straight-ahead action pictures.”

From there, the project spawned a burgeoning internet fanbase, who were as enthused by the title as Jackson and mocked up trailers and posters based on the little information they had. Mark Brown of The Guardian called it “perhaps the most internet-hyped film of all time”, and the online buzz gave distributor New Line Cinema the confidence to skip hosting press screenings and rely almost solely on word of mouth.

It’s as terrible as it sounds, but the boundless absurdity still makes for good entertainment

As for the film itself, you probably don’t need a fifteenth anniversary article to tell you that it’s as terrible as it sounds. With the exception of Jackson’s characteristically intense performance, there’s very little to actually praise – for the first twenty minutes or so, the film writhes about in an attempt to set up the plot, and the remainder of the running time is packed with nudity and gratuitous violence to the point of excess. 

That being said, the boundless absurdity still makes for good entertainment – a meeting of the “Mile High Club” gets an unexpected visitor, a guy becomes the main course after feeding a chihuahua to a python and Jackson drops two back-to-back F-bombs in the film’s most iconic line. It’s not like the film is trying to be bad, but rather it doesn’t care if it is. It exists in a critical vacuum as a result and it’s hard to resist watching with morbid fascination.

The sheer amount of explicit content was a last minute addition – the result of mandated reshoots with a view to boost the film’s age certificate from a PG-13 to an R. While this was a major contributing factor to its cult classic status in the long run, it backfired financially by limiting who could see it in cinemas. The film made just short of $14 million on its opening weekend – not quite a flop, but a disappointment considering all of the hype it had behind it. 

Snakes on a Plane failed to achieve its goal to become the film of the summer, but Jackson remained a staunch defender of his passion project at the 2006 MTV Movie Awards: “No movie shall triumph over Snakes on a Plane, unless I happen to feel like making a movie called More Motherfucking Snakes on More Motherfucking Planes.” Who can argue with that?

Did you know? Earlier this year, a large snake was seen slithering around on a train from Nottingham to Cardiff. We’re still awaiting confirmation on whether this was a publicity stunt for a sequel…

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