Watching Snakes on a Plane on a Plane

Digital Fusion TIFF File

Chris Neumer takes movie watching to another level… that of 35,000 feet. Nothing could have prepared him for the experience of watching Snakes on a Plane on a plane.

by Chris Neumer

I am genuinely terrified of two things in life: going to the dentist and flying. Dealing with snakes and watching horror movies don’t quite make my A-list of fears, but are definitely permanent residents in the category of things I deem “extremely unpleasant”.  I understand that certain people enjoy being frightened, I’m just not one of them.  I just can’t fathom how people are able to translate that emotion into entertainment value or why people would proactively seek out the experience of being scared. My standard thought on the matter is this: I don’t need to pay good money to be scared. I can read the headlines of a newspaper for free.

When New Line sent me a DVD of their latest horror flick, Snakes on a Plane, I laughed; there wasn’t a chance I was going to see the movie. It contained three of my four least favorite things; if director David Ellis could only have somehow worked in a soundtrack by Radiohead or Thom Yorke, that would have earned the film recognition from me as the scariest movie ever made, just barely supplanting Tommy Lee Jones’ The Hunted from the top spot.

But then a funny thing happened: packing for a recent trip down to Puerto Vallarta, I accidentally brought the DVD for Snakes on a Plane with me. When I saw the disc in my suitcase, a variation of Ian McKellen’s statement to Elijah Wood in The Fellowship of the Ring played through my head: “The movie is trying to get into your DVD player. It wants to be watched.”

Talking to a fellow journalist in Mexico, I happened to mention off-handedly that I had the DVD for Snakes on a Plane with me and went on to say that if I watched it on a plane, I could write column about the matter with one of the best titles I’d ever come up with: Watching “Snakes on a Plane on a Plane”. As soon as I said it, I knew that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make use of that title. Like it or not, I was going to watch Snakes on a Plane. On a plane.

Snakes on a Plane made a name for itself in 2006 thanks to the amazing amounts of pre-release press the film received. Unlike certain movies like The Queen that have Oscar buzz or films like The Last King of Scotland that have elements of real life controversy surrounding them, entertainment writers latched on to Snakes on a Plane for one reason: New Line decided to let the project keep its working title, Snakes on a Plane.

For the uninformed, working titles are temporary names that are given to projects while the projects are in different stages of development. Since the working titles are, by very definition, temporary, no thought goes into their creation at all. If a studio is making a yet-to-be-titled comedy about two bank robbers who go on an interstate crime spree, there’s a good chance the project’s working title could be Bank Robbers or Another Bank Robbery Movie. As New Line pushed John Heffernan and Sebastian Guiterrez’s script about a Hong Kong gangster who releases hundreds of poisonous snakes on a trans-Pacific flight to Los Angeles into development, they saddled the script with the title Snakes on a Plane. And it stuck. Star Samuel L. Jackson has commented that the only reason he made the film was because of its name (and when you see the quality of the movie itself, you’ll know that there is probably some truth in this statement; it’s a lot easier to buy this rationale than one where Jackson was won over by the film’s dialogue or character arcs).

Snakes on a Plane is a supremely rare movie in this respect. It is the only film in cinematic history to have peaked several months before it was ever released. While Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo earned abysmal reviews upon its opening, critics soon came to their senses and the film presently is viewed as one of the ten best ever made. The exact opposite of this scenario is Snakes on a Plane. Thanks entirely to a non-catchy title that caught on, Ellis’ movie reached its popular zenith in May or June of 2006, well short of its August premiere. And despite this near constant word-of-mouth about the film, Snakes on a Plane only opened with a $15 million weekend, on its way to a disappointing $34 million haul.

My plan is to watch Snakes on a Plane on my laptop on the latter half of my flight from Puerto Vallarta back to Chicago. Since my laptop battery only lasts for about two hours when I’m watching DVDs, I’m excited to learn that the running time for the film is 105 minutes. This way, I could be assured of knowing how the film ends and whether Samuel L. or the snakes win.

My flight is barely even half filled. I’m in an exit row and there is no one else in it with me. There is a 40-something man in the row ahead of me and a jovial 60-something husband and wife in the row behind me, all of whom have portable DVD players with them. When the man seated behind me sees me pull out my Mac laptop, he pauses the movie he is watching and asks me what I do. He prefaces his question to me by telling me that he’s only asking because Mac people generally have interesting stories to tell. I relate to him that I write about film and the conversation soon shifts to what he’s watching. He chuckles and tells me that he’s finishing up the movie Red Eye, with Cillian Murphy and Rachel McAdams.

I squint at him and, addressing my own insecurities with Snakes on a Plane, ask him, “Aren’t you nervous about watching a movie where a stranger kidnaps someone on a commercial flight while you’re on a commercial flight yourself?”

The man shrugs and says he hadn’t really given much thought to it. Then he asks me what I’m going to be watching. It’s my turn to laugh. And I walk him through my idea about writing a column from the experience of watching Snakes on a Plane on a plane. The man smiles, nods and admits it sounds interesting.

“It’d be like watching The Blair Witch Project in a dark woods for the first time,” I tell him. “Something interesting is bound to happen while watching Snakes on a Plane on a plane.”

“That’s a good point,” the man concurs. “And it’s not like the airlines would ever show that as an in-flight movie anyway.”

As we begin debating what the worst choices for in-flight movies might be – Alive and Cast Away quickly zoom to the top of our list – I stop and gape at the 40-year old sitting in the row ahead of me. The debate is over. Undeterred by karma or good old fashioned common sense, I am agog to see that the passenger in row 15 is watching director Paul Greengrass’ United 93.

“Maybe he feels comfortable because we’re flying American,” I say slowly. The 60-something year old man behind me bursts out laughing and tells me that has to be the case. I nod and finish our conversation by stating that, with that in mind, United 93 has to be one hell of a great marketing tool for Southwest and Delta.

When I stepped onto my flight that afternoon, I felt as though I might be doing something different and unique by watching an aeronautical themed horror film on an actual plane; different and unique enough to merit its own column. As it turns out, my watching Snakes on a Plane won’t even be the most intriguing movie-watching experience on my plane. The guy ahead of me earns that. But I stay resolute and press forward – or, more accurately, the play button.

And Snakes on a Plane is upon me.

The first notable occurrence of the viewing – and something I had never even considered as a potential problem – is the awkwardness that overwhelms me when the movie’s first nude scene hits. My laptop has a 17″ monitor and very early on in the film, a young couple ducks into the plane’s bathroom in order to join the mile high club. Because the operative word for the film is ‘gratuity’, the Snakes on a Plane screenwriters have the female get completely naked in her encounter with her boyfriend. I’m not sure what woman in her right mind would take off her shirt, bra and pants in a heated tryst in an airplane lavatory, but this is what I get to view: a blonde actress with enormous breasts, almost completely naked, making out with a guy with washboard abs.

Suddenly, I become very aware of the people around me. I glance back at the 60-something woman sitting behind me and making some very uncomfortable eye contact with her. It’s doubtful that she can see what’s on my screen, but the problem is that I know what’s going on. I start scanning through the scene. I am almost through the nudity when the man behind me taps me on my shoulder to ask me something. My finger slips off the fast-forward button and the movie pauses on an image of the aforementioned blonde actress, topless with a snake biting down on her nipple. The man starts to say something, sees the screen, stops himself and says, “Now that lady looks like she’s got a problem.”

As the plane in the movie starts to suffer from some severe electrical problems and an assortment of other malfunctions thanks to the snakes, Ellis and his sound mixing team significantly upped the ante. Instead of continuing the smooth underlining hum that is present in all airplanes or scenes that are set on airplanes, the Snakes on a Plane sound team starts to monkey with the hum. It will cut out for a second or two; it will vibrate; it will bounce up and down like the sound equivalent of a sine wave; and, worst of all, at seemingly random times, the hum it will go up an octave or two.

The first time the hum rises, I feel a cold rush of adrenaline surge through my body. My limbs tingle and tighten as I wonder just what the hell is happening to my real life plane. These sounds are not comforting. I pause the movie in order to hear if the captain is going to make an announcement and the problematic whining of the engines instantly goes away. I press the space bar on my keyboard a number of times to start and stop the movie to make sure that the ornery plane noises are coming from the movie and not my plane. They are. Mistaking the sounds of Ellis’ movie for my own plane makes me feel pretty stupid. Not as stupid as when I heard the cinematographer’s cell phone ring while watching the director’s commentary of Kissing Jessica Stein and tried to answer my own phone, but still, kind of stupid.

The rest of Snakes on a Plane passes surprisingly smoothly. There are a few times when I have to pause the movie to make sure that it’s not my own plane that I hear falling apart, but these instances are few and far between. When we finally land in Chicago, the 60-something man behind me asks how everything went. I answer honestly and tell him it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I’d anticipated. “You probably have my wife to thank for that,” the man grins.

I have a look of utter confusion on my face because the man’s wife looks at me and explains, “You know that one scene where the snakes start dropping onto the passengers with the oxygen masks?” I nod affirmatively. The woman shoots her husband a look, gives him a good-natured swat, and says, “When he saw the snakes hanging down from the ceiling, he immediately took off his belt and was going to dangle it over your head until I grabbed it out of his hands.” Just in case I didn’t believe her, the woman opens her purse and shows me the man’s belt that she has been hiding from him.

For some reason it’s even funnier because the woman didn’t think she could trust her husband with the belt at any point in time during the rest of the flight. “I still think it would have been funny,” the man says, and he’s probably right. But this is a topic I will leave for my viewing of the film’s inevitable sequel Snakes in a Dentist’s Office – a film I will be in no hurry to watch at all. And this time, I’m dead serious… unless I can come up with a great title in the meantime.

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