Like Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose, the first verse of Howl by Alan Ginsberg, Angelina Jolie’s lips, Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, or delicate chocolate flecks in mint ice cream, the sound of Samuel L. Jackson saying “Motherfucker,” is sublime. No one says it quite like him. It is as artful as Pavorotti’s high c, and a lot less showy than Cirque du Soleil. It is his Pietà and in Snakes on a Plane he uses it sparingly, but very effectively.
In case you missed 2007 Snakes on a Plane was not just a movie, not even just a Samuel L. Jackson movie, but a full blown Internet sensation, hyped on the Internet by fanboys (and girls) who eagerly anticipated the movie’s opening by posting their own SoaP posters and fan literature even before they have seen little more than a trailer. They created websites and even wrote some dialogue—most notably, “I have had it with these mother fucking snakes on this mother fucking plane!”—that eventually made it in to the film all based on the allure of a simple, but very silly title.
The beauty of the narrative is in its simplicity. There’s a plane. There are snakes. Samuel L. Jackson wants the snakes off the plane. End of story.
“There’s not a lot you need to say about that,” says Jackson of the film’s plot. “As long as people get bitten and there’s blood and you see the snakes on the people’s arms, or on their breasts or in their face or wherever they’re getting bit, it’s different.”
The idea for the film hatched in the mid ’90s, when David Dalessandro read about a Hawaiian Forestry Service employee whose job it was to catch non-indigenous snakes at the Honolulu airport that had stowed away on flights from Guam. “I said, ‘Well gee wiz, what if one of the snakes that came over was poisonous? Just what if?’”
The resulting script, Venom, kicked around Hollywood for years, but didn’t catch fire until screenwriter Josh Friedman was brought on board. On his blog, I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing, he wrote about the movie and introduced the now famous line. On-line response to the line was so explosive the name of the film was changed from Venom (and later Pacific Flight 121) to Snakes on a Plane.
The line and title not only caught on with audiences but with its prospective star. “I was reading the trades and I saw ‘Ronny Yu to do Snakes on a Plane,’” says Jackson, “and I knew Ronny so I emailed him to see what it was, hoping it wasn’t a euphemism for something else and it was what I thought it was: poisonous snakes, loose on a plane.”
“Everyone thought it was a joke: Snakes on a Plane, what a stupid title,” said Dalessandro. “But the title doesn’t mean that it’s a spoof. If somebody made a movie called A Policeman in a Skyscraper, and it was made as well as Diehard, no one would care what the title is.”
Classic though the movie line may be, it didn’t translate well to network television. Somehow “I have had it with these monkey fighting snakes on this Monday to Friday plane” didn’t have as much oomph as the original.