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August 23-29, 2006

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Snakes in Vain

By Annalee Newitz

I AM the only geek in San Francisco who didn't go to the drunken flash-mob event at a local movie theater where Snakes on a Plane was playing in dangerous proximity to a bar that serves extremely stiff martinis. Outrageous costumes were worn; sips of alcohol were timed to go down with various plot developments; there were many inebriated screams that included the epithet "motherfuckin' snakes on a motherfuckin' plane!"

Was it glorious dork anarchy? Or was it something more sinister—the kind of media-engineered, snake-eating-its-own-long-tail event that Bill Wasik claims he invented the "flash mob" to parody?

Believe me, I would have been there toasting the motherfucking snakes if I could have been. But Birthing of Millions was playing, and no amount of serpents and spirits could drag me away from Brian Nass on guitar. So now that we've established my complicity in the Snakes meme thing, despite my absence on opening night, we can proceed.

Snakes on a Plane became an Internet geek phenomenon instead of a pleasure reserved solely for dorks who like bad movies for the same reasons the "Star Wars kid" or "the Hamster Dance" became Internet phenomena. In short, it was weird and stupid and fun. One day, neuropsychologists may discover an area in the brain that lights up when we watch home movies of teenagers fighting with light sabers or campy action heroes battling snakes. But for now, Snakes' online popularity can only be explained via cultural analysis.

Bloggers began leaking information about this movie with a deliciously literal-minded title over a year ago, hailing it as a masterpiece of cheese. It had all the right ingredients required for hip ironic consumption: Samuel L. Jackson plus airplane disaster plus a whole bunch of snakes (both real and CG-enhanced). Soon, news about the flick was all over the net.

Some of its popularity was probably inspired by everybody's frustration with TSA regulations and long security lines in airports. Who hasn't wanted to yell something about motherfucking snakes on motherfucking planes after being made to take off jackets, shoes, belts, earrings and hats during the holiday rush in an airport, when the floor is covered in muddy, melted snow? (As if to underscore this association, a parody TSA announcement about banning snakes from planes was circulating in blogland last week.)

Internet fascination with the film reached critical mass last year when New Line Cinema threatened to rename it Pacific Air Flight 121, and Jackson convinced them to change it back. At that point, references to the movie were so commonplace on the Internet that the studio decided to promote it more, beef it up with extra footage and add a line to the script that had actually been invented by web fans imagining what Jackson's legendary Pulp Fiction character, Jules, would say: "That's it! I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!" In response, the fans went utterly nuts. The people in movieland were listening to the people in blogland! When this movie comes out, let's get totally motherfucking drunk and buy a million tickets!

As Quinn Norton pointed out on her blog, it's important to remember that nobody actually expects to like this movie. To the extent that we do like Snakes, we're getting pleasure out of it as a joke—a joke on itself for being so flagrantly silly, but also as the butt of jokes we've made about it for the past year online. Of course, there is the less-acknowledged joke Snakes plays on us when we buy tickets to see a movie which can never be as cool or creative as the videos, songs, posters and satires people have already published about it for free on the Internet.

Trying to imitate the strategy that led to Snakes' pre-release buzz, the SciFi Channel recently invited its fans to name an upcoming made-for-TV movie "about a giant squid." Haven't heard of Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep? Maybe it's because the name the SciFi folks picked was exactly the sort of dopey thing they'd normally slap on a story about sea monsters. Apparently, they passed over some ideas that might actually have gotten them the hipster cache that Snakes garnered for New Line. Among the discarded titles were Killamari and Tentacles 8, Humans 2.

I thought vaguely that I should go see Snakes, or at least set the DVR to catch Kraken. But the fact is that I'd rather watch all the YouTube parodies tonight.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who would be happy to buy tickets to see 'Sharks on a Roller Coaster.'

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