Snakes on a Plane

Snakes on a Plane

The Post-9/11 American Mind

This B-movie helps us address our existential fear and phantasmic preoccupations.

Jason Del Gandio

At thirty thousand feet above sea level, Snakes on a Plane is a basic Hollywood movie: exciting stunts, goofy one-liners, campy performances, gratuitous sex, unneeded violence, and serious pre-release hype in search of a foregone market conclusion. The movie itself does little to advance cinematic aesthetics, and it squeaks by with a semblance of entertainment value. It is a Hollywood B-movie, period. However, at ground level, the movie is something else altogether: a vehicle with wide open windows staring straight into the post-9/11 American mind—a mind plagued by existential fear and phantasmic preoccupations.

The movie easily compares to the events of September 11th: the snakes equal terrorists; the plane in the movie equals the planes of 9/11; fear of snakes equals our fear of terrorism; the movie’s evil mastermind equals the likes of Osama bin Laden; the movie’s F.B.I. action hero equals our governmental and military heroes; the anxiety of the movie’s passengers equals our own anxieties; etc. These basic comparisons are obvious, but there is more to the story. We begin that story with America’s obsession with fear.

Killer Snakes and Dust Bunny Minds

Snakes on a Plane fits perfectly with Barry Glassner’s book, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things (1999). The book argues that Americans are not only obsessed with fear, but we obsess over the wrong fears as a way to ignore our actual fears. Plenty of examples are given. For instance, we focus upon asbestos in our schools when in fact we are worried about our failing education system. We focus upon workplace violence and our colleagues “going postal” when in fact we are worried about the job insecurity of corporate America. And we focus upon the ever-increasing occurrence of road rage when in fact we are worried about our over-dependency on pollution-generating automobiles. The book’s main point is clear: Our social mind ignores the real issues, conveniently sweeping them into the dark corners of the collective unconscious, creating three-headed killer dust bunnies that suffocate our ability to make rational judgments. In other words, our social problems don’t get resolved but only compounded and we turn our actual fears—say, the government’s inability to protect us—into inflated and erroneous fears—like life-sucking snakes on a nightmarish plane ride.

This example from Snakes on a Plane may seem far-fetched and fictionalized. But that movie does not sit alone on some idealized pedestal untouched by real world relations. Our movies are part and parcel of the social landscape, often reflecting the inner worlds of individuals and social collectives. So, in the movie, the passengers obsess over all the damn snakes, but only once does someone question the government’s role in exposing the passengers to the snakes. In the movie the passengers focus on the tangibility of killing the snakes but never seriously ponder the absolutely insanity of the situation.

These types of avoidances occur in real life, too. Post-9/11 Americans obsess over all the damn terrorists, but rarely do we question the government’s role in exposing us to this danger. Post-9/11 Americans focus on the tangibility of killing all the terrorists, but we never seriously ponder the innate uncertainty of human existence. Such questions and discussions would certainly help us deal with our 9/11 loss, our bruised egos, and our general fear of terrorism. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, we’d rather sweep it all into the corner. Our dust bunny situation is so crazy that we can’t even believe it, so why think about it at all? Just let the anxiety-dust pile up higher and higher and in the meantime we’ll pop in another bad Hollywood B-movie and daydream about action heroes stomping out killer snakes. Now there’s a coping mechanism even Freud would be proud of! 

Flying High on Existential Nausea

The post-9/11 American mind no doubt fears terrorism, and that’s absolutely warranted. The events of 9/11 shook us to the ground, creating a whirlwind of confusion, anger, uncertainty, and dread. All of a sudden we were targeted like never before. We were not only attacked, but we were now confronted with the possibility of perpetual attack. This was and is a real issue. Terrorist networks like Al Qaeda seek our doom—and to be completely blunt, they will kill us at the drop of a dime. That’s unfortunately true and helps explain our general post-9/11 social fear. But all this needs to be properly contextualized.

America is correlating its fear of terrorism with a fear of existential uncertainty—an uncertainty that is inherent to human finitude. We have traditionally thought of ourselves as rugged individuals who can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and transcend all odds.  But 9/11 came along and cracked this narrative, creating an existential vertigo that we have yet to cope with. This fear of the uncertain was exasperated by the hyperbolic rhetoric of the government. We heard time and again about those lurking terrorists standing in the wings waiting to attack innocent people. We must be strong, vigilant, and prepared to retaliate every waking moment! We never know when or how these evil-doers will strike! These people live in caves and hate indiscriminately! These people aren’t really people at all; they are animals, or insects, or a sub-human species. Maybe something like a snake? Yes, maybe. After all, the serpent is a symbol for Satan. Save us from those snakes, Mr. President!

Calgon, Take Me Away

We need to also recognize the fact that American society is obsessed with phantasms—things that appear to be real and true, but in fact are fake and false. For instance, American society consistently consumes, and at some level legitimizes info-commercials, reality television shows, the branding of lifestyles and identities, the myth that anyone can be a millionaire, Bill O’Reilly’s “no spin zone,” pills and medicines that promise cures for every conceivable condition, fantasy malls and fun parks as sites of traditional community, the mass production of cultural mythos, the belief that the average person can be the next American idol, the unspoken assumption that we are entitled to perpetual comfort and leisure, and the belief that we can actually weed out all terrorism and restore our (façade of) absolute security. The widespread presence and consumption of these phenomena highlights our preoccupation with “phantasmic realities.”

While all realities are (arguably) processual, relative, and socially constituted, these phantasmic realities are not properly grounded. Info-commercials are not trying to educate us. Reality television shows are not real. Everyone cannot be a millionaire. Bill O’Reilly is not telling the truth. We are not inherently entitled to comfort and leisure. And we cannot create absolute security. These types of phantasms were already prevalent prior to 9/11—we have loved our phantasies long before September 11th.

That’s not the issue. Instead, the issue is this: Our preoccupation with phantasmic realities complicates our collective ability to properly cope with 9/11 and the bona fide fear of terrorism. For instance, we want a hero—presumably the government or the military—to take it all away and make the world right again. We want to go on shopping and act like nothing has changed. We want to believe that our reliance on oil—particularly Middle Eastern oil—does not affect our level of security. We want to act as if our presence in the Middle East does not piss off a lot of people. We want to assume that our prior international affairs had nothing to do with 9/11. We want to believe that military might is a good substitute for sound diplomacy. And we want to simplify the world into two camps, American supporters and evil-doers.

This is not how it works; these wants and desires are not properly grounded in the operations of the wider world. We can’t bomb the world into peace and we can’t treat terrorists like a bunch of crazy snakes to be stalked and killed by Samuel L. Jackson. Fiction and reality are often hard to distinguish. But the line between the two is there and failure to recognize it creates mass distortion: Our country becomes a nightmarish plane ride, our President becomes an action-packed super hero, and our subconscious anxieties become ten million snakes lurking in the cracks and crevices. That’s a wee bit problematic.

Cultural Psychosis and Paradise Interruptus

Snakes on a Plane is about an F.B.I agent, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who is assigned to protect an eyewitness on his flight from Hawaii to Los Angles. The witness, played by Nathan Phillips, is being pursued by a lifelong drug dealer, murder, and overall dirty, rotten scoundrel. This ruthless criminal improvises an ever-so-masterful plan: he will get to the witness by placing hundreds of blood-thirsty snakes in the cargo area of the plane. Once in the air, the snakes will be let loose from their hiding place and indiscriminately bite, snatch, and kill as many people as possible. The killing is anxiety-inducing: a pet cat and a pet dog are each eaten alive; a young and carefree couple having fun-loving sex in the plane bathroom are bitten and killed; a man minding his own business while urinating is suddenly attacked in his most private and vulnerable parts by a snake from a toilet; the two airplane pilots are of course killed, leaving only the helpless passengers to manage this flying nightmare; and a whole slew of average, everyday citizens are eaten by these wicked and evil snakes of terror!

All this mass murdering occurs in order to get the witness—a single man who holds the key to good old-fashioned American social justice. If the witness dies, so too does the American way of life. But our superhero F.B.I. agent bravely corrals the panic-stricken passengers, turning them into little vigilantes who stomp out the snakes. Ironically enough, the hero and his governmental superiors are the very source of terror: They brought the eyewitness upon a plane of innocent bystanders knowing full well that the criminal mastermind would chase after him. The movie actually references this irony, but whitewashes the issue. Here is a loose paraphrase:

Yes, the government’s actions did put you in danger, and some of you even died as a result. But the government is also the hero of this story, saving many of you and doing so in the name of a larger, (self-) righteous plan. You may have been kept in the dark, but it was for your own good and in the end, justice was served! Your fear-induced experience helped apprehend that evil bastard, so thank your lucky stars that this government did what it did! That’s what makes this country so damn beautiful!

The movie concludes where it began, literally—with idyllic scenes of Hawaii, an island of seemingly endless comfort and leisure where people surf, relax, and sip Pina Coladas with little pink umbrellas. There is tranquility before the crisis and there is tranquility after the crisis. Those snakes and that plane were simply a distraction, a mere anomaly in our otherwise wonderful and harmonious lives. That doomsday plane is finally grounded, the masterminded evil man is apprehended, the terrorist snakes are dead, the anxiety is absolved, the uncertainty is displaced, and our phantasy world of idyllic beauty is restored happily ever after. The end.

But that’s not the end, at least not in the real world. Nothing of human affairs is this plain and simple; instead, it’s all murky and cloudy, circling around and around, with everything relating ten-fold to something else, revealing things we never would have consciously considered and creating consequences we could never imagine. This applies to Snakes on a Plane, too. This movie is not “just a movie” but rather an unconscious commentary upon our society—it’s a commentary about us. Here’s the logic: Snakes on a Plane is a creative production; our creative productions reflect our inner worlds; our inner worlds symbiotically mirror our collective wants, needs, and desires; and our inner collectivities manage to reveal themselves even when we try to ignore or hide them.

Snakes on a Plane, even as a bad cinematic creation, is no different—it reveals the innards of our cultural psychoses, and that can be a good thing. We should look at Snakes on a Plane and acknowledge what we see: a confused and sadly perverse society. But rather than fearing this picture, we should analyze it, talk about it, see what’s going on, and try to understand it. This type of existential courage can help us deal with our lives and can even be the backbone to a more sensible and a more life-affirming foreign affairs policy. It can’t be any worse than the present administration’s preemptive military policy, which makes about as much sense as a plane full of snakes.

A plane full of exotic killer snakes is ridiculous. But so too are our warped anxieties, and that’s the brilliance of Snakes on a Plane: it shows us what we are running from—ourselves, our society, and our collective inability to cope with reality. If this is true, then Snakes on a Plane may very well be the most important movie of the year.

Jason Del Gandio, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Strategic and Organizational Communication at Temple University in Philadelphia. He specializes in rhetoric, critical studies, and the philosophy of communication.
posted by editor ::: April 01, 2007 ::: philms :::