September 2006

Snakes on a Plane

Snakes on a Plane

Admit it: you’ve been waiting for this one. Much has already been written about the snakes behind Snakes on a Plane, and the questionable snake behaviour and biology has been debunked elsewhere; I wrote something shortly after I saw the film myself. The key points:

  1. The real, live snakes were harmless and handled by stunt doubles or extras; the venomous snakes were either computer generated or shot in isolation.
  2. The real snakes were common pet-store varieties; I spotted Corn Snakes (Elaphe guttata) and several kinds of Common Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula) and Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum), for example.
  3. The aggressive snake behaviour was attributed to pheromones sprayed on leis, which is creative nonsense. Pheromones will make snakes horny at best, and no one pheromone would have the same effect across so many different species.
  4. The movie correctly points out that snakes aren’t normally that aggressive, hence the pheromone plot device.
  5. The computer-generated snakes were larger than nature — and faster. No matter how pissed, most snakes don’t move that fast. Except maybe mambas (Dendroaspis) and coachwhips (Masticophis), and I didn’t see any of those.
  6. Antivenom is easier to find than that.
  7. Snakes are illegal to keep in Hawaii.
  8. Pythons never eat fully grown adult males. Well, hardly ever. Yappy little dogs? Total python food. (At least I can hope.)

Battlestar Galactica: “The Hand of God”

Battlestar Galactica:

While briefing the press on the fleet’s dwindling fuel supplies, President Roslin starts hallucinating snakes on her podium. Lots of snakes. We have no idea what Caprica’s ophidiofauna looks like, so the show’s producers have had to make do with terrestrial standins. And there are quite a few of them: a Ball Python (Python regius); Sinaloan and Pueblan Milk Snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum sinaloae and L. t. campbelli, respectively); at least three Corn Snakes (Elaphe guttata), in albino and normal flavours; a leucistic Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri); and California and Mexican Black Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula californiae and L. g. nigrita, respectively). All of which have been bred in captivity for decades and can be found at your local pet store. Though deliveries to the Twelve Colonies have been rather interrupted recently.

The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve

I must confess that The Lady Eve is one of my favourite movies, and it’s not just because the romantic male lead played by Henry Fonda is a herpetologist. (Two words: Eugene Pallette.) It’s a wonderful and cinematically significant romantic comedy by Preston Sturges. You really should see it.

In the opening scene, Charles Pike and his bodyguard Muggsy are leaving the Amazon with “Emma”, a “rare type of Brazilian glass snake” that mysteriously can be fed “just a couple of flies, a sip of milk and perhaps a pigeon’s egg on Sundays.” (An impossible snake diet.) Emma’s Latin name is given as Columbrina marzditzia, but Emma is in fact played by a Western Longnose Snake (Rhinocheilus lecontei lecontei). Rarely kept in captivity nowadays, but quite a gentle species, and one readily found in southern California.

Later, once Pike has returned home, he asks his butler whether he’s seen a Crotalus colubrinus. (“With pink spots,” Muggsy adds.) “I rejoice to say that I have not, sir,” the butler replies, walking away — with what appears to be a Corn Snake (Elaphe guttata) wrapped around his ankle. Crotalus colubrinus is not only imaginary, it’s an oxymoron if you know your Linnaean binomials.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Night Terrors”

Star Trek: The Next Generation:

“Night Terrors” is usually regarded as the weakest episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s generally strong fourth season: Troi’s “WHERE ARE YOU?” must therefore be seen as the TNG equivalent of “WHERE IS SPOCK’S BRAIN?” In brief, the entire crew is generally going nuts and hallucinating on account of being denied REM sleep. Riker’s hallucination involves finding a mess of snakes in his bed. (Uncharacteristically, the rishathra-obsessed Riker does not try to seduce them.)

The snakes are, of course, of the usual pet store varieties: I spotted a California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula californiae) and a Ball Python (Python regius); other species are harder to identify for sure, though they might be more kingsnakes, and possibly duller subspecies of Rainbow Boa (Epicrates cenchria).

La Vouivre

La Vouivre

La Vouivre is a 1989 French film adaptation of the 1945 novel by Marcel Aymé which tells the tale of the descent into madness of a World War I veteran who sees, or believes he sees, la Vouivre, a folkloric creature from eastern France that changes shape from a woman to a snake and back. (For more on the mythology, see L’Œil de la Vouivre by Edith Montelle.) The movie is unavailable in North America, which is too bad, because the nudity is really good.

Vipers (Vipera berus) abound in the movie — they’re caught by children in jars and play an all-too predictable part in the climactic scene. The snakes looked real enough, if I recall (I saw the movie on French television in 1999), but it’s likely that they used one of the European water snakes of the Natrix genus — specifically, the Viperine Snake (Natrix maura), a viper mimic.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

There must not be enough snakes in Britain, because J. K. Rowling was apparently unaware of two key snake facts when she wrote the early scene with Harry and the snake — a Burmese Python (Python molurus bivittatus) in the movie, a Boa Constrictor (Boa constrictor) in the book. Namely, that snakes have neither eyelids nor ears, which makes it difficult for this one to be winking at and listening to our man Harry. I’ll grant a lot for a fantasy story, mind. I mean, it’s not like owls are smart enough to be trained in postal service either.

The Empire Strikes Back

The Empire Strikes Back

The Yoda action figure that we all played with as kids came with a bright orange snake, but you really have to look hard to spot a snake in the movie. It’s there, briefly, in the scene in Yoda’s hut, and — look at that — it’s a California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula californiae), second only to the corn snake in pet popularity. But it doesn’t come in orange.

Other scenes. When Luke enters the cave on Dagobah, there is a small Burmese Python (Python molurus bivittatus) to his left (plus an interesting monitor of some sort, but this isn’t Lizards on Film). And the snake Luke pulls out of his X-wing’s, um, intake (?) before takeoff is an Eastern Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula getula).

Kill Bill, Vol. 2

Kill Bill, Vol. 2

In a movie duology where all the main characters have codenames based on snakes,1 an actual snake makes only a brief appearance: Elle Driver plants a Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) in Budd’s suitcase of money. Some the wider shots (left) used a harmless stand-in, understandably — my guess is that that is a Western Racer (Coluber constrictor mormon) — but I’m pleasantly surprised to see that Tarantino took the trouble to get closeup shots (centre) of a real Black Mamba. Very brief, though, and almost certainly filmed off-set — which is sensible! The final shot (right) looks like a mamba too.

1 Elle Driver is a wuss: her codename, “California Mountain Snake,” probably refers to the California Mountain Kingsnake (Lampropeltis zonata), which is a dainty, harmless little thing.

Steve Irwin FedEx Commercial

This is not the Fierce Snake (Oxyuranus microlepidotus), the most venomous snake in the world; the late great Steve Irwin would never have been so foolish as to use a real one for a mere FedEx advert. It does, however, look like he’s using a Black-headed Python (Aspidites melanocephalus), a harmless snake from northern Australia, as a stand-in.

Conan the Barbarian

Conan the Barbarian

Conan takes time out from the thieving and the plo chops to take on Sith Lord Thulsa Doom, leader of a snake cult, who himself can change into a snake. So of course our man Thulsa has a few snakes around the premises, including a big fake python with improbable fangs. Real snakes used in the movie were almost all Boa Constrictors (Boa constrictor), though I spotted at least one Yellow Anaconda (Eunectes notaeus). I couldn’t get a good look at the snake used as an arrow; my best guess is that it was a Gray Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta spiloides). That gives Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age a decidedly New World bent. Where are the Toltecs? I bet Conan would have some fun with Toltecs. Being crucified on the Tree of Woe has nothing on having your beating heart cut out.

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