Snakes on a Plane (2006)
Director: David R. Ellis
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Margulies, Nathan Phillips, Rachel Blanchard, Flex Alexander, Kenan Thompson, Todd Louiso, Byron Lawson, David Koechner
(out of 4)
It’s difficult finding the right words to describe this thing called Snakes on a Plane. On the one hand it’s another case of fine-tuning of a Hollywood “product” in response to consumer demand, and a strange case at that. On the other hand, the film is surprisingly enjoyable, whether taken in terms of its status as mini-phenomenon or not. That the title Snakes on a Plane was created as a happy-hour joke isn’t surprising. That it was green-lit by New Line and enthusiastically accepted by Samuel L. Jackson is. The film was originally shot as a PG-13 in 2005 but in early 2006 new scenes were shot for an R rating due to huge Internet buzz and debate surrounding the movie. I mean, everyone knows that test audiences are used for most movies coming out of Tinseltown to help maximize returns, but here we have a situation where people haven’t even pres-creened the movie. The title alone spawned numerous online spoofs and fads, the apotheosis most likely being a photo of Jackson exclaiming “We’ve got motherfuckin’ snakes!” When, late in the movie, Jackson really does utter the line about “motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!”, and the entire audience utters it with him, you realize that it’s time to drop all pretenses about film as “art”. I’m not saying that all movies aren’t artistic visions of their respective creators or that all movies that cater to the taste of the masses are bad. What I am saying is that for how cynical the creators of Snakes on the Plane are, the final product is a damn fine piece of cheese. As they say, even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day.
In case you haven’t been clicking the right links, Snakes on a Plane starts off not in the jungle but the beaches of Hawaii, where surfer dude Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) witnesses a murder by bad guy Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). That for the rest of the movie’s running time you hardly even see these two characters again is only the first of the movie’s good moves. When Kim sends goons to kill Jones, FBI Agent Nelville Flynn (Jackson) intervenes in the typical bad-ass style that we’ve come to expect from our Internet-approved cult star. How our FBI hero even knew about the murder and the witness is a mystery, but that’s really not important in a movie about snakes on a plane, is it? Anyway, Jones decides to testify, which means a 5 hour flight from Hawaii to LAX with Flynn, Jones, and a series of cookie cutter passengers. You’ve got the strong female flight attendant (her last flight, of course), the Paris Hilton knockoff complete with bag and small canine (she names her Mary Kate), the Puff Daddy-like rap star complete with two bodyguards, two kids, a baby, an asshole Brit who hates Americans, a kick-boxer, and a male flight attendant who may or may not be gay.
Once we’re in the air, we finally get what we have been promised. A timer triggers the release of our favorite ophidian friends, who proceed to dispose of our passengers in gory fashion. Our first victims are a couple getting freaky in the bathroom – she gets a bite right on the nipple. Another guy goes to relieve himself only to suffer a direct bite… well, you see where this is going, don’t you? The only things sacred in this film are children – everything else is up for grabs. The snakes are mean, they’re pissed, and there are an awful lot of them. The fun lies in the competently directed chaos that ensues once the reptiles are let loose. After awhile I began to ponder – a movie that combines fear of snakes with a fear of flying – why didn’t I think of that?
Snakes on a Plane is difficult to classify. Is it camp? Well, sort of. Part of the film is certainly intentional camp, but for a movie to be a cult film it has to be serious in its ambition (see Mars Attacks! for an example of intentionally campy movies that don’t work). A lot of the dialogue is suitably cheesy, as are the many variations of getting bitten by a snake. But other scenes of passengers in peril are treated with an urgent seriousness. Is it a comedy? Certainly, and much of it is surprisingly subtle (after the rapper panics and grabs a gun, he apologizes; a passenger is chosen to land the plane because of his pilot experience, later revealed to be only flight simulators, then further regressed to Playstation games). Is it horror? Yes, it’s that too (much of the violence is suitably icky). I seem to be describing a theme park ride, and I don’t think the analogy is that far off. Like other cult films (Rocky Horror comes to mind), I think the movie works on a level of group experience – a collective frame of mind, an acceptance, a willingness to be manipulated in ways we expect. It’s a phenomenon because we will it that way – after all, we helped shape it. This may be one of the first truly collaborative pieces between movie producers and their audience.
I enjoyed Todd Louiso’s performance as a snake expert, the cheerful willingness of the film to ignore physical laws, the obvious CGI snakes, and the fleeting appearance of a giant python – it comes out of nowhere and it’s disposed of just as aloofly. I enjoyed the effect of watching a woman sneak a flask onboard in a post-liquid-banning world in a “remember-those-days” frame of mind. (No mention of terrorism in the piece save for one bit of dialogue about passengers blaming the government for their problems). I enjoyed Snakes on a Plane – an almost indescribable paradox, a “serious” camp film, beta-tested and approved by the Internet, “our” movie.
– Bill Gordon