You’ve heard about it. You’ve read about it. Now it’s finally here. Almost a year’s worth of grass-roots internet publicity has been given to Snakes on a Plane based solely on its title – an absurdly literal moniker that unexpectedly captured the imagination of a lot of people well in advance of the movie’s actual release. Depending on your point of view, it promises either a cheap thrill, a hearty laugh, or complete repulsion. I can’t ever remember a movie generating so much buzz simply based on the title. Whether Snakes on a Plane ultimately has any lasting cultural impact is anybody’s guess, but for what it is – a tongue-in-cheek B-movie thriller – the film is a lot of fun.
Samuel L. Jackson plays FBI agent Neville Flynn, who has been assigned to transport the key prosecution witness in a mob trial from Hawaii to Los Angeles. He commandeers the entire first class section of a red eye flight, relegating the other passengers – including a rap star (Flex Alexander), his bodyguard (Kenan Thompson), and a Hilton-esque socialite (Rachel Blanchard) – to coach. What no one knows is that the mobster, in a last-ditch attempt to kill the witness, has arranged for a slew of poisonous snakes to be smuggled into the cargo hold. At a predetermined time, the container holding the snakes explodes, setting them loose. In keeping with the Hawaiian theme, each passenger boarding the plane has been given a lei, not knowing that they’ve all been sprayed with a pheromone designed to drive the snakes wild. They’re snakes on crack, if you will.
At roughly the flight’s point of no return, the slithery creatures start attacking. One of them nibbles on a couple trying to join the Mile High Club in the bathroom. Another terrorizes a newlywed couple. A really big one attacks the pilot. Snakes drop from overhead compartments and from the oxygen mask panels. They glide down the aisles, striking anyone in their path. Of course, our man Sam…I mean Neville…leads the charge to barricade the survivors in a safe part of the plane. He gets an assist from a flight attendant played by former “ER” star Juliana Marguilles. With two hours left in the flight, a dead pilot, and an injured co-pilot, Neville has to keep everyone alive and tend to those already bitten.
Snakes on a Plane was originally intended as a PG-13 thriller, but when the internet blogging community started clamoring for a tougher R-rated take, the filmmakers went back and added some additional scenes. I have mixed feelings on the idea of fans dictating content to filmmakers, but in this case they were right. The movie benefits from a slightly gorier approach as it allows for some of those crowd-pleasing moments that simultaneously make you laugh and cringe in horror. Consider the poor guy who wanders into the plane’s bathroom, unzips his fly and…well, you figure out it. Scenes like these are often called “money shots” and Snakes on a Plane is full of them. Seeing them in a theater full of people provides its own unique rush of excitement.
The movie doesn’t rely simply on those shots, though. There are plenty of jolts as snakes unexpectedly pop out to attack hapless humans. I’m not much of a jumper; usually I can spot when someone (or something) is going to spring forth. Director David Ellis (Cellular) tosses in a few that I actually didn’t see coming. There was one in particular that really made me fly backward in my seat. This is one of those pictures where you scream or gasp, then giggle at yourself for doing it so audibly.
There is another important reason why Snakes on a Plane works, and that reason is Samuel L. Jackson. The actor has long been noted for being the epitome of cool. That quality combines perfectly with the over-the-top premise. When you’re running down the aisle of an airplane zapping snakes with a stun gun, you’ve got to be cool enough to not look silly. Somehow it’s easy to buy Jackson in this kind of scenario; he’s cool enough to make to feel right. Quite honestly, I don’t think the film would be as good if it were Josh Lucas, or Dennis Quaid, or Kurt Russell fighting the snakes. Again, the bloggers are responsible for providing Jackson with a seminal line of dialogue, the already famous “I’ve had it with these muthaf---in’ snakes on this muthaf---in’ plane!” Call me crazy, but that’s sheer B-movie brilliance!
Let’s be honest: This movie isn’t going to win any Oscars. It won’t make any Ten Best Lists, nor will it be remembered on any future American Film Institute TV specials. Snakes on a Plane wears its schlock status with pride. It has been said (truthfully) that the things we used to call B-pictures are now A-pictures. The advent of CGI effects has allowed Hollywood to spectacularly tackle subjects (natural disasters, alien invasions, etc.) that used to be the domain of cheap-o exploitation flicks. Hence, movies like Twister and Independence Day and Jurassic Park. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, except that big budgets and technical perfection eat away at the ethos of a B-picture, which is only to provide a few cheap shocks and/or laughs.
Snakes on a Plane was made more in the original “B” spirit. Yes, the snake effects are good, but the point of the film is to give you an adrenaline-pumping good time. Snakes on a Plane works on that level and I really enjoyed it. Sit back, get comfortable, eat your popcorn, and look out behind you.
( out of four)
Snakes on a Plane is rated R for language, a scene of sexuality and drug use, and intense sequences of terror and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.
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