The title. It's got to be that deliciously kitschy title—well, that in conjunction with the star presence of Samuel L. Jackson. How else to explain why Snakes on a Plane has built the sort of summer movie buzz typically associated with Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings? Giddy filmgoers on opening night (Thursday at 10 p.m.) were yelling "Snakes on a plane!" back and forth across the theater to each other with whooping applause, as if this was the must-see movie event of the year.
Not since 1999's The Blair Witch Project has the Internet played such an instrumental role in building hype for a movie so overly shrouded in mystery. Online resources were made available for fans to build websites. Voice mail technology allowed people to send "personalized" invitations from Jackson to their friends. Yet the film wasn't pre-screened to critics, and while commercials declare, "Everything you've heard is true," online research only yields a title, an actor, some images, minimal plot points, and a whole lot of speculation. So just what is this thing exactly?
The title sums up the premise. Jackson is Nelville Flynn, a no-nonsense FBI agent who takes young slacker Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) into his protective custody after he witnesses a murder at the hands of a notorious crime boss in Hawaii. They've got to fly to Los Angeles to testify, but that isn't going to be so easy since the bad guys have placed a time-released crate in the cargo hold. Inside, more than 400 venomous snakes of all species, shapes, and sizes … driven crazy by pheromones sprayed on the leis given to everyone boarding the aircraft. "Accidents happen," sneers the villainous boss.
Nightmarish stuff, particularly for anyone afraid of snakes, flying, and irritating passengers. But never fear, Flynn's in control, leading the initial survivors to what seem to be safe havens onboard the multi-leveled aircraft. However, if we learned nothing else from 2005's Flightplan, there are plenty of nooks and crannies to lose a kid, so imagine the places a snake can hide before popping out for a deadly strike. And since guns are supposedly a no-no in a pressurized cabin shooting through the skies, some creative improvisation is required to come up with clever ways to dispose of the renegade reptiles.
A simple enough survival tale for such a ridiculously high concept, and its success or failure almost completely depends on tone. Is this a horrific When Animals Attack thriller, a cornball throwback to '70s disaster movies, or a campy tribute to the action films of the '80s? Why all three, of course.
For sure, the plot is teeming with clichés, the dialogue often atrocious, but it's all intentionally so. As mindless and ridiculous as much of the movie is, it takes a special kind of talent (if that's the right word) to rely on conventions and strike a balance between thrills and laughs. Snakes isn't entirely self-knowing to be a full-on parody like Airplane!, nor does it take itself seriously enough to be a horror film. Instead, like some practiced cover band enjoyably going through all the notes and riffs, this movie gives audiences exactly what they expect from the title, conditioned by similarly hackneyed classics such as Airport, Lethal Weapon, Gremlins, and Speed. It's a real-life McBain movie as shown on The Simpsons.
Said differently, the originality may be in the premise, but the fun is in the familiarity of the execution. This is the sort of movie you chuckle over knowingly when characters at the start talking about their post-flight retirement plans. The sort of flick where you begin to predict which characters live and die based on good behavior vs. sinful indiscretions. The sort of film that benefits from a euphoric audience of screen talkers yelling, "No, don't open that lavatory!" and "You show those $!%@* snakes, Sam!"
Predictable, yes, but director David R. Ellis (a former stunt coordinator) demonstrated with the similarly playful Cellular in 2004 that he knows how to stage an effective pulpy thriller. He offers plenty of jumps and genuinely creepy crawly scares, even if the snakes are CGI creations 90 percent of the time. And by upping the rating to an R at the prodding of Jackson and the movie studio, he also offers a series of shocking sight gags that involve snakes striking just about every body part imaginable. We feel fright and revulsion from seeing the quick effects of venom on the body, but we're also laughing from the crazy setups involved for the snake attacks.
High praise goes to Jackson for committing fully to the movie. In a sense, he's Harrison Ford to a new generation, giving his all to elevate a two-dimensional action hero by playing his usual cool mannered, hard-boiled, short-tempered self to the hilt. They may as well have called this Shaft on a Plane.
And the large supporting cast similarly knows their place, making the most out of their caricatures. Some are familiar, like the kind and collected flight attendant, the smug and self-serving businessman, and the young mother screaming, "My baby!" But others are funny modern day twists, such as the germ-phobic hip-hop star with his posse, the Paris Hilton look-alike with the little dog that's begging to be a snake snack, and the sexually ambiguous flight attendant who may or may not be what he claims to be.
I said success almost depends entirely on tone, and thank goodness this movie knows enough to have fun with the audience, but environment certainly plays a part too. Snakes is the kind of popcorn flick you want to watch in a crowded theater, or at home with a group of friends while making Mystery Science Theater 3000-styled remarks. It's not the sort of thing enjoyed all alone for its artistic merits. The pacing is skillfully executed, but it's familiar B-movie territory that goes over-the-top with intentionally gratuitous scenes played for laughs and shock value.
Snakes on a Plane truly is an oddity—one of the best bad movies ever made. It's certainly not a first-rate thriller like The Birds or Jaws, nor is it trying to be. Rather, this is a loving tribute and quasi-parody of B-movie conventions, much like Gremlins and Arachnophobia, though it is unquestionably more adult and vulgar than those movies, to the thrill of some and the chagrin of others. Does adherence to a particular style make for a good movie when that style was never good to begin with? Hey, it worked for Airplane!, so perhaps it's not just tone and environment that matter, but also individual tastes and expectations. Make no mistake, this movie is trash, but it's meant to be, and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't also a lot of fun.Discussion starters
- If you faced a potentially disastrous life-and-death situation like the one in this movie, do you think you'd be able to risk your life for another as many of the characters do? For that reason, do you think it's intentional that the older flight attendant's name is Grace
- One of the characters remarks that another was placed on that flight for a purpose—to save lives. Do you believe God intentionally places us in dangerous situations to save others—or even just in uncomfortable situations to serve others? Discuss.
- Do snakes have a bad reputation because of Satan in Genesis 3? Are they inherently evil, or do they serve a practical purpose in Creation? How does this film portray them?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Not a movie for the easily offended, Snakes on a Plane reportedly added content to fully earn its R rating. In addition to crude sexual references and prominent usage of the f-bomb and the Lord's name in vain, there's a gratuitous sequence involving a topless couple looking to join the mile-high club while smoking pot. There are continuous sequences of terror involving snakes attacking from every direction, sometimes going over-the-top by striking private body parts. Two young boys and a small baby are placed in peril, one snake is dispatched in a microwave, and there's some nasty impromptu surgery to remove venom from someone. Also, the evil crime boss uses a baseball bat to kill a victim off screen, with bloody results. Take the R rating very seriously.
Photos © Copyright New Line Cinema
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 08/24/06
When Indiana Jones climbed into an airplane 25 years ago and escaped a throng of spear-throwing tribal warriors, he discovered he wasn't the only passenger. Coiling at his feet, a boa constrictor hissed a hello.
"There's a big snake in the plane, Jock!" Indy shouted to the pilot, hysterical.
Smiling, the pilot assured Indy that the fellow with the forked tongue was just his "pet"—Reggie—and there was nothing to worry about. Sure enough, Jones survived, and went on to face far more dangerous snakes, escaping unscathed every time.
But I would imagine that even the most accomplished snake handler would squirm at the thought of being trapped on an airplane with a snake on the loose. And what if there were dozens of snakes? What if there were more than four hundred?
So, it's no surprise that when the aptly (asp-tly?) titled Snakes on a Plane opened this week, theaters across the country filled with screams. But, thanks to director David R. Ellis, there was a lot of laughter as well. The cast—including Hollywood's favorite tough guy Samuel L. Jackson, and Juliana Marguiles of TV's E.R.—takes things over the top, and almost anything that could go wrong on that airplane does go spectacularly wrong.
Thanks to the Internet, the movie was a cult classic even before it opened. (One website challenged us to come up with the best sequel idea; suggestions included Kittens on a Kayak and Sharks on a Rollercoaster, but my favorite was Walrus on a Conveyor Belt.) And, according to film critics, the film may not be a classic, but it apparently delivers sufficiently on its promise of madness, mayhem, thrills, and chills. The hilarity has inspired some of them to compare Snakes on a Plane to Arachnophobia and Gremlins.
Other Christian film critics are quicker to dismiss the film as unacceptably gratuitous.
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says the film's "setup" is "wildly improbable, and it's a wonder that the capable cast … can deliver some of their lines with a straight face. Yet, to the film's credit, the premise is undeniably original, and the movie is never dull."
But he adds that "the frequent expletives and occasional sexual elements … are quite objectionable, all the more for being so gratuitous."
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) calls it "sadistically obscene."
Mainstream film critics, meanwhile, are divided, but most agree that it's "neither as good or as bad as you hoped it would be."