'Snakes on a Plane'
There are snakes. They're on a plane. What more do you want from them?
That story comes to mind as I attempt to wrap my mind around David Ellis' "Snakes on a Plane," a film that does, if nothing else, absolutely live up to its title on every level. There is no disputing that if viewers go to "Snakes on a Plane" looking for, well, snakes on a plane, it delivers. One might argue that the movie couldn't possibly be worse written, that the performances by everybody this side of Samuel L. Jackson don't rise to the level of wooden, that the special effects are only so-so and that virtually none of the snakes in the movie look real. But if you did that, Ellis would probably just shrug and say, "It's the movie's nature."
The plot, such as it is, involves some random surfer dude (Nathan Phillips, whose inability to act is only magnified by a bizarre amount of eyeliner) who witnesses a mob hit. The vicious mobsters come after him, but he's saved by badass FBI agent Nelville Flynn (Jackson). Flynn is flying the witness back to Los Angeles for some trial or other, but the mobster has other plans. With almost no lead time at all, he unleashes hundreds of miscellaneous poisonous snakes -- a full international sampler -- attracted and incited by, um, pheromones. Why, pray tell, does he think this is the best way to handle the elimination of a key witness? Well, as the mobster says himself, "You think I didn't exhaust every other option?"
Like the frog with the scorpion, there's no way to combat that logic.
The plane is only half-full, but the available passengers are mostly identifiable types. There are the sexy flight attendants (Sunny Mabrey, who fits the bill, and Julianna Margulies, who alternates between looking tired and embarrassed), a rapper (Flex Alexander) and his assistants (Keith Dallas and the genuinely funny Kenan Thompson) and a bunch of other folks. The snakes come in all shapes and sizes and they have variably potent venom. They bite, they constrict and they wreak the necessary havoc, leaving victims lumpy, bloody and frothy messes. All you need to know is that they're everywhere and they particularly enjoy human genitals. If that's not enough to compound several phobias, I don't know what is. There's something pretty primal about being scared of snakes or frightened of flying and it's probably just as primal to root for little Chihuahuas to get devoured by anacondas.
Thank heavens fan pressure made the filmmakers go back and reshoot to add filler snakes, nudity, language and blood to get the movie its R rating. The only thing better would have been if they'd just gone for an R in the first place. Instead, certain insert shots from the enhanced sex scene just scream "BOOBS!" and several snake attacks are extended and pushed into close-ups to just scream "GORE!" and when Jackson launches into the eagerly anticipated monologue about the muthaf***ing snakes on his muthaf***ing plane, he's bathed in an orange light that makes him the patron saint of passengers.
Actually, Jackson was already the patron saint of this movie. He never winks or mugs for the audience and when he's holding the plane's steering wheel for dear life, I bought his gritted teeth as true determination and when he watches a friend shed his mortal coil, I never doubted that Jackson would muster the same look of wounded outrage for a real director and a real script. It's impossible to think of any other actor who could have played this part with such a straight face. It's just as hard to think of an equally respectable actor who would have wanted to.
Jackson is the only thing elevating "Snakes on a Plane" above the creature features that the SciFi Channel airs by the dozens. Despite all of the talk of snake wrangling on the production and all of the different kinds of snakes were used, most of what's roaming the air ducts, falling from the ceiling with the oxygen masks or springing from the luggage bins looks to have been created on a computer. It's jarring whenever you spot something that looks like a real snake, but you can tell the difference because they're never anywhere near any of the name actors.
The opening night crowd filled my theater of choice some of the people around me had snakes painted on their faces and others wore homemade t-shirts. The audience laughed from start to finish and I couldn't begin to distinguish between the punchlines intended by the filmmakers and the unintentional jokes that just come with the B-movie territory.
If New Line could offer a guarantee that every audience for "Snakes on a Plane" will be as enthusiastic and buoyantly disrespectful as tonight's crowd, I could gladly endorse their trashy little movie. In fact, I'm forced to make one of the weakest arguments any critic can make: If you were going to see "Snakes on a Plane," you'll probably get at least a basic level of amusement for your money. If you had doubts, don't bother. And if you must see it, you'd better go this weekend, because I shudder to think how this communal experience will play in a quiet theater.