Directed by: David R. Ellis
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Margulies, Nathan Phillips, Rachel Blanchard, Flex Alexander
Can a bad movie that deliberately sets out to be a bad movie rightly be called a good movie? If that movie is the much anticipated Snakes on a Plane, then I'm going to say that the answer is yes.
It's become impossible to separate the fabricated hype and Internet buzz that surrounds the film from reality, but the official story is that Snakes on a Plane was never intended to be the actual title of the final film. And it does sound more like a one-line pitch ("It's about snakes -- snakes on a plane") than a title. Supposedly, Samuel L. Jackson only agreed to make it because of its upfront, no frills title, and threatened to back out when there was talk of changing it. True or not, it makes a good story and is now a part of the movie's mythology. That's somehow fitting.
Generally, films that attempt to be cult favorites of the so-bad-it's-good school are too calculated. They try too hard. They lack the whiff of the authentic absurdity that characterizes real B-movie trash. Worse, there's a distinct tendency to wink at the audience in a post-modern manner that's meant to clue everyone in on the fact that those responsible aren't really this stupid. Inevitably, Snakes on a Plane can't quite get around the first problem, since it's deliberately absurd rather than accidentally so. But it does manage to play its preposterous story line out with admirable seriousness, which is the key to making it funny.
The results aren't in the Tarantino realm of "trash masterpiece" a la Kill Bill. They're just plain trash -- wildly enjoyable, irresistible trash, but trash. This is less a meditation on cheesy '70s thrillers than an attempt to simply be one. It's better produced (though not by much) and it works hard to omit any dull patches, but it lays on the genre cliches with a heavy brush and shows a healthy disregard for anything approaching such inconsequential niceties as logic, coherence, characterization and realism.
Technically, Snakes on a Plane isn't a B movie. There haven't been such things for about 40 years -- the term refers to the second feature on a double bill. It doesn't mean grade B. That said, the film definitely has the soul of a real B picture. After all, is there a nickel's worth of difference between venomous vipers driven to a killing frenzy by flowers soaked in pheromones and Bela Lugosi's trained bats that attack anyone wearing his special shaving lotion in The Devil Bat (1940)? The mayhem is more generalized, but that's about all.
Then too, the basic plot is also B-picture loony. Can't get a gun and an assassin on an airplane to off an eyewitness to a gangster killing? Well, why not unleash 400-plus snakes once the flight is in the air? Even if they don't bite the intended victim, the panic and wholesale carnage will almost certainly crash the plane. Now if that concept doesn't amuse you in its own right, this is obviously not the movie for you.
Director David R. Ellis is certainly no stranger to elaborate and improbable death-dealing (see Final Destination 2 (2003)), and he handles the requirements of the concept here with cheesy ease. Using a mix of real snakes and CGI ones, he manages to walk a thin line between actual thrills (the film is fairly suspenseful in spite of itself on occasion) and laughs. The CGI snakes are thankfully no better than they have to be, which is part of the joke, of course. When the cockpit door is opened to find three marauding mambas in chorus-line unison headed for fresh victims, it's hard not to think of the bargain-basement snake animation from the opening sequence of the old Jonny Quest TV series -- and that may well be deliberate.
One of the reasons the film works is that it is savvy enough to include all the trappings of the sort of film it emulates -- from the arbitrary hot babes in bikinis in its opening scenes to the inclusion of the world's smartest herpetologist (Todd Louiso, Thank You for Smoking) offering hysterically straight-faced advice from the ground ("Only one man would have access to that many black market snakes."). The movie plays to every expectation the viewer might have -- the more absurd, the better. In this regard, the movie doesn't miss a trick.
Similarly, the snakes -- silly as they are, especially when they bicker and hiss with each other -- are used to good effect, tending to bite people in the most indelicate regions imaginable. The choice to re-shoot portions of the film in order to up the gore, nudity and language for an R rating is almost certainly responsible for some of this, and while it sometimes feels tacked on, it's mostly in the film's favor.
Of course, what finally holds the film together is Samuel L. Jackson as FBI agent Neville Flynn (could any name be more heroic). The essence of cool, Flynn is completely unflappable as he marches through this flying reptile house, calmly zapping the intruders with his Taser. And, yes, though you have to wait for it, he does say the line everyone is so anxious to hear -- "Enough! I've had it with the motherf***ing snakes on the motherf***ing plane!" (The audience I saw it with went wild accordingly.) No one else could have pulled it off, but then no one else could have gotten away with the opening line, "Do as I say and you live," either. Maybe it's my own advancing years, but I find it somehow heartening that young viewers think that a guy on the AARP mailing list is the coolest human being on the planet. And they're not wrong either. Rated R for language, a scene of sexuality and drug use, and intense sequences of terror and violence.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke