SNAKES ON A PLANE (David R. Ellis, 2006)
The act of moviegoing, of seeing a film with an audience, has taken its share of knocks in recent years. Ringing cell phones, talkative patrons, and endless pre-film advertisements are common reasons why some claim not to bother with heading to the local multiplex to see the latest Hollywood releases. Better and more affordable home theater systems and a shrunken theatrical-to-home video window have led to some deciding that waiting for the DVD is good enough.
Leave it to SNAKES ON A PLANE, a modestly budgeted action movie about air passengers being attacked by serpents, to provide a shot in the arm for the theatrical experience. Here’s a film that isn’t ruined because people are whooping it up and talking back to the screen but enhanced by their enthusiastic dialogue with it. SNAKES ON A PLANE may not be a good movie by conventional standards, but with the proper amount of love via audience participation, this genre picture is exactly the sort of silly fun that mega-priced, B-grade tentpole films often fail to be.
The film’s interactive element is in its DNA. That great title, four words that tell potential ticket buyers everything they could want or need to know about the movie, caught the attention of the internet community early on. Fans made blogs, t-shirts, and songs about the film even though much wasn’t known about it beyond the title and its star, Samuel L. Jackson. When rumors popped up that the title was being changed to the terminally dull PACIFIC AIR FLIGHT 121, the online outcry against the supposed switch probably ensured that SNAKES ON A PLANE would stick. Why not give the customers what they want? What they wanted was SNAKES ON A PLANE.
The studio took things a step further by incorporating a line for the fans. Jackson’s emphatic exclamation of his character’s dissatisfaction with the high-flying snakes has been well-publicized and will certainly be the loudest moment when the crowd roars its approval. In spite of all of the names in the credits, SNAKES ON A PLANE long ago ceased to belong to the filmmakers when obsessed fans accepted it site unseen as their own.
The story of SNAKES ON A PLANE is practically secondary as long as it delivers mile-high serpent on human action, but if you must know… As FBI Agent Flynn, Jackson escorts Sean (Nathan Phillips), a vital but reluctant witness for the prosecution, from Honolulu to Los Angeles so he can testify against murderous mobster Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). Kim is unable to get to Sean via the usual methods, so he turns to a plan the feds are unlikely to have anticipated. Snakes from all over the world and of every color and size are secretly put on board the red eye South Pacific Airlines flight. The leis in the cargo hold are sprayed with pheromones that make the snakes aggressive. Two hours into the five hour trip the snakes are released to wreak maximum havoc.
SNAKES ON A PLANE has been put together in a manner befitting its schlock cinema roots. The characters—the badass cop, the flight attendant on her last shift, the spoiled blonde, the nervous boys flying alone, the uptight elitist—are all one-note because snakes don’t care about the backstories of their dinners. The camera placement, screenplay, and dialogue, save for a few quotable bits, are functional more than anything. Director David R. Ellis has demonstrated skill with setpieces in FINAL DESTINATION 2 and CELLULAR, the latter of which was a higher quality B-movie than SNAKES, but he isn’t called upon to do much here beyond showing snakes attack.
Whether it is was intended to be a comedy or it morphed into that when the internet buzz began, the choice to play SNAKES ON A PLANE sincerely but for laughs is its saving grace. It’s funny because it’s gloriously stupid and doesn’t nudge the audience’s ribs to make sure the joke is being understood. Such prompting is unnecessary for a group that was in on the joke before they saw a frame of the film.
There aren’t many actors who could have pulled off the SNAKES trifecta of being stone serious, tongue in cheek, and supremely cool as Jackson. He seems to be having as much fun making the movie as the viewers are watching it. This won’t be remembered as one of his great performances—the material he’s working with simply isn’t good enough—but it helps solidify his status as a symbol of movie cool now and for years to come after he’s retired.
The midnight movie has gone by the wayside, but SNAKES begs to be seen late at night with a rambunctious crowd. What better time is there to encourage audience participation? SNAKES ON A PLANE lifts off when strangers and friends come together to hiss in giddy expectation and in approval. It isn’t great filmmaking, but it is a great experience. Why shouldn’t there be enough room among the moviegoing choices out there for something as dumb and enjoyable as SNAKES ON A PLANE?