A film review by Craig J. Koban
SNAKES ON A PLANE
2006, R, 105 mins.
Samuel L. Jackson: Nelville Flynn / Julianna Margulies: Claire
Nathan Phillips: Sean / Rachel Blanchard: Mercedes / Flex Alexander: Three G's / Kenan Thompson: Troy
Directed by David R. Ellis / Written by John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez
SNAKES ON A PLANE is a giddy and hilariously silly title if I ever heard one, which leads me to give my most sincere props to Samuel L. Jackson...on two fronts.
Firstly, he knows what he wants. Secondly, he stands by his convictions. In a widely publicized story, the only reason Jackson agreed to star in the film was because of its title alone. When the studio in question – New Line Cinemas – wanted to change name to the egregiously lame PACIFIC AIR FLIGHT 121, Jackson got upset. “We're totally changing that back,” he demanded in an interview, “it’s the only reason I took the job: I read the title."
Well, the title stayed and in a fury of pre-release Internet fan fever, SNAKES ON A PLANE has finally been released to the film-going masses. The back-story behind the film could be made into a fascinating movie all on its own. With the film being in development hell as far back as 1999, SNAKES ON A PLANE went though many writers, screenplay drafts, and directors before finally being made. The film truly became a hot button topic when Jackson lambasted New Line late in 2005 for changing the film’s title. His very public assault on the marketing gathered a real firestorm of free publicity and fan interest around the globe soared. Proving the often unyielding power of bloggers and chat room film lovers, SNAKES ON A PLANE was delegated away from being a throwaway and highly disposable action film to being one of 2006’s most preordained, must-see films.
Jackson alone should get a serious amount of commendation. He had the perseverance to know the type of film he was staring in and had the foresight to see the strength that online fans had in marketing. One website alone had a real inspiring interactive feature, which allowed for its readers to input a home phone number to which a pre-recorded “special message” from Jackson would be sent to the person in question. Having heard the message myself, it would be hard to see how Jackson could not be poking fun at his involvement with this film. His overwhelming support and lack of embarrassment for participating in the movie is kind of refreshing. Whereas most actors would come out and publicly disown a film like this, Jackson did something that much more inspiring. He actually flooded the film with praise and support. His phone message has him saying, “I know this may sound crazy, but SNAKES ON A PLANE just may be the greatest motion picture of all time.” I mean, his irreverence and level of self-deprecation is kind of amusing in its own right.
Yet, all of this leads me to the inevitable: is this film any dang good? I guess my short answer to that would be this: relative to its motives and aspirations – SNAKES ON A PLANE is a gloriously insipid thrill ride. It’s a masterfully realized bit of unrelenting, B-grade, exploitative filmmaking that is just one Frank Drebbin shy of being a qualified camp classic. It’s one of those works that harkens back to the type of cheap, low rent, and disposable entertainments that were barely worthy of being shown as a second feature in a cheesy drive-in two for one special.
I mean all of that as a sincere compliment. SNAKES ON A PLANE just may be one of the most self-aware bad films that I have ever seen. There is a strength and commitment to its awfulness that is kind of infectious and sublime. Far too many dumb action films hide behind a façade of pretentiousness and groan inducing dramatic beats. Here’s a film that is worthy of being belittled during an episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000 and goes completely out of its way to jump up and scream, “We want your ridicule!” There are no cheap charlatan tricks with the film, nor does it insult your intelligence by trying to be solemn and serious. SNAKES ON A PLANE demands our immediate scorn at its laughable premise, which is really what makes it entertaining.
Is this film critic proof? Maybe. It’s the ultimate poster movie for critiquing films on a relative – not universal – frame of reference. SNAKES ON A PLANE is not high art, nor is it particularly well made from a technical point of view. The direction is spotty, the visual effects inconsistent, the performances are wooden, and the dialogue is filled to the rim with real howlers. However, maybe that’s all beside the point. SNAKES ON A PLANE knows what it is – a bad and obsessively enjoyable exploitation film – and it never fails to deliver on that basic level.
Yet, a catastrophic error would have been for the makers to sidestep the film’s awfulness. Too much of a tongue in check approach would have been incorrect. Instead, SNAKES ON A PLANE embraces its over-the-top absurdity and gratuitous flamboyances like they were perverted virtues. The film does not shy away from any of the key staples of these types of films, like hard core violence, a cheerful amount of superfluous sex and nudity, a ludicrous and gimmicky premise, characters that are carved out of cardboard, and a lot of marvelously insipid dialogue (my favourite being from Jackson, whom at one point says, “It's my job to handle life and death situations on a daily basis. It's what I do, and I'm very good at it.” A close second would be when he instructs the passengers, "We need to create a barrier between us and the snakes!"). Oh, and the film has snakes…a lot of snakes…and it highlights yet another brilliant moment where Jackson showcases why he is the best actor today at uttering one 12 letter variation of the F-bomb better than anyone.
The paper-thin plot is pure, cheese-infested cornball that perhaps an Ed Wood Jr. in his prime could have came up with. Characters and their development are superfluous entities. Jackson, in pure, unadulterated Jacksonian fashion, plays tough-as-nails FBI agent, Neville Flynn, who has taken it upon himself to transport a Federal witness, Sean (Nathan Phillips) from Hawaii to LA to testify against a terrifically evil Asian mobster. Now, this is not just your typical Asian mobster. Most good fellas would (and could) arrange for Sean to be whacked in the most expeditious and easy manner possible. A couple of bullets to the brain, or maybe a car bomb, perhaps. Nah, that would be too easy. Instead, he options for the least likely successful plan to take out the witness – smuggle hundreds of poisonous snakes from all around the world on board the plane and put them in a special, digitally timed crate that can open in mid-flight and take out the entire plane. Eat your heart out, Dr. Evil.
If Jackson and the story were not a hoot enough for you, then the film offers up a pleasant parade of funny stereotypes and stock characters. We get the obsessive compulsive Hip Hop artist that is about as germaphobic as Howard Hughes. There is also his entourage, one of them played by the funny Kenan Thompson, who loves video games so much that you think – maybe for a minute or so – that his skill with a joy stick just may come in handy in the cockpit later. We also get the sexy flight attendants (played by Juliana Margulies and Sunny Mabry, the latter being a bit more promiscuous than the average stewardess). We also get a young couple of attractive newlyweds who feel the need to join the mile high club, a nasty, British SOB snob who hates dogs and kids, as well as a couple of cute kids and one dog. Oh, we also have an annoying woman that loves this dog a bit too much. Thank God that there finally exists a movie that has the nerve to actually serve up the cute pooch to the enemy without coping out. I mean, when that a-hole Brit tossed that irritating little doggie in the mouth of a giant, 22-foot long python, it was easily the most shockingly funny moment of the year.
Anyhoo’, the snakes do, in fact, get loose (this is not called SNAKES ON A PLANE for nothing) and the film has a lot of creepy and schlocky fun showing the slithery beasts bite and kill their prey. They sure do seem a lot more violent and hostile than your typical rattler. Hmmm…maybe the evil Asian mobster ensured that there were some flowers on board that contained a pheromone in them that acted as a catalyst for the snakes to channel their hostility to the point of killing everything in their path? A long shot you say? Yet, like I said, this is not you typical Asian mobster. Oh, he is also a martial artist that likes to pound on sparring partners for kicks, if putting killer snakes on board an airplane was not fun enough for him.
Most of the passengers – along with Jackson – desperately try to make the most of their situation. That is to say that they scream with hysteria, run frantically, and try to kill every one of those little (and big) mother f’ers with the implements they have available. Some of the ways Jackson’s character takes out the reptiles is kind of ingenious. At one point he makes a flamethrower out of an aerosol can with a lighter attached to it (I am sure that anyone involved with airline security will definitely take note). Other times, less sophisticated methods are used, like stepping on snakes, zapping snakes with stun guns, and shooting snakes with bullets and arrows. A life raft at one point is put to very effective use, as is olive oil. Call me crazy, but who would have thought that using a household cooking product that can deep fry food to perfection could be utilized as such an effective aid for sucking out snake poison? Note to self on next camping trip: take tent, sleeping bag, and a 2 liter jug of olive oil.
It should be pointed out that SNAKES ON A PLANE was originally rated with a more audience friendly PG-13 rating. However, with the incredible Internet buzz (and with Jackson’s own convictions), the makers gathered back the crew in March of this year to film additional hard-core, R-rated footage to help guarantee the film a more adult rating. In an age where films are slashed and burned to get their ratings down, SNAKES ON A PLANE must be the first film in recent memory to have a studio give its blessing for it to be more blue with its material. Some of the more raunchy and violent footage sticks out, like the full on nude sex scene involving a busty blonde that thankfully shows off her assets, as well some of the snake kill shots, and one infamous moment where Jackson, having enough of the snake vermin, lashes out, "Enough is enough! I've had it with these motherfuckin' snakes on this motherfuckin' plane!" Some members of the audience cheered and applauded at this moment. I was one of them.
I am not sure what else to say about the film. I guess that, on its levels, SNAKES ON A PLANE is in the grand tradition of grindhouse cinema; a type of easily dismissible and disreputable movie that achieves a level of B-grade, campy entertainment value that a lot of other “bad” films never attain. As a sublimely ridiculous and unpretentiously silly horror action film, SNAKES ON A PLANE never disguise its true motives. At face level, it does exactly what it promise to do and never – not for one of its 105 minutes – hides its true colors. When it comes right down to it, I loved the film's energetic disregard for taste, quality, political correctness, and style. Instead, it dives headfirst into exuberant and trashy waters where clichés are thrown out at the audience as fast a cobra’s venomous attack. I have no doubt that – within a few years – the film will achieve a die-hard cult following that will turn it into a event picture to be savored, like the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW’S and DEATH RACE 2000’S before it. As a cheap, low budget foray into exploitation filmmaking, SNAKES OF A PLANE is a conquest of hype that is simultaneously crude, unrefined, and lacking in any semblance of professional polish.
In other words, Roger Corman would approve.