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Snakes on a Plane

Movie Review


Well, what did we expect? For well over a year the Internet has been buzzing about this picture, based on nothing more than its high-concept title. The level of fandom itself became such a phenomenon that the producers of the movie even took the advice of bloggers and chatters in making their final tweaks to it. It was as anticipated a film as any to grace the Cineplex this summer. And now it's here. So what is there to be said? Yes, there are snakes. And yes, they're on a plane. We've gotten precisely what we've paid for, and yet disappointment hangs in the air like a deployed oxygen mask. What did we expect?

I'll tell you what I expected: that the filmmakers were in on the joke; that they understood the public perceived Snakes on a Plane to be a transcendentally tacky, tongue-in-cheek exercise - a sort of postmodern in-joke spin on the cheesy exploitation films of yore. Even with all the blogging and chatting, however, no one appears to have informed director David R. Ellis that his project was pre-hailed as a deliberately trashy funfest. Rather, he gives the impression much of the time of having attempted to make a straightforward action film, with barely a whiff of self-parody or irony.

After all, what actually happens once FBI agent Samuel L. Jackson escorts star witness Nathan Phillips onto the 747 that will carry them from Hawaii to Los Angeles so that they can put a ruthless gangster behind bars? A time-activated container in the craft's cargo hold releases a bazillion deadly reptiles of every conceivable variety, which, having been exposed to pheromones by members of the mobster's gang, slither directly up to the passenger deck and proceed to sink their fangs into every conceivable variety of human body part.

One woman is bitten on her bare breast. One fellow is bitten as he relieves himself in the john. You can guess where. Another woman takes one in the eye socket. Never have so many been bitten so fast and furiously with such diminishing results.

Ellis doesn't seem to have comprehended that, by frontloading the gore, he rapidly desensitizes his audience to it. He would have been wiser, I think, to follow Spielberg's Jaws model: Let suspense build and reveal his terrors bit by bit. Instead, he packs most of the mayhem into the opening moments of the onslaught, leaving little for his characters to do throughout the remainder of the movie but scamper from one part of the aircraft to another erecting makeshift barriers from luggage and anything else at hand.

Nothing terribly tongue-in-cheek about that. If Chuck Norris, rather than Jackson, had been cast as the FBI agent, this thing would likely have gone directly to video. At the same time, the star isn't given much to do that is very Samuel L. Jackson-y. He tells passengers not to panic. He tells his witness not to leave a secure area. He tells agents on the ground to round up a snake expert so victims will have the appropriate antivenom treatments waiting for them in L.A. Except for Tasering the occasional cobra or rattlesnake, he makes few moves you wouldn't expect from a rookie sky marshal.

The supporting cast is the sort of mixed bag of one-dimensional types you find in disaster films such as Airport, but, again, nothing more. It's not a twist on them, just another one of them. There's a famous singer, a couple who can't keep their hands off each other, a young Beverly Hills woman who carries her chihuahua in her bag, and a pair of small boys flying alone for the first time. They're like character types picked at random from a hat.

And then there are the snakes. I have a question about this: How is it that, over the years, Hollywood computer artists have worked out how to animate realistic dinosaurs, jungle animals, dragons, sharks, mythological creatures, mutant space bugs and giant apes, but still can't produce a simple serpent that doesn't look like a cartoon? There are supposedly a number of real snakes mixed in with the computer-generated horde, but all the ones I saw looked like something whipped up in an introductory CGI workshop. Next year it will be a full decade since the release of Anaconda. What's it going to take for us to see advances in this field? Government funding? A telethon?

So, did we get what we expected from Snakes on a Plane? Maybe you did. I didn't. I expected something more than an excuse for a great movie title. I expected a great, cheesy, tacky time. What I got was a routine air-disaster film that never quite took off.