Hype meets bite in Snakes on a Plane, a movie borne aloft by a publicity blitzkrieg and the enthusiasm of Internet film geeks who embraced its old-school exploitation title. The film was not screened in advance for critics, which makes sense not only because the entertainment media are always happy to push films sight unseen (even Jon Stewart shilled for it), but also because all anyone really needs to know about this amusingly crude, honestly satisfying artifact is snakes + plane + Samuel L. Jackson.
As it happens, Snakes on a Plane isn't just about rubber reptiles and Jackson spewing pearls of profanity; it's also a solid, B-movie-style entertainment crammed with “Boos!” and scented with a whiff of social metaphor. Made on the cheap, the film is a self-conscious throwback to disaster flicks of the 1970s, like Airport and Earthquake, in which small groups of people unite against adversity or, in this case, a plane full of poisonous snakes hopped up on pheromones. Or, as Jackson's character, a tough-talking FBI agent named Neville Flynn, spins the setup, “Great, snakes on crack.”
Since the film has clearly been built around its title, the snakes are on crack and on that plane for the flimsiest of reasons. Zipping through Hawaii's back roads on a dirt bike, Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) stumbles on the crime kingpin Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson) wielding a baseball bat in a spotless white suit. After witnessing some crushing blows and an artful splatter of blood, Sean skedaddles, bullets and bad guys hot on his heels. He subsequently lands under the protective watch of the FBI, which persuades him to testify against Kim, which is how he and Flynn end up on the red-eye to Los Angeles.
Snakes on a PlaneDirected by David R. EllisStarruing: Samuel L. Jackson (Neville Flynn), Julianna Margulies (Claire Miller), Nathan Phillips (Sean Jones), Rachel Blanchard (Mercedes), Flex Alexander (Three G's)Running time: 105 minutesTaiwan Release: Today
There are several different ways to die from an encounter with a snake, and this film has them all. Not long after the seatbelt lights turn off, the rubber, computer-generated and (several hundred) live snakes slither into the main cabin, where they proceed to sink fangs into faces, necks, limbs, torsos, one bared and bountiful female breast and the unseen organ of a male passenger who forgets the No. 1 rule of using strange restrooms: check the toilet bowl.
Written by John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez, from a story by Heffernan and David Dalessandro, Snakes on a Plane is an effectively blunt instrument. There are snakes and smoke, giggles and shrieks, slamming edits and lots of goosy, lurch-in-your seat moments. Mostly, of course, there are snakes and Sam. At once hard-working and hardly working, Jackson turns in one of his customary performances, meaning that he glowers, barks and periodically unleashes a 13-letter epithet the way only he can.
What the film earns somewhat more slyly is a firm slot in the cultural landscape, not least because of its scarily timely setting. This is, after all, Snakes on a Plane, not Snakes on a Greyhound Bus. But unlike Flightplan and Red Eye, two other recent airborne thrillers, Snakes on a Plane is less about surviving on airplanes than wresting control of them. In other words, it's United 93 without the tears. The filmmakers don't overplay the political angle, though they do squeeze in a Middle Eastern snake and a scene of an FBI agent sneering about the ACLU. Mostly, though, what they give us is the chance to win, not with righteous morality, but with an old-fashioned swagger that says, much like the film itself, Hey, we may be stupid, but we rock.