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Snakes on a Plane   B-

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: David R. Ellis
Writers: John Heffernan, Sebastian Gutierrez
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Margulies, Nathan Phillips, Rachel Blanchard, Flex Alexander, Kenan Thompson, Keith "Blackman" Dallas.

Review by Rob Vaux

"There's no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you'll enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?"
--Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), Airplane!

"Snakes... why'd it have to be snakes?"
--Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), Raiders of the Lost Ark

For years, I've gone on about Dog Day movies -- those cheap, pulpy little bits of unvarnished cinematic joy that arrive each August like birthday presents. They have no ambitions beyond a quick buck. Their content is flashy, trashy, and unseemly in the extreme; they're an embarrassment to cinema as an art form, and they set the medium back to its carnival-barker days every time they appear. But they're honest in their intent and resolute in their execution. Their lowdown B-movie giddiness exhibits a strange sort of joy that no prestigious picture can ever hope to match. Whatever its failings, Snakes on a Plane understands the appeal of the Dog Days. Indeed, it endeavors to create perhaps the ultimate Dog Day event: a kitsch B-movie classic that no slasher flick or film du Vin Diesel can ever hope to match. Unfortunately, in its haste, it tries a little too hard to please, causing significant damage to its campy appeal. Part of it stems from the online buzz, which New Line surely didn't anticipate but subsequently tried to ride like a champion surfer. At times, Snakes on a Plane foists its faux hipness on us with unseemly overeagerness, a straitlaced suit so desperate to get in with the cool kids that he trips over his own two feet. Parts of the film feel slapped on at the last minute, presumably intended to heighten the postmodern quote marks around the project, and in the process, divorcing it from the very lack of pretension that makes other Dog Day movies such guilty pleasures.

Having said that, I'm damned if it isn't still a cheesy little slice of fun. Star Samuel L. Jackson was clearly in on the joke from the beginning, and director David R. Ellis lets him send up his standard-issue foulmouthed badass with only the barest hints of tongue in cheek. With him as a guide, Ellis trundles out the expected array of gruesome deaths and silly CGI with workmanlike aplomb, never pausing to consider what exactly he's gotten himself into. In so doing, he fitfully captures the hopes of a million Internet fans, while glossing over some of the movie's less savory aspects. Gratuitous exploitation? Whatever. Tasteless gay-baiting? We've seen worse. Crude emotional manipulation? Hey, man, this ain't War and Peace. There's SNAKES on the fucking PLANE!

And Ellis has a reasonably well-stocked bag of tricks to pull off his central gimmick. Jackson's federal agent Nelville Flynn boards a red-eye from Honolulu to L.A. with a federal witness (Nathan Phillips) in protective custody after stumbling across a standard-issue (and unpleasantly stereotyped) crime lord killing a prosecutor with a baseball bat. And what's such a villain to do when he might finally be fingered for the gas chamber? Plant five hundred different species of incredibly poisonous snake in the cargo hold, that's what! There are 30 minutes of dead air while we're introduced to the gaggle of hapless passengers, with nary an original trait among them. (The film's most imaginative leap? This time it's the stewardess who has one day until retirement.) But then the timer goes off, the snakes get out, and scaly bastards begin dropping down with the oxygen masks like party favors. Let the wild rumpus start.

Snakes on a Plane works best when it forgets the pop-culture baggage attached to it and just goes for the throat. The number of different snakes brings adequate variety to the mayhem, and it's hard not to cackle with glee as a passenger flings his neighbor's lap dog into the mouth of a waiting anaconda, or the expected band of survivors tries to hold off the snakes by building a mighty wall of duffel bags in first class. Jackson cheerfully bulls his way through the proceedings, and the remainder of the performances (led by Julianna Margulies' plucky flight attendant) have the right energy to get us into the mood. To them, Ellis adds a gaggle of delightfully phony special effects, enabling such time-honored schlock tactics as snakey POV shots and obnoxious supporting characters devoured whole like hogs. In such times and at such moments, the pajama-party fun comes roaring to the surface, and all the Internet hype in the world doesn't feel like it can do the movie justice.

Yet as often as those elements strike the right chord, there are an equal number that smack distressingly of studio meddling. Suggestions were apparently taken from fans on the Net, and postproduction additions were made that strain the film's hard-won sense of goofy bliss. When a horny couple gets taken out while trying to join the mile-high club, it feels less like a moment of grindhouse inspiration, and more like a memo dictated by some blow-dried CEO hoping to cash in on "what the kids want to see." Such crude efforts leave some large and very greasy fingerprints on the final film, breaking the atmosphere into uneven chunks. What could have been another Rocky Horror Picture Show periodically devolves into a queasy example of why corporate culture rarely understands the zeitgeist it's trying to bottle.

Despite that, this is still a Dog Day movie, which means there's really no point in condemning it. It has too much wink-wink fun in its corner, too much down-and-dirty zaniness that I couldn't help but embrace. The fact that it's really pretty terrible is half of the appeal -- just ask anyone who set up a website about the film or chattered with ironic excitement on a forum somewhere. At the end of the day, Snakes on a Plane plays that card well enough to satisfy. If only New Line had let the phenomenon ride unimpeded to its destination, instead of trying to shape and control it. The spontaneity they lost with their tweaking would have done wonders for the film's campy appeal, and perhaps brought it the "phenomenon" status it might otherwise have richly deserved. Instead, it's merely a diverting bit of faddish silliness; enjoyable for what it is, but presuming more in its oddly postmodern way than it has any right to. Dog Day films only work if they don't care whether you like them. By trying to hedge its bets in that department, Snakes on a Plane flirts dangerously with disaster.

Review published 08.20.2006.

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