Snakes on a Plane does its potential detractors a great service: it wears its plot right out on its sleeve. As the tagline for the 1982 chainsaw Z-movie Pieces once intoned: "It's exactly what you think it is." The title has an air of William Castle about it, and has inspired all manner of parodies (Snakes on Claire Danes) and Cassandra-like predictions that it might be the worst film ever made. The latter is a notion given credence by New Line Cinema's almost slavish insistence on reshaping the film based on noisy Internet buzz from potential fans, and its subsequent refusal to screen Snakes in advance for critics. The defiance of a title like Snakes on a Plane makes it practically complaint-proof. It says: if you want to see the titular objects, you'll buy a ticket; if you do not, and you buy a ticket anyway, then you're a money-wasting jackass.
After star Samuel L. Jackson's Entertainment Weekly explanation for the lack of critics' screenings ("Those motherfuckers don't need to watch this!"), I figured Snakes on a Plane would be as bad as Strays, the USA Network movie about cats (represented in one scene by two fake paws on a stick) killing people. Predictably, I couldn't wait to get bitten by the flying snakes. After all, I run the Shameful Movies of Odie's Past Film Festival. But New Line's skittishness was for naught; far fewer critics went Rikki-Tikki-Tavi on Snakes on a Plane than they expected, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a fairly well-crafted B-movie projected onscreen, one that made no attempt at seriousness nor achieved a higher station than its pedigree required. If you're ophidiophobic, or suffer from the fear of flying not specified by Erica Jong, SoaP might freak you out. Everyone else should have a good, goofy time.
A few weeks ago, House contributor Wagstaff published a piece about the communal experience of watching movies in a theater. He wrote: "The thing I felt most palpably was the missing presence of a teenage audience on a Friday night. This stuff was a lot more fun back when your friends were laughing and groaning, or when your sweetheart was clutching your arm." This is the perfect environment for Snakes on a Plane. The movie demands to be seen in a theater with a rowdy crowd. It seems engineered to invite an improvised commentary track. Every bad line or violent act invites a scream, a jump, a laugh or a comment. Anticipating this, I saw the film at the Empire on 42nd St., a magnet for the kinds of audiences Wagstaff misses. It's also a nostalgic locale for me, a veteran of 1970s Times Square grindhouse double features.
Director David Ellis would have comported himself nicely back in the day; he knows how to goose and goad, most notably in the scene that initially illustrates the title, in which a clichéd red-digit bomb counter ticks its way to zero on the snakes' carrier, signalling their release onto a passenger jet. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) The Empire audience counted "10...9...8..." and when the snakes burst forth to wreak havoc, the theater vibrated with excitement. We were about to see a little of the old ultraviolence. The first victims of the snakes are a mile-high club newlywed couple and a guy answering the last call of nature he'll ever hear. As the snakes gleefully zeroed in on the not-ready-for-prime-time bits of the human body, everyone went wild. The scent of baser instincts permeated the theater, intermingling with the sickly sweet smell of imitation butter topping. I was in Heaven.
Prior to getting on the plane, Ellis and company set up the obligatory sliver of plot on which to hang the carnage. In Hawaii, surfer dude Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) witnesses Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson) playing baseball with a district attorney's head, then flees; Kim sends his men to his house to get him. When Sean hears someone fiddling with the door, he looks through the peephole to see the henchmen; then Ellis cuts to the lock coming undone. ("You better run!" screamed a woman in the theater.) Sean heeds the woman's advice, and runs directly into the film's resident mongoose, FBI agent Samuel L. Jackson ("How da hell did he know where to find this guy?" yelled an audience member who sounded like me.) "Do as I say, and you live!" commands Sam. Gunfire ensues, and then, at the police station, Sam convinces Sean to testify against Kim in Los Angeles. But rather than just shoot Sean, Kim sends him a time-released present. Loading poisonous snakes on a plane to kill one person is like shooting a fly with an AK-47, but then, Kim is an overachiever. "One time," says overly cheerful flight attendant Tiffany, "Kim gouged a guy's eyes out...and then fed him to pigs!"
Since this isn't Snakes on a Carnival Cruise, Sean and Sam board a plane serviced by flight attendants Julianna Marguiles, Bruce James, and New Line Cinema staple Lin Shaye (sister of the company's founder Bob). We meet, Airport-style, the snake fodder in first class and coach—an angry Brit, a germaphobic rap star with two bodyguards, a guy with a fear of flying, a woman with her newborn, the aforementioned horny newlyweds, a Paris Hilton-esque snob named Mercedes carrying a rat dog in her purse, and two cute little kids flying solo for the first time. Everything you expect to happen does. The newborn baby disappears. The kids are imperiled. The snippy rat dog finally earns some sympathy. When the oxygen masks drop down, so do snakes. People sacrifice themselves to save others, or get their comeuppances; a fair number wind up with nasty snake bites whose R-rated reshoots are barely stitched into the fabric of their PG-13 originals. Julianna Marguiles quotes Julie Hagerty in Airplane, and Sam reminds us that nobody, except my mother, uses profanity better. As the film neared its climax, the gentleman in front of me asked, "so when does Sam say muthafucka?" As if the film had ears, the next image was a medium shot of Sam bellowing the catchphrase of 2006. "Enough is Enough! I have had it with these muthafuckin' snakes on this muthafuckin' plane!" I thought the roof on the Empire was coming off; the cheers were deafening. (This movie knows how to cater to its audience: the ultimate hero of Snakes on a Plane fits the profile of the excited Internet guys who made this a minor phenomenon. Sam brings the braggadocio and the brawn, but a knowledge of Playstation 2 saves the day.)
The main actors acquit themselves nicely, considering some of the horrible dialogue they're asked to utter. Phillips has little to do, but Marguiles, Shaye and Kenan Thompson evoke intentional laughs and expected sympathy. Sam is Sam, the badass whose mouth sends the church folks running for the exits, and though Ellis puts him in some jeopardy via a smartly rendered scene full of wires hanging from the ceiling (one of which just has to be a snake, doesn't it?), we know he's leaving the plane unscathed. Snakes on a Plane isn't Citizen Kane, but it isn't Ben on a Jen (ahem, Gigli) either. It's a cliché to say a B-movie is better than expected, but a cliché is the best instrument to describe a movie comprised of little else.
A side note to those who had SoaP pegged as the stupidest idea for a snake movie ever: In 1973, Strother Martin starred as a sinister snake scientist in yet another standard-issue sci-fi stinker from Universal Studios, titled Sssssss (yes, that's seven S's). Strother sticks his assistants with serum-filled shots, turning them into super-sized snakes; despite the symptoms, his latest mark, Dirk Benedict, never seems to realize he's succumbing to a serpentine metamorphosis. The last scene sends Benedict, now a giant cobra, straight to the business end of a mongoose. Now that's stupid.