Even before its eagerly awaited release, Snakes on a Plane has already completed the most important portion of its bizarrely unique life cycle. From screenwriter Josh Friedman’s random blog entry concerning the gestating project, to the raging Internet fan culture that subsequently arose thanks to a love for the movie’s so-bluntly-idiotic-it’s-hilarious title, to the colluding mainstream media’s decision to wholeheartedly hop aboard the New Line-stoked bandwagon, to the film’s moniker becoming a be-all catchphrase akin to “Shit Happens,” to the eventual backlash against this out-of-control hype, David R. Ellis’s thriller about, well, you know, seems to have by now enjoyed more than the 15 minutes allotted to such pop-culture fads. A feature whose pre-opening popularity stems not from its quality but from the pleasure Entertainment Weekly readers and An’t It Cool News hounds have had concocting their own mental conception of what it may, will, and—most significantly—should be, Snakes on a Plane arrives with a production saga bound to influence studio marketing strategies for years to come, as well as an extraordinary set of never-before-seen audience expectations.
Such anticipations are wholly divorced from the actual (carefully guarded) film made by Ellis and company, which involves a plane overrun by snakes that have been unleashed by a notorious criminal (Byron Lawson) intent on killing a witness (Nathan Philips) who’s being escorted from Honolulu to L.A. to testify by a cocksure F.B.I. agent (Samuel L. Jackson). And yet they’re also inextricably bound up in the final product, thanks in large part to its creators’ attempts (through rewrites and reshoots) to fashion the movie to enthusiasts’ desires, a dubious, potentially slippery slope-ish aim epitomized by star Samuel L. Jackson’s already famous, reportedly fan-authored catchphrase “I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane.” Which, in a sense, makes Snakes on a Plane—the real version, not the campy edition imagined by hoards of message boarders—something of an afterthought to the freakish phenomenon that preceded its official debut. Nonetheless, runaway excitement aside, a film does, in fact, genuinely exist. And disappointingly, if not surprisingly, it’s one incapable of adequately living up to its profuse publicity.
Unsure of whether to deliver scares or laughs, Ellis’s aerial action-adventure winds up failing to consistently offer either, its rollercoaster ride straining mightily, and ultimately futilely, to be all things to all (demographically coveted 18-24 year-old) people. It’s a reasonably democratic ideal, to be sure, and one that nicely dovetails with not only the film’s Internet-aided creative process, but also its portrait of disparate individuals—all forced, irrespective of socioeconomic status, to occupy coach seats thanks to agent Flynn (Jackson) commandeering first class for his charge’s security—coming together in a time of crisis. That the multicultural passengers aboard this treacherous flight are, without exception, stereotypes of the most unimaginative kind is itself even a subtle means by which screenwriters John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez foster an overriding atmosphere of equality, with every character (effeminate flight attendant, kids on their first airplane trip, Paris Hilton-esque ditz, egotistic rapper, Mile High Clubbers, etc.) created with identical laughable one-dimensionality, Jackson’s tepidly self-parodic performance as a super-cool badass included.
This egalitarian spirit with regard to the conception and treatment of its terrified travelers (with death coming to both the naughty and the nice) is fitting for a film that, to some degree, operates as a fancifully optimistic—and considerably patriotic—Hollywood reimagining of 9/11 (and United 93 in particular) in which unwelcome, hostile airline intruders are fended off by frightened but valiant strangers, near-fatal nosedives are narrowly averted by last-second feats of derring-do, and a superheroic G-man calmly and courageously saves the day amid an onslaught of venomous villains that, as we come to learn, include some from the Middle East. To take such allusions seriously would be to find them, in all likelihood, reductive, borderline-disrespectful, and noxious. But Ellis—adhering to on-the-ground agent Harris’s (Bobby Cannavale) climactic statement, “I don’t have time to be subtle”—is too upfront about the basic ludicrousness of his scenario (and any accompanying current events-related undercurrents) to have his popcorn flick truly offend, his dedication too extreme and, it must be conceded, occasionally amusing absurdity further confirmed by the competing sexual subtext that rears its head during the poisonous reptiles’ comically vicious attacks on male and female genitalia.
As proven by Final Destination 2 and Cellular, Ellis is a skilled genre craftsman, and yet here his direction is more slapdash than spirited, falling far short of effectively mirroring the fierceness of his slithering predators. Time and again, Snakes on a Plane stumbles when it should soar, its shock tactics so predictable (even when effective), its wealth of one-liners so deliberately cheesy, and its gory money shots of slayed innocents so self-consciously over-the-top (and uncomfortably shoehorned in, a result of the aforementioned reshoots meant to garner the pic an R rating), that one can feel it laboring to be as ridiculously outrageous as its title and premise promise. In striving to become the aeronautical equivalent of Road House, however, the film ignores the fact that so-bad-they’re-good cult classics like Patrick Swayze’s quintessentially unintentional howler are entertaining precisely because they take themselves so unreasonably seriously. The polar opposite is true of SoaP, with it painfully apparent in every exaggerated conversation, every goofy special effect, and every contrived plot twist that those both in front of, and behind, the camera are in on the decidedly thin joke—a situation that invariably transforms the entire endeavor from something exhilarating (or, at least, moderately stimulating) into an enormously self-congratulatory wink-wink shared between a smug cast and crew and their audience.