I am pleased to report that Snakes on a Plane (New Line) is everything you could want from a movie with its glorious title. When it comes to airborne serpents, there’s no possibility it leaves unexplored. Snakes in a cockpit dashboard, snakes in a barf bag, in a runaway drink cart hurtling down the center aisle—and that’s saving the best reptile-in-an-unexpected-spot gags for your viewing pleasure.
It seemed inevitable that Snakes on a Plane would disappoint after the blog-driven rush of publicity that made New Line’s marketing campaign essentially redundant. In fact, the movie itself seemed almost redundant as my viewing companion and I waited in line for the first public screening in New York City last night. (Either out of fear of bad reviews or confidence that their movie was critic-proof, New Line chose to hold no advance press screenings.) What could the mere experience of viewing the movie possibly add to the fun of having a conversation about it? In addition to riffing endlessly on the title, you could design a T-shirt or watch Samuel L. Jackson crow with delight on The Daily Show earlier this week. Snakes on a Plane seemed destined to remain more of a meta-phenomenon than an actual movie, better suited to message-board jibes than to 105 minutes of in-seat viewing.
But those of us who had no expectations—much like the characters in the movie who assumed there were no snakes on their plane—were wrong. Dead wrong. Who knows whether Snakes will have—forgive me—legs, but it’s more than awesome enough to assure opening-weekend euphoria for those who were waiting for it already, and their positive word-of-mouth should draw plenty of people who weren’t.
This is the part of the review where the plot summary usually kicks in, and I can’t go on without sounding like a total ass. You see, there are these snakes … and an Asian gangster, Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson), smuggles them onto this, um, plane … why again? Oh yeah, because a hapless Hawaiian surf rat named Sean (Nathan Phillips) is on said plane, flying to L.A. to testify against said gangster. But witnesses against organized supercriminals can’t very well travel without protection: Cue the long-awaited entry of Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson), an FBI agent whose job it is (as he coolly reminds us at regular intervals) to “handle life-and-death situations on a daily basis.” After takeoff, we’ll need a few minutes to establish the stock characters: a sharp-tongued stewardess preparing for her last day at work (Julianna Margulies), a famous rapper with a germ phobia (Flex Alexander), a ditzy model-type with a sequin-clad Chihuahua, a newlywed couple, a mother traveling with an infant, etc., etc. Then, with the timed release of some snake-angering pheromones in the cargo hold, voilà! We find ourselves in the predicament summarized by the movie’s title.
What’s surprising about Snakes on a Plane is the movie’s commitment to its own schlockiness. It’s not a slick studio vehicle with a few campy nods to old-fashioned B pictures. It actually feels like something that would be playing on network television on a long Sunday afternoon in 1980, interrupted by ads for Ronco kitchen products and starring Vincent Price, Shelley Winters, or Patrick Swayze, or any combination thereof. This schlockiness is owed in large part to the cult following Snakes built up on the Web in the year preceding its release. When the studio realized how hot their cheaply made action flick was becoming even before one frame of it had been screened, they added five days’ worth of newly shot footage, most of it centered on taboo human body parts, with or without snakes attached. The movie really earns its R rating with abundant, graphic, and utterly gratuitous nudity and gore and is decidedly not recommended for children. In fact, one of the most perverse scenes involves a baby, a rattle, and a hissing snake—it’s a moment that made even the thrill-hungry opening-night audience join in a collective “Ewww!”
And now, please return your tray tables to the upright and locked position. Because against my better judgment, I will attempt a reading of Snakes on a Plane as a post-9/11 allegory. One need not bow to allegory, really—Snakes is literally about terrorism. What else is Eddie Kim but a terrorist, bringing down an entire plane to pursue his own sick agenda? Snakes on a Plane doesn’t need to be conscious of itself as a 9/11 movie to effectively function as one. It plays on all our fears—the dangers of air travel, the death of innocents, the random appearance of evil in our daily lives—but it allows us to master those fears, and, ultimately, to achieve some measure of control over them—not to give anything away, but I think you’ve figured out this isn’t United 93. Hell, dealing with a few adders in first class would be a cakewalk compared to the al-Qaida agents we really fear.
Snakes also touches the realm of political fantasy in the figure of Neville Flynn. Jackson’s character is ultracompetent, decisive, and intelligent, both humanitarian and hardheaded: in short, everything you could want from a leader in a time of crisis. Faced with ever more absurd challenges (my second-favorite line in the movie is Jackson’s impatient, “Now what?”), he calmly figures out solutions, one snake at a time. Jackson even makes an impromptu leadership pep talk to the surviving victims. “We’re all dead!” moans one loser (who will later be swallowed whole by a python.) “I’m not,” Jackson counters crisply. It’s just what we’d like to hear our commander in chief say: Things are bad, really bad, I’m not going to lie to you people. But we’re still alive, and together we’re going to find a way to get these motherf***in’ snakes off this motherf***in’ plane.
Has any title ever presold a movie better than Snakes on a Plane? If the movie grosses big, Hollywood deal-makers will be falling all over themselves trying to come up with similar titles: vivid, catchy, and refreshingly blunt. Can you think of one of your own? I’ll send an unnamed piece of Slatemerchandise, plus a delightfully pointless Snakes-related item, to whoever comes up with the best fake movie title: one that does the marketing department’s work for them and virtually guarantees rear ends in seats on opening day. It needn’t involve animals aboard various forms of conveyance; it just needs to be evocative and funny. Send responses to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)