Samuel L Jackson
David R Ellis
“Snakes – why did it have to be snakes?”
The answer, Indiana, is that snakes have it all: they are silent, cold-blooded killers, capable of using lethal poison and bone-crushing constriction; their phallic form makes them Freudian symbols par excellence; and since as early as Genesis they have been the embodiment of pure evil. Like Venom (1981) and Anaconda (1997) before it, David R. Ellis’ Snakes on a Plane deploys every one of these associations to enrich all its herpetological havoc.
The more important question to be asking is “why did it have to be on a plane?”, and the answer surely lies in the aerial anxieties created by the events of September the eleventh. It might be closer in spirit to airborne post-9/11 shock schlock the likes of Red Eye and Flightplan, but in truth Snakes on a Plane, featuring passengers forced to work together against a deadly threat, is exploiting the very same fears addressed more soberly by United 93. It is very much a film for our times.
Earning itself a huge cult fanbase before it was even made (let alone seen), written not just by committee but by blog, and with a title that sounds like a piss-taking pitch, Snakes on a Plane has benefited both from the enthusiastic participation of its star Samuel L. Jackson, and from one of the canniest viral marketing campaigns since 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, allowing it to soar above its apparent destiny as B-grade straight-to-video fodder.
The plot is pretty much what it says on the tin. After witnessing a vicious gangland killing in Hawaii, Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) finds himself being escorted to testify in a Los Angeles court by FBI agent Neville Flynn (Jackson), who has commandeered the first class section of a commercial red-eye flight for the purpose – except that ruthless kingpin Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson) will stop at nothing to prevent Sean talking, and so has had crateloads of deadly serpents smuggled into the hold (“You think I didn’t exhaust every other option?” he asks, nonsensically).
Stimulated by pheromones, the fanged slitherers have been driven into an aggressive frenzy – “snakes on crack”, as Neville puts it in one of many memorable one-liners – and when they are not fouling up the plane’s operating mechanisms (raising the risk that “this bird goes down faster than a Thai hooker”), they are rapidly killing off passengers, cabin crew and even the pilot, leaving it up to Neville and a motley band of surviving stereotypes to deal with “these motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane”.
There can be no doubting Snakes on a Plane‘s status as the pop phenomenon du jour – but does it have legs as a viewing experience? The answer is a qualified yes. It is knowingly preposterous enough to immunise itself against normal standards of criticism – cheesiness, absurdity and shameless clich being amongst its chief assets. It has the kind of ‘ironically’ naff lines that will have audiences cheering and hooting in the aisles, it is fast-paced and genuinely thrilling, and it features a breath-taking array of creative deaths by snake – many of which are sniggeringly sexualised.
Reflecting the film’s priorities, the press notes say nothing about the (underwhelming) work of the writing team, but devote two pages to the (extraordinary) craft of the snake wranglers.
So if you are watching Snakes on a Plane for its intellectual qualities or its artistic merits, you are simply missing its point – this is a rollercoaster ride of lurid sensationalism and hilarious heroics, with absolutely no pretensions to being anything else. And yet, and yet. Even if viewed entirely on its own terms, this film, like any snake, tapers at its end.
After a succession of thrilling twists that repeatedly ratchet up the tension and push the film’s premise to the absolute limit, in its final, near serpent-free climax, Snakes on a Plane simply runs out of over-the-top ideas, and leaves its viewers, by now ready for anything, waiting for a final pay-off that never comes.
It is as though, at just the point when the film should be making its most ferocious strike on the senses, it has instead been crudely defanged – and the disappointment that this brings tends to poison one’s overall impression of the film.
As ‘bad films’ go, Snakes on a Plane is certainly not so bad – but the truth is that director Ellis’ earlier Final Destination 2 (2003), though much less hyped, is a whole lot better