Reptile Style 

Would-be cult classic Snakes on a Plane isn't bad enough to be good enough.

Snakes on a Plane begins with a Hawaiian montage of beautiful white, sunny beaches, gnarly, ripped-ab surfers, and leggy gals strutting in bikinis. The movie's soundtrack plays "Lovely Day" by Donavon Frakenreiter, a pop song so light it makes Dave Matthews sound threatening.

After a few moments, the action focuses on a biker riding his Kawasaki on a dirt road through lush greenery. The man starts popping wheelies and doing jumps, and though absolutely no context is given for the dirt-bike stunts, the editing and directing of the sequence are filled with enough slow-mo and close-ups that clearly we're supposed to be impressed with what we're seeing -- this world where the girls run hot and the motorcycles hotter. As the biker slides through a sharp turn, he sends a cloud of dust into the camera, and, perfectly cued, the credit "Directed by David R. Ellis" appears onscreen.

It's easily one of the worst openings in recent film history. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie can't consistently keep pace with that level of badness.

The premise of Snakes on a Plane is, well, titular. But those snakes don't just appear on that plane by magic. In fact, they're put there by the henchmen of Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson), a vaguely Asiatic gangster (he can do martial arts and he has an accent -- no more character development is attempted) who is infamous not just to Hawaiian natives but also to those visiting the islands on vacation. When X-treme motorcyclist Sean (Nathan Phillips) stops for a swig of his label-visible Red Bull, he spies Kim killing a man. Sean races off, and Kim's goons follow.

Sean is saved by FBI agent Nelville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) and placed in protective custody. Sean and Flynn board a plane bound for Los Angeles, where Sean will testify against Kim for the murder. With his back against the wall -- and because he's "exhausted every option" -- Kim puts poisonous snakes on Sean's plane to silence him forever.

In the airport terminal, we're introduced to the supporting cast of characters who we know will each either die in a horrible fashion or just barely escape. The passenger manifest includes the obvious -- the newlyweds on the way back home from their honeymoon (bonus points for the use of a double cliché: the groom is a nervous flier), two little boys who are flying for the first time without their dad (bonus points for heartstring-pulling cheese: Papa is a decorated Navy officer), and a mother and swaddled infant (bonus points for the inexplicable: English isn't her first language, but later in the movie she screams in perfect English, "My baby! My baby!"). Also on board is Flex Alexander as germophobic rapper 3-Gs, Kenan Thompson as his video-game-obsessed assistant/bodyguard, and Rachel Blanchard as the Paris Hilton-esque Mercedes, complete with a little annoying dog (named Mary Kate) in her purse. Julianna Margulies as a flight attendant and David Koechner as the doomed plane's co-pilot round out the cast.

The set-up of the film is fine, fun, and plenty bad enough. But it's when the plane is in the air and the snakes slither free from their cages that the movie underwhelms.

One of the fundamental mistakes of the reptile portion of the show is its schizophrenic identity: It doesn't know if it wants to be truly awful or if it should be memorable for its scares. Snakes on a Plane leans toward the latter, only occasionally reveling in the ridiculous (relatively speaking, of course).

Snakes on a Plane is violent enough for a movie of its ilk, including snake strikes on a woman's bare breast, a man's penis, and a couple eyeballs (admonishment for our voyeurism, I suppose), and a snake pleasures a woman before, you know, killing her.

There is some inventiveness at work, such as when a snake zips out of a barf bag right as a passenger is about to be sick. And people foaming at the mouth from snake poison has never been funnier. But a lot of the action is just generic, blurry, hissing mayhem.

Another main problem is the look of the snakes: By my reckoning, only about 30 percent of them are real, with the rest computer-generated. The eye can't easily be fooled, and it's not scary to see a clearly animated snake threaten somebody. The filmmakers should either have used more real snakes (if they wanted to make the movie more thrilling) or obviously fake, rubber snakes (if they wanted it to be funnier).

Into this lurching miasma of sometimes bad, sometimes not bad enough histrionics, Sam Jackson is thrust.

When snakes attack
  • When snakes attack
Jackson easily could have saved the movie even from its inherent flaws. But Jackson isn't given enough fun things to do or funny things to say. The first thing Jackson does to a snake menacing a passenger is to grab it by the neck and fling it aside, as if impervious to the danger. It's hilarious and in perfect keeping with Jackson's persona, carefully cultivated throughout his career, as the baddest MF'er onscreen. But Snakes on a Plane abandons its greatest asset, sidelining him for long stretches of time in favor of cheap, traditional airplane-disaster-movie thrills.

Jackson does have two of the more notable lines in the movie. One, much publicized on the Internet, has Jackson proclaiming, "I have had it with these muthafuckin' snakes on this muthafuckin' plane!" The other is of regional interest: a passenger complains how hot it is on the plane, to which Jackson responds, "I'm from Tennessee. I hadn't noticed."

Ultimately, what keeps Snakes on the ground is its own preciousness. Based on its title and the involvement of Jackson, the movie was an Internet phenomenon and cultural reference point before production even ended, and the filmmakers seem to have bought into the worthiness of their product without having properly invested in it. But they didn't get that it was never about the snakes or the plane. It's the badness, stupid.

Snakes on a Plane

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