Director David R. Ellis (“Final Destination 2”, “Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco”) tackles his first big non-sequel in “Snakes on a Plane,” a film that, if pre-release hype had proved true, was destined for blockbusterdom. But the gleeful incredulity of the public, reveling in this most self-mocking of titles, seemed content to snigger and wait for the DVD release. The title, the signature Samuel L. Jackson line, the bonus music video — all these testified to a kind of 21st century “Airplane!”. And while it was hilarious, laughing at this movie quite often had the uncomfortable, awkward feeling of also wanting to throw up.
Basically, Sean (Nathan Phillips) — surfer, heart-throb? — witnesses the revoltingly sound-byted murder of a prosecutor by arch-crimeboss Eddie Kim. Agent Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) rescues Shawn from certain Asian hit-man death and convinces him to testify against Kim — all so that they can board a plane from Hawaii to L.A. Indeed this trajectory towards lift-off is such that no room is left for other, common movie elements (say, character development).
Snakes provides the cliched characters of a comedy and duly exploits those cliches for laughs (the gay steward, the womanizing co-pilot, the guy who hates flying), but then, when the snakes attack, it also wants us to care about generally flat characters — not always, mind you — just sometimes. Sometimes you’re supposed to laugh at the snakes. The snake that bites the dude’s penis: funny; the snake that bites the slut’s breast, Clytemnestra-style: disturbing, but kind of funny; the guy whose head gets impaled by a woman’s stiletto: so incredibly, revoltingly vile. The comedic side of the film seems almost an afterthought: the hurried and untidy varnish on a poorly constructed chiffon robe.
It’s as though someone in Hollywood said, in all seriousness: “Okay, terrorists are so cliche these days … Wait! Let’s put snakes on a plane — it’ll be like Jurassic Park in the air!” The problem was that the movie must have already been made before anyone realized that it was based on a completely ridiculous premise. Thus, Hollywood was left with a movie that could not possibly rise above a film rife with the unsympathetic slaughter of characters taking themselves and their situation very seriously. The comedy enters from hindsight, yet the recourse is to superimpose hyperbole and elevated gruesomeness rather than a synthetically-integrated sense of humor. You can almost tell where extra “nast” has been inserted for increased viewing pleasure. Yet the can of Red Bull shotgunned into this fledgling gore-flick only makes it quiver and spasm.
“Snakes” was just too much — too many snakes, too many victims. It’s really unfortunate that some modicum of artistic restraint was never engaged because it’s almost a really good movie. There are some great, creative elements in this movie: the health-freak rapper, the steward and stewardesses (who somehow manage to become the most sympathetic characters in the short space of their brilliant pre-flight safety demonstration — especially Julianna Margulies’s Claire because she was great on “ER”), the snake-skin boots of the co-pilot, the charmingly laconic kickboxer. But even they can’t quite constitute a core group, individually known, about whom the audience can really care and follow. “Snakes” just becomes a sprawling, ADD series of venomous deaths that lacks motive and suspense. I kind of loved it.
What I wholeheartedly loved — and what is the greatest proof of a post-production decision to convert B-movie violence into a ridiculous snake-romp — was the Cobra Starship music video of “Snakes on a Plane” that capped off the extravaganza. It was straight out of H&M: pretty, thin, hip people wearing pretty, thin, hip clothes singing an amazing pop anthem with a chorus of “so kiss me goodbye, I can see the venom in your eyes.” If nothing else, this film has blessed YouTube with yet another amazing internet phenomenon. Watch it. And if you want more, North Haven is just around the corner.