The most frightening moment in "Snakes on a Plane" occurs when one of the passengers, a germaphobic hiphop star played by Flex Alexander, takes out a bottle of Prell hand sanitizer. If this carefully cultivated "alternative" cult item were really up to date, the moment would be a major subplot. Grab him--he's got a bomb! How'd he get past security?
The snakes certainly did. Less campy than expected, a visual drag yet undeniably snake-filled, "Snakes on a Plane" comes with its own set of talking points on the subject of where its disposable and semi-anonymous characters get bitten. All anyone was talking about after the 10 p.m. Thursday screening I saw related to bite locations. Snake between the legs! Snake in the eye socket! This isn't a movie, it's a list of where you wouldn't want a snake.
It hasn't been much of a moviegoing summer. Therefore it is a prime summer for "Snakes on a Plane," a film with the soul of an "Alligator"-era programmer and an air of queasy self-mockery. Director David R. Ellis and screenwriters John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez try a little of everything, as if they're dragging out recyclables to the curb for the producers to take to the set. A kick-boxing scene or two? Good. Guy on a dirt-bike tooling around Hawaii? Fine. Mile-high sex scene in the john, just to justify the R rating? Whammy!
So: The snakes. They're smuggled onto the Hawaii-to-L.A. flight by a mobster trying to prevent a murder witness (Ethan Phillips, who'd rather be dirt-biking) from testifying in court. Samuel L. Jackson plays the FBI agent escorting the witness.
The snakes are a rough international lot. Hopped up on pheromones, they leap out of barf bags and rain down with the oxygen masks and slither around latrines and smoke-detector ceiling units. Much of the pre-strike footage is filmed in snake-o-vision, an "X-Files" green-tinted snake's eye-view perspective.
I saw the film with a high school and college-age crowd, ready to heckle. Every time David Koechner (as a smarmy pilot) was about to get fanged, somebody in the crowd yelled out his "Whammy!" line from "Anchorman," a film more fun than "Snakes on a Plane" and "Talladega Nights" put together and tied up with a snake. The crowd laughed at "Snakes on a Plane" when it was stupid and laughed with it when it was a different sort of stupid.
"Snakes on a Plane" represents a fairly craven mixture of deliberate cheese and inadvertent lameness, plus fangs. It can't lose. If it were flat-out bad, it'd be taken as intentionally bad and therefore "good." If it were actually good, it'd be a nice surprise and more or less beside the point. To the crowd Thursday night, chanting and screaming and reciting Web-tested, Web-approved dialogue right along with Jackson, quality wasn't an issue. The audience has been in on the joke since last year. By now "Snakes on a Plane" feels like a remake.
As a scare machine it's cruddy looking and oddly paced. The nastiest snake attacks come at you in a tumble in the middle section, bam-bam-bam. After that it's just bam bam bam bam, every now and then, in between half-kidding, half-serious scenes of passengers trying to suck the venom out of other passengers, or Jackson and crew trying to fly the plane without a pilot. Julianna Margulies plays a surreally calm attendant with an immobile forehead (what, was she bitten by a snake in a prequel?). The kind of acting Jackson does in "Snakes on a Plane" is what you'd call "oh, well" acting. He doesn't commit to the tender, sincere exchanges any more than the screenwriters do. He blithely Tasers one computer-generated or genuine, 100-percent, no-snakes-were-harmed snake after another, or goes at 'em with a fire extinguisher.
Me, I liked "Anaconda" better: One big snake instead of a million smaller ones, Jennifer Lopez at her most jungle-feverish, Jon Voight and that unlocatable dialect. I do think genuine possibilities exist in the idea of re-releasing films that flopped earlier this year, but with snakes this time. "Snakes on the Poseidon." "Snakes in a Lake House." "Ask the Dust, and Mind the Snakes."
'Snakes on a Plane'
Directed by David R. Ellis; screenplay by John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez; cinematography by Adam Greenberg; edited by Howard Smith; production design by Jaymes Hinkle; music by Trevor Rabin; produced by Gary L. Levinsohn, Don Granger and Craig Berenson. A New Line Cinema release; now in theaters. Running time: 1:46. MPAA rating: R (for language, a scene of sexuality and drug use, and intense sequences of terror).
Neville Flynn - Samuel L. Jackson
Claire Miller - Julianna Margulies
Sean Jones - Nathan Phillips
Three G's - Flex AlexanderCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun