Sunday, August 20, 2006

In Theaters: Snakes on a Plane

[Image yoinked from Empire Movies]

The hype about SNAKES ON A PLANE has had an interesting effect. On the one hand, as with any film so heavily anticipated, it's bound to disappoint; on the other, what it promises is so basic, it really can't. It didn't promise quality, or suspense, or even humor- just the basic novelty of Samuel L. Jackson battling snakes on an airplane. In this way it's almost like the classic exploitation movies of the fifties, sixties and seventies, offering a kind of "high concept" where the audience is pulled in because of an interesting premise- killer snakes on an airplane, a man growing fifty feet tall, aliens creating zombies, etc. It's a great way to hedge one's bets against a perpetually volatile box office. On the other, other hand, the possibility always exists that someone will sit down and say "okay, there are snakes on a plane. Is this really what I wanted?" So it's pleasant to discover that the movie actually kind of works, and has a bit more going for it than just the inherent appeal of Samuel L. Jackson fighting snakes in midair. Not a lot more, but enough.

Jackson plays FBI Agent Flynn, a badass superagent who is assigned to protect Sean (Nathan Phillips), an innocent surfer dude who happened to witness mob boss Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson) murder an L.A. prosecutor (the lesson here is to never do assassinations yourself.) Sean needs to be flown from Hawaii to Los Angeles to testify, and he and Flynn sit in first class while a variety of colorful passengers are bumped to coach. Meanwhile, Eddie Kim has launched a plan that, though inefficient, wins points for style- to kill the witness, he's had the plane loaded with a variety of exotic poisonous snakes, and a small explosive launches them from the cargo bay while the plane is in midair. As one might imagine, carnage ensues, and Agent Flynn must unite the passengers to fight off the reptilian attackers (enraged by pheromones sprayed on the leis that passengers were decked with prior to boarding.)

As we know, while this film was still being shot, it gained a following among internet hipster-types (myself included) who were tickled at the idea of a film with such a cheesy yet straightforward title and premise. As a result, the filmmakers ramped up both the humor and exploitation value, reshooting scenes to include more graphic violence, swearing, gratuitous nudity, and of course more snakes. A line from a fan-made trailer- "I want these motherfucking snakes off this motherfucking plane!"- was put in the film proper (two guesses as to who says it, and the first doesn't count.) As a result the film's campier than was probably originally intended, and if you look closely you can see the seams- some bits are more serious and dramatic than others, some are obviously there for the cheese value. The film could have easily fallen apart into an incoherent mess, or tipped so far into deliberately comedy as to be neither funny nor scary.

Fortunately, the filmmakers seem to have made an honest go at making a monster movie, and not a spoof of one. There are still shocks, and jolts, and the characters, including an OCD rap star (Flex Alexander), his video-game obsessed bodyguard (Kenan Thompson), a strangely likable Paris Hilton type (Rachel Blanchard), and a decidedly effeminate steward (Bruce James), are extremely broad, but endearing in an Irwin Allen sort of way. (David Koechner is particularly amusing as the plane's co-pilot.) There's also a couple of nice low-key romances, between Flynn and stewardess Claire Miller (Julianna Marguiles), and Ethan and younger flight attendant Tiffany (Sunny Mabrey). All that, plus kids in peril, adds up to a nice visceral pull- as campy as things may seem at times, you don't want the snakes to kill everyone.

The snakes themselves, though obviously computer generated, make for good monsters, animated with personality and a flair for the theatrical (as well as a tendency to aim for the naughty bits.) They pop out of places they couldn't possibly have gotten into, stay silent until they're just in frame, and always rear before striking. Their rampage is accompanied by a good Trevor Rabin score. I also appreciated how colorful the movie was, seeing as it was preceded by trailers for a pair of horror films where only two shades were permitted in any given frame. Indeed, of the films I've seen this summer, this is the most unashamedly, unabashedly fun; where even the new PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN took a turn for the dark and dramatic, this has a bouncy, perky tone even when snakes are killing people. There's something charming about that in this day and age.

I think the fear I had was that, after all was said and done, this would just be another disposable thriller with a cool title. Instead the filmmakers, whether on purpose or by accident, found the right balance between humor and horror, and the resulting epic, full of pretty girls and scary snakes, satisfies in a way that so many attempts at modern B-movies don't. Sci-Fi Channel, are you paying attention?

Story by David Dalessandro and John Heffernan
Screenplay by John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez
Directed by David R. Ellis

Grade: B+

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