Snakes on a Plane

Putting aside all the hype, Internet (“divine”) intervention, footage shown at San Diego's Comicon, and New Line's official list of facts and fictions, “Snakes on a Plane” emerges as the B-horror flick we expected (and wanted) it to be. As such, the movie delivers the basic goods of an R-rated horror film, with sufficient frills, thrills, and hisses for the hardcore fans, and campy humor and other generic pleasures for the crowds.

First comes first: No movie this season can beat the campy title of “Snakes on a Plane.” And let's just say that when Jackson delivers, with style and panache, the notorious line, “Enough is enough, I've had it with these motherfuckin' snakes on this motherfuckin' plane,” he brings the house down with a line that's already part of movie lore, on par with Bette Davis' memorable, “Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night” (If you don't know the source, go and look it up).

So much has been written about “Snakes on a Plane” as a popculture phenom, and as a uniuqe film co-created by the fans, that it's almost impossible to offer a more formal and detached review of the movie as movie. But here's a try.

In making the film, director David Ellis and scripters Chris Morgan and John Herrfenan exploit two of the deepest, most universal human fears: the fear of flying and the fear of snakes. When you combine these two phobias, you get straight to the essence of “Snakes on a Plane.”

Set mostly on the air, “Snakes on a Plane” assumes extra relevancy due to the new regulations in the wake of the recent terrorists networks, and, of course, the movie continues to benefit from the general anxiety of flying in the post 9/11 era, a fear that never went away.

A year ago, two movies drew on those anxieties by setting their stories 30,000 feet above ground, “Red Eye” and “Flightplan.” Both movies, particularly the Jodi Foster starrer “Flightplan,” did well at the box-office, so there's no reason why New Line shouldn't follow suit.

Combining elements of horror, actioner-thrillers, and disaster movies, “Snakes on a Plane” is a generic hybrid, though not a random or messy pastiche. Serious filmgoers should be able to detect which conventions derive from which specific genre. Those old enough to remember disaster films of the 1970s, will be surprised to realize that “Snakes on a Plane” is far more accomplished–and enjoyable–than “Airport,” “Earthquake,” and “Towering Inferno,” all of which were inexplicably nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, a phenom that will never happen today.

What elevated these flicks was not their cheesy special effects or formulaic plots, but their all-star ensembles, draging from retirement aging actors like Jennifer Jones, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, William Holden, and even Helen Hayes, who won a Supporting Oscar for “Airport!”

The premise of “Snakes” is rather simple: Samuel L. Jackson plays Neville Flynn, FBI agent who is escorting young witness Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) on flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles. During the flight, hundreds of deadly snakes are mysteriously released to make sure the flight never lands.

After a brief prologue, in which Sean inadvertently observes the crime (in a scene that recalls the beginning of “Witness”) and Flynn saves him from the hoodlums, the action switches to Honolulu's International Airport, where a gallery of colorful characters is introduced.

We meet the flight attendants, Claire Miller (Julianna Margulies of TV's “ER”), Grace (Lin Shaye) and Tiffany, and the pilots–the very Midwestern Captain Sam McKeon and the Texan-born Rick. Also on board is Ken (Bruce James), an effeminate attendant who most people assume is gay, particularly when he speaks about sports and women.

The passengers are just as eccentric as the crew, representing a cross-section of American society. Among them are newlyweds Tyler and Ashley; a heavy-set mu-mu clad woman with a taste for whiskey, a young woman with her dog; young mom Maria (Elsa Pataky) and her baby; Chinese-American Chen Leong (Terry Chen); obnoxious upper-crust passenger Paul (Gerald Plunkett); two unaccompanied minor boys Curtis and Tommy; and Kyle and Kelly, who are young lust personified.

Young viewers will sympathize with Sean, an average teenager with typical concerns of his age like dating, partying, and getting into college. However, after stumbling onto the scene of a brutal organized crime execution, he becomes the key witness in a major trial.

Older viewers may side with FBI agent Flynn, agent John Sanders (Mark Houghton) who has a deadly fear of snakes, the rookie pilot, or the frightened crew, as they must band together in a desperate attempt to survive the unexpected evil.

Flynn and longtime partner Hank Harris (Bobby Cannavale), who's on the ground and bored to death with office chores, need to make sure Jones gets to the courtroom to testify. What they dont know is that mobster Eddie Kim (Bryon Lawson) will stop at nothing to prevent Jones from taking the witness stand.

Under the FBI Witness Protection Program, Jones is transferred to L.A. as the single passenger on the upper deck of a commercial 747 airliner. The other passengers are unaware of the payload above them. Even without the snakes, there's tension in the air, caused by a delayed departure, and then when the First-Class passengers are told that their section is closed and they need to fly Coach. A snobbish passenger asks if it's safe to fly Coach” Fortunately, the 747 of Pacific Air Flight 121 is less than half full so there's plenty of space to maneuver.

In light of last week's developments in London, it's interesting to speculate what scheme Eddie Kim would come up if “Snakes” were made today In the picture, unable to board the aircraft with weapons, Yakama comes up with a horrific scheme to commandeer the plane with creatures synonymous with evil, venomous snakes.

All hell breaks loose when the snakes invade the aircraft. Flynn and Sanders must deal with the panic-stricken passengers and anxious crewmembers. Unexpectedly, a group of unlikely allies join forces to fight back. They include flight attendant Cindy and her flamboyant peer Ken, hip-hop star Three G's (Flex Alexander) and his bodyguards Troy (Kenan Thompson) and Big Leroy, arrogant co-pilot Rick, and Jones himself, who risks his life to save the passengers hes imperiled.

Simultaneously, action also takes place on the ground level, with agent Harris and snake expert Dr. Price making an effort to bring the plane down safely in L.A. Since these sequneces are talky, with Dr. Price having to explain a lot about origins and different kinds of snakes, they drag the yarn down in the last reel, and we sigh with relief when the plot oes back to the plane.

At least half of the yarn is devoted to the snakes and their vicious attacks, and a nasty aggregate they are. (Film can serve as primer for snakes, sort of “Snakes 101,” for the a combo of real and CG snakes includes just about any snake you can imagine in size or color.

It's always fun to guess which of the passengers would be attacked and killed first. Would “Snakes” subscribe to the biases of the horror genre and make its female characters the first casualties (Obviously, I can't discuss this element here).

Two things strike me about the snakes' poisonous attacks. A good deal of the action is shot from the snakes POV, turning the screen into green in what may be a first in snakes pictures.

Second, most of the violence is eroticized, some to great comedic and campy results. As you might have guessed, a snake attacks the nipple of the naked Kelly in the bathroom while having sex. In another sequence, the snakes go after the penis of an innocent passenger in the toilet. In what's probably the funniest and most vicious attacks, a long snake climbs between the legs of a fat elderly lady, who's initially completely bewildered as to why the sensation feels so good, only to get quickly sober when encountering the snake face-to-face.

Other passengers are bitten in “safer” spots of the bodies, allowing for more customary procedures to be operated on them. The director is using these sequences to show how self-absorbed people can rise to the occasion and even sarifice their lives, as is the case of the attendant who rescues Maria's baby.

Not everyone “behaves” gallantly during the crisis, and some, to protect themselves, are not above throwing a tiny dog to the snakes. Even so, it's the small, personal stories of the passengers that give the campy picture a more recognizably human face, to which we can relate.

The last act, which describes how an unlikley passenger takes over the plane when its pilots are incapable of doing so, is prepsoterous and overlong but, again, healthy humor makes it easier to take.

After the ordeal, the flight lands at LAX, and Flynn watches Sean and Harris shake hands by the waiting FBI Sedan. People are still in stretchers and body bags, when Claire embraces Flynn; exchanging pleasantries, they decide to stay in touch.

Against all odds, a new, unlikely friendship emerges. In the last scene, Flynn and Sean are seen in their swimsuits on the Oahu beach. They start paddling, catching a big wave and riding it toward the beach.

David Ellis, who previously made “Final Destination 2” and “Cellular” (both New Line Pictures) is not a particularly skillful or stylish filmmaker in the way that the director of “Flightplan” or “Red Eye” were (German Robert Schwentke and American Wes Craven, respectively). Nonetheless, he does a serviceable job in manipulating the limited space and orchestrating the snakes' various attacks with variegated tempo.

Technical contributions are good, particularly sharp cinematography by Adam Greenberg (“The Terminator”), production design from Jaymes Hinkle (“The Perfect Storm”), costume design by Karen Matthews (“White Noise”), and crisp editing by Howard Smith (“Blade: Trinity”).

Jackson, in top form and cool frame, knows how to milk his cheesy lines (and there's more than one), and its' hard to think of the last time he acted with such joy and glin in his eyes.

Nonetheless, though Jackson is the nominal star, it's the snakes, their creators and trainers that deserve special mentioning, particularly visual effects producer/supervisor Erik Henry (“Dracula”), and renowned snake handler Jules Sylvster (“Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortuinate Events”).

There is no politics, overt or covert, in the picture, no suggestion of conspiracy at higher levels, no pretense at sending serious messages about courage or other values; sheer survival is the only rule of the game.

“Snakes on a Plane” is the only B-picture this summer that's not ashamed or embarrassed by its label and grade.

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