Has the release of any film not based on preexisting source material been met with such widespread anticipation? Like 1999's "The Blair Witch Project
," "Snakes on a Plane" has long become a pop cultural phenomenon, built through Internet buzz and media coverage, without anyone having actually seen it. The reason for all the attention boils down to one simple thing: one of the best and catchiest movie titles in memory. Regardless of the picture's actual quality, New Line Cinema virtually made a predetermined financial success out of "Snakes on a Plane" through its name alone, which embraces its cheesy descriptiveness and point-blank tells audiences precisely what they are in for. In combining two highly common human fearssnakes and flyingthe floodgates are opened with limitless possibilities in how one can play with and exploit these phobias for a mainstream audience looking for popcorn-munching thrills, chills, and plain, old mindless fun.
Holding true to its word, what you expect is exactly what you get with "Snakes on a Plane." Directed with eager-to-please giddiness by David R. Ellis (2004's "Cellular
"), the film won't be winning any Academy Awards come next year and doesn't pretend to try. The story is a disposable means to an end. The characters are strictly two-dimensional archetypes, although generally likable and not quite as stereotypical as they at first seem. The dialogue is forgettable, save for some choice one-liners that actually fit within the context. The outcome is predictable, and the principal cast members are treated a little too kindly (the body count is composed of mostly day players). Butand this is a big "but"the movie is more fun than just about every other summer release this year, bringing back to the cinema that rousing sense of joy that comes with watching a film that hasn't a deep thought in its head but knows how to excite an audience and bring them to their feet.
The eternally busy and prolific Samuel L. Jackson (2006's "Freedomland
") is FBI agent Neville Flynn, a man who must escort Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips)the witness to a mob killingon a flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles so he can testify at the suspect's trial. What Neville and the rest of the passengers, flight attendants and pilots aboard South Pacific Air 121 do not anticipate is that they are to be the innocent bystanders in a plot to wipe Sean, the one person with the power of fingering the crime boss in the murder, out of the equation. When hundreds of poisonous snakes smuggled onto the aircraft are time-released halfway through the oceanic flight, there is nowhere to land the plane and no choice but to press forward into the night and fight for their lives.
Written by Sebastian Gutierrez (2003's "Gothika
") and John Heffernan, "Snakes on a Plane" spends at least a solid thirty minutes setting up the pesky plot and introducing the large ensemble of potential victims. Once the crate of snakes are released, making their grand entrance through a hole in the bathroom ceiling as a horny couple join the mile-high club, the film takes off and rarely lets up for the next hour. Save for a few too many CGI snake shots that, overall, aren't as effective as the real ones also used, the movie pops with an adrenaline-fueled pace and a sense of unavoidable menace that comes from the very frightening idea of being stuck thousands of feet in the air with the deadliest breeds of snakes in the world.
Thank goodness the producers were smart enough to realize that a namby-pamby PG-13 rating wouldn't do; the film uses the R rating to its fullest, and the main reason audiences will be seeing "Snakes on a Plane"to watch the human prey get dispatched of in a variety of violent and graphic waysis captured in its ghastly glory. Biting unsavory body parts, spraying venom, strangulation, and, in the best scene, swallowing the head of the resident jerkyou name it, the snakes do it. The gruesome toll that the venom takes in one's body, both internally and externally, is also realistically depicted with skin-crawling relish. If director David R. Ellis ever bogs the proceedings down, it is in a subplot set on the ground as FBI agent Hank Harris (Bobby Cannavale) teams up with snake specialist Steve Price (Todd Louiso) to hunt for the anti-venom solution needed to save the infected people's lives. Fortunately, these scenes are generally short and over quickly, not posing much threat to the momentous action in the air.
The actors fulfill their required duties. Samuel L. Jackson is at his badass best as Neville Flynn, looking cool under pressure and reciting his already-famous central linedoes it even need to be mentioned?to responsive cheers from the audience. Julianna Margulies (2002's "Ghost Ship
") makes for a strong and resourceful heroine as flight attendant Claire Miller, who, of course, coincidentally is on her last flight before planning to retire from the profession. Nathan Phillips (2005's "Wolf Creek
") elicits sparks of good-looking charisma as hunted witness Sean Jones. In impressionable supporting roles, Rachel Blanchard (2004's "Without a Paddle
") brings unexpected humanity to her part as rich and pampered passenger Mercedes, and Lin Shaye (2004's "A Cinderella Story
") is an always-welcome presence as eldest flight attendant Grace, who sacrifices her life to save an endangered baby about to be swallowed up.
By chance, I happened to catch the final story in the 1983 anthology "Twilight Zone: The Movie" only minutes before heading out to see "Snakes on a Plane." In the tale, John Lithgow starred as a nervous flier whose phobia is heightened when he thinks he sees a creature on the wing of the plane trying to damage the engines. Running only about twenty minutes, the story does about as well as any movie in memory of personifying the frequent deep fear some people have of flying. "Snakes on a Plane" might not quite capture that same level of apprehensive terror, but it's close enough. Entertaining, intentionally cheesy on occasion, and legitimately suspenseful and creepythere is one huge jump-out-of-your-seat moment set in the cockpit that viewers will recognize when they're springing upwardsthis affectionate, slitheringly good ode to '80s movie-style inconsequentiality is destined to satisfy anyone willing to leave their brains at the door and go along for the turbulent ride.