OK, nobody was expecting this near-disaster area of a movie to actually be any good — but at least it doesn’t even pretend to be any good. Snakes on a Plane is cheerfully shitty, from the barely-diegetic sex scene that shoves some tits onto the screen to the cheap frights when phony-looking CG snakes explode toward the camera lens. (Why didn’t New Line shell out for an Imax 3D version of this one?) The biggest liability may be the tension you can sense between the humble B-movie that was made when New Line wanted a PG-13 trifle, and the significantly cockier picture that was patched together in reshoots after the unprecedented Internet buzz encouraged the studio to forge ahead with an old-fashioned R-rated creature feature. Since most of the really gruesome material takes place in the digital realm, it’s easy to imagine how the bulk of the film’s graphic violence could be dialed up in the post process. But the film has the feel of a disjointed mix-and-match mess. Because that won’t matter to anyone but pointy-headed critics, New Line was quite right to refuse screenings of this to the press. Besides, it’s fun to see a more-or-less completely unknown quantity with a noisy crowd on opening night.
Director David R. Ellis is a former stuntman, and while he doesn’t seem to have any special talent for direction (much of the action here is borderline incoherent), on the evidence of this and Final Destination 2 he does have a mean streak a mile wide. Don’t get me wrong — that can be an asset in a horror movie. The best bits of Snakes on a Plane are the brutish snakebite moments, whether they’re cut together haphazardly for shock value or staged with loving precision. Someone gets it in the tit, someone else gets it in the crotch or the ass or the eye socket. One weird, iconic shot involving a giant boa having its way with an obnoxious victim is truly creepy — composed almost as portraiture, it’s the one image in the film that approaches real horror.
Otherwise, there’s not much for the thinking viewer — which Snakes on a Plane tries its best to render obsolete — to latch onto. If you really search for some content being smuggled on this genre train, I suppose you could consider the whole thing a parody of the fear of flying in a post-9/11 world — a point that’s made apparent only in the music video that plays alongside the end credits, where a passenger smuggles suitcases of snakes past security by flashing booby at the guy running the X-ray machine. (Also, first-class passengers are forced to mingle with those flying coach — a potentially funny idea that goes nowhere once all hell breaks loose.) Maybe I’m just getting old, but it bugs me that there’s still this perceived equivalence between fun movies and dumb ones. Unhinged genre pictures can be great fun and still have something significant on their minds. When it comes down to it, I’d much rather see Snake Plissken on a plane.
Anyway, the tongue-in-cheek ad campaign lowered the bar so dramatically that Snakes on a Plane comes off as a cheer-worthy triumph largely on the virtue of never being boring. (It would be lost, though, without Samuel Jackson’s presence.) I can’t decide if the remarkable connection forged between the filmmakers and their eventual audience (Jackson’s signature line of dialogue, “I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane” was spliced into the picture after it became a kind of Internet meme) is encouraging or depressing. Certainly seeing this thing with an enthusiastic crowd — a guy dressed as Batman holding court in the theater lobby, eating a cheeseburger; one dude in a T-shirt reading “Plane” carrying another dude in a T-shirt reading “Snakes” on his shoulders — was a blessedly goofy experience, bringing back my own memories of being a teenager and college student in the 1980s, when event movies really were events (largely because they didn’t show up on DVD three months later) and you lined up for hours just to make sure you could get a ticket to see the movie on opening night on the biggest screen within a 100-mile drive. Of course, we had Indiana Jones. Our counterparts today have, well, Snakes on a Plane. And acres of ironic distance between their own heads and what’s going on up on screen.