Shit on Film
By Jeff Reichert

Snakes on a Plane
Dir. David R. Ellis, U.S., New Line Cinema

In the end, it’s fitting that most of the discourse surrounding David R. Ellis’s Snakes on a Plane, both pre- and post- its rather modest opening, will focus on the people-powered internet movement that thrust it into the limelight—the film itself isn’t much to speak of. Anyone who paid even the slightest attention to the hoopla surely knew this was how it would all turn out. Marking one of those odd moments where the (marginally) “cult” rubs elbows with the mainstream, Snakes had to satisfy two audiences and straddle the line between camp self-awareness and seriousness of purpose, and to its credit, it largely succeeds. This doesn’t necessarily make for worthwhile viewing. Ellis could have learned a bit from our last few election cycles, where playing strong to the base (here, the thriving fan-boy crowd) and hoping to draft from there reaped huge rewards. Instead, Snakes, by turns, takes camp too seriously (deadly) or not seriously enough (even worse), resulting in a film that I can’t imagine is terribly satisfying for anyone.

This is not to say that Snakes doesn’t have a few moments, lines, and somewhat imaginative deaths to its credit (a close-up of a snake latching on to an exposed breast is particularly memorable). But it’s obvious that all has gone awry right from the opening credits, which feature neither snakes nor planes, but beautiful Hawaiian vistas underscored by irritatingly anonymous coffee-house MOR. The ten minutes of exposition that follow are largely superfluous and could have all been easily dispatched with a few lines of pre-flight dialogue to make for a much leaner film, and Ellis never manages to quite shake this introductory soddenness. Everything in Snakes just takes too damn long—the march of the reptiles from the cargo hold to the passengers is excessively protracted, two frenzied retreats to different areas of the plane is one more than necessary, and too many obstacles are thrown up against the plane’s eventual landing. I guess that’s all a long-winded way of saying that the initial hilarity of imagining the possibilities of snakes-on-a-plane doesn’t quite bear out over the course of a feature. Thankfully, though, Ellis doesn’t expend any significant time trying to explain the ludicrous box-of-snakes assassination strategy—that could have warranted its own feature.

So what did I really expect? Not a great deal, but one wonders how the fine folks at Troma might have made out with this elegantly simple, if logically improbable concept. With them at the helm I would imagine dozens more rubber snakes (the digitized versions in Ellis’s vision, while realistic, only serve to detract from the fun), far more memorably bad one-liners delivered with conviction by a cast of mediocre unknowns, a two- to three-fold increase in comically gruesome deaths and some sort of off-kilter social commentary laced throughout (try to find any shred of The Toxic Avenger’s awareness here and you’ll hurt yourself). In short: all of the necessary elements of camp and cult. Ellis does satisfy with corpses discolored and bloated by venom poisoning—I can’t imagine this bears any relationship to the reality of death by snake, but willful suspension of reality is the essential idea that’s lacking here. I do also like his grace note: amidst the host of fast, deadly vipers, a 300lb behemoth of a python crawls slowly along until afforded the chance to crush and swallow a particularly cranky passenger. It’s the only time in the film I was at all thankful for the onset of digital effect-making, though pulling this off with rubber models might have been even more spectacular.

Memorable moments, but what will most stick with me is how Snakes marks the completion of Samuel L. Jackson’s move from character actor to nominal leading man to caricature. In his favor, Agent Flynn is a thankless role; aside from delivery of the oft-repeated mantra, the man doesn’t have much to do except dodge cobras. It’s only scattered supporting players/archetypes who seem really in on the joke: Julianna Margulies (tough, but sexy stewardess, working her last flight before law school), Rachel Blanchard (last seen taking Bacon in Where the Truth Lies, here pouty starfucker Mercedes, complete with frivolous chihuahua), and Byron Lawson (hilariously overdetermined Asian gangster—note the samurai armor in his Zen Palate hideout) most especially. Nathan Phillips’s (ostensible hero sidekick, and object of this convoluted assassination attempt) meet cute with stewardess Sunny Mabrey is rote and necessary, but both seem a little lost amidst more well-defined, charismatic performers.

Great art isn’t often made by commission, and since the commission that Ellis took direction from was “the internet,” it’s surprising that Snakes on a Plane isn’t even more of a hopeless muddle. (See if you can guess which sequences were add-ins to make things a little racier.) A few months ago the buzz focused on this near-unprecedented instance, which allowed audiences to interact with a film in myriad ways before completion (this wasn’t the simple “yes,” “no,” and “kinda” of post-test screening focus groups). Most pundits presumed this ingenuity would create the ultimate niche of folks invested in paying for the final product. By now (though we’ll see how DVD does) it’s fairly obvious that the folks who participated in the internet campaign liked the idea of Snakes on a Plane and its interactive marketing more than they cared about the film itself. This will surely lead to further questions about the power of the internet amongst other media to drive economics, questions that will only be answered over time as other more traditional outlets wane further. The critical mistake here may have actually been one of over-exposure: there’s no way New Line could have squashed the spontaneous cult that sprung up around the film, but by actively abetting it so far in advance, they may have effectively blown a golden opportunity. Marketing trumps quality often enough in the movie business that I won’t make some outrageous claim here, but I think that after months of discussion, the fatal flaw only becomes more glaring: At this point most folks have already imagined for themselves a much better Snakes on a Plane than Ellis could ever have delivered.