WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Young surfer dude Sean Jones is definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time when he stumbles across gangster Eddie Kim murdering a prosecutor in Hawaii. FBI hotshot Neville Flynn promises to protect Sean as he’s secretly transported on a domestic flight to Los Angeles, but he’s tested like never before when Eddie catches on and unleashes a cargo-load of hyperactive, venomous snakes on the flight and its unwitting passengers.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged – or if it isn’t, it damn well should be – that the internet is simultaneously the greatest and most horrendous invention of modern times. One of its more peculiar effects is that it allows for enormous amounts of instant feedback on almost any topic, often tongue-in-cheek feedback by tech-savvy youngsters that crusty old moneymen don’t quite know what to do with. Such was the furore over the mere name Snakes on a Plane that studio bosses were convinced not only to keep the once-working title but to up the ante on the film’s swearing, sex, violence and gore. All that, just for some corners of the web to react to the film’s release with ‘Is that all it is – snakes on a plane?’
To its credit, Snakes on a Plane gets cracking pretty quickly. Motorbike enthusiast Sean (Nathan Phillips) is hanging out in Honolulu when he finds himself face to face with a tortured prosecutor at the wrong end of mobster Eddie Kim’s (Byron Lawson) bad mood. In fleeing, Sean is spotted by Eddie and his henchmen, who instantly come to get him.
Luckily – and for reasons that are never explained – Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) is on the case and arrives in the nick of time to dispose of the immediate threat and convince Sean to testify in the City of Angels. As extra protection, Sean is given a decoy plane and the whole of first class to himself; but Eddie has spies everywhere and arranges to smuggle hundreds of snakes on board the plane, sprayed with pheromones to make them extra mad.
Hostess Claire’s (Julianna Margulies) last day on the job is made a nightmare by passengers annoyed at being bumped down to coach, including rapper and cleanliness obsessive Three G’s (Flex Alexander) and his bodyguard Troy (Kenan Thompson), but their venom is nothing compared to that of the snakes when they’re unleashed on the unsuspecting manifest. Armed with only a taser, sporks, his wits and a hotline to herpetologist Steven Price (Todd Luiso), Flynn must almost single-handedly keep the plane in the air, and the passengers alive, long enough to deliver Sean to LA and bring Kim to justice. When pilot Rick (David Koechner) doesn’t make it, the snakes take a back seat to the pressing issue of how they’re going to land.
The title-cum-pitch is one of the world’s great titles, of course. It is, however, a joke, an idea to have a good laugh about before keeping as an over-the-top climax or (more probably) ditching entirely. And this is where the overwhelming emphasis on internet chatter ruined the film; because by sticking slavishly to the idea of snakes on a plane, it also gets tied down to the formulaic and predictable boundaries of the action/disaster movie, only without much of a budget or – since nearly all the action takes place on the plane – room to manoeuvre.
Despite a few nice gags (including a good visual one in the galley), I’m not sure Snakes on a Plane would have worked as a parody, given that Airplane! covered all the ground there was to cover and Jackson’s appearance in National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon suggested comic acting was not his strength. But it certainly doesn’t have the weight of a full-blown action thriller (compared to, say, Air Force One), because snakes on a plane don’t really allow for that sort of material. What you do get is the usual assortment of passengers: sexed up newlyweds, a couple of boys travelling alone, a mother and baby, an obnoxious businessman (what’ll happen to him, I wonder?), and so on; many of the lesser ones get dispatched gruesomely after the snakes see them in not particularly exciting snake-o-vision (it’s green!).
Jackson and Margulies keep order and develop an unconvincing relationship whilst Phillips makes for an unsympathetic prize witness whom you don’t really care about. Neither does the film, actually, since the resolution of the Eddie Kim plot is left to the viewer’s imagination. Most of the snake attacks, created with good but manifestly artificial CGI effects, are noisy and confused, but the film’s real problem is that it lacks any ideas other than its big one.
Its idea of tension is to copy a scene from Jurassic Park, its idea of comedy is to have kids’ TV favourite Kenan Thompson fly the plane, and its idea of raunch is to slip in some obviously inserted scenes of boobs, gore and swearing (Jackson delivers the notorious multiple mother-loving line with no conviction at all). What it needed was some wit or imagination, some characterisation that would’ve made Samuel L. work harder, or a satisfyingly jarring twist. After all, you know there are going to be snakes on the plane, and it’s disappointing that the film works out exactly as you think it will.
Snakes on a Plane has to score quite well because it’s fun in a pulpy way and I had as much fun as anyone reading the message boards before it came out, particularly the talk of sequels like Badgers on a Bus, Ferrets on a Ferry, Gophers on a Gondola etc. However, the film is the victim of the hype generated for it by others, and it can’t be good that any movie is better-loved before anyone’s seen it than after its release. Great title, decent cast, and a fun video from Cobra Starship to wrap it all up: overall, however, a stunningly average film.