Snakes on a Plane (2006)


Last summer’s surprise experiment in fan-originated film marketing, New Line’s low-concept, prefab cult movie generated an immense amount of internet and pre-release buzz, only to gross a disappointing $15 million during its opening weekend, hardly the revolutionary hit the studio suits were banking on. And although the movie went on to do decent late summertime business, it wasn’t enough to convince any Marketing VPs to rethink their future promotional strategies, nor enough to guarantee a Snakes on a Plane 2.

Unless you’ve spent the last eight months in deep space, you already know what the story is, right? (Insert the by-now-ancient joke: It’s snakes! On a plane!) Samuel L. Jackson is cocky FBI agent Neville Flynn (did they originally write the role with John Hurt in mind?), who is assigned to escort a murder witness (Wolf Creek’s Nathan Phillips) from Hawaii to Los Angeles to testify against a ruthless gangster. But the ruthless gangster in question has taken a rather indirect method of ensuring that the witness never arrives in court: he’s smuggled a large crate of venomous snakes onto the plane, and laced the floral leis that all the passengers are wearing with pheromones, turning them into enraged “snakes on crack” that will attack everything in sight. On board are a rogues’ gallery of stock disaster movie characters: overprivileged, bitchy rich girl; arrogant celebrity who turns out to be a coward (updated for the 21st century to a rapper); asshole businessman; nice mom with baby; two unaccompanied minors; honeymooning newlyweds afraid of flying; even a hot and horny couple eager to join the Mile High Club, courtesy of the film’s late-in-development R rating. Snakes get loose, passengers start dying, hero takes charge, flight trouble, search for anti-venom, emergency landing, end of story.

Remarkably, a movie that Roger Corman or Samuel Arkoff could have taken from title to finished film in less than five weeks required an unbelievable nine years (and a dozen producers) to get to the screen. Originally announced with Bride of Chucky‘s Ronny Yu at the helm (which attracted Jackson to the project), the movie proceeded in fits and starts throughout its development. Although it eventually began production – with veteran stunt coordinator and second unit director David R. Ellis in charge – as an R-rated project (what action/horror hybrid starring Samuel “the L stands for Motherfucker” Jackson wouldn’t?), studio brass insisted mid-filming on toning down the content in order to secure a mass audience-friendly PG-13, only to switch their minds a second time, after wrap, to go for the R the fans demanded, requiring another month of rewriting and reshoots. (Most of the film’s nudity, much of its gore, and its most famous line – inspired by a fan-produced trailer, no less – all came about during this late revision.

Surprisingly, the result isn’t so bad, even when seen in the privacy of one’s own home, away from rowdy theater crowds, and distanced from opening weekend buzz and hype. Compare Snakes, for instance, with any of the last half-dozen Drew Barrymore romantic comedies or “tearjerkers for guys” sports sagas – those sorts of films are just as formulaic and contrived as what most critics and audiences labeled Snakes to be, only they’re marketed to appeal to more respectable demographic groups, and are essentially exploitation films for the suburban mall set. And Snakes is an infinitely more fun film to watch (and no more guilty a pleasure) than most of the bloated, overlong action pics that are considered more “legitimate” than the always-ghettoized horror genre, especially when taken in the context of its B-movie brethren, a corral the film should never have escaped. In fact, most of the problems the film has are due to its being elevated to a higher-profile, thirty-some million dollar project, rather than being allowed to remain a lower-budgeted, streamlined B movie.

For example, the slow pacing in its first forty minutes in order to provide a conventional back story for the gimmicky plot. Or the way-overboard product placement that all higher-budget films these days demand, and the ill-advised expansion beyond the confines of the cabin, such as a dead-stop detour with an egghead snake expert. The movie could have been just as successful and appealed to nearly as many fans, had it retained the same plot, yet dropped $10 million from its budget and lost fifteen minutes of its long-feeling 98 minute running time (the filmmakers even have the gall to tack a music video onto the end credits). The real lesson the whole Snakes phenomenon should have taught us is that the days of truly low-budget, genre films being exhibited in cinemas are long gone. (April’s upcoming Grindhouse, while celebrating the genre, will also be the final nail in its coffin.)

New Line’s DVD – where the true legacy of Snakes on a Plane lies – presents it in a good-looking, anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, with three separate soundtracks, including a room-shaking DTS mix. Sharing the disc are an okay gag reel, that damnable music video (again!), a making-of for the music video (DVD producers, please don’t make this a precedent for future releases), and several trailers and TV spots. Four featurettes are also included, the best being a piece on “snake manager” Jules Sylvester, who provided the real-life reptiles for the challenging, cramped shoot. Unfortunately, the filmmakers’ imaginations were more than what the snakes were up to, and most of the creature mayhem had to be added via CGI. A commentary by Ellis, Jackson, and various other crew members veers perilously close to self-delusion, as they over-praise the film’s mediocre CGI effects and debatable cultural influence (the commentary having been recorded at the height of the buzz, but before its disappointing opening weekend). Endemic of the wrong-headedness of the entire project is a telling comment from the visual effects supervisor, who says that in one shot the CGI team had to remove a male dog’s genitalia that were visible onscreen because the dog had been scripted to be female. Wouldn’t a much simpler, cheaper solution have been to rewrite the script so that the dog’s a boy? Isn’t that what Roger Corman would have done?