Savvy readers will remember how, in the summer of 2006, you couldn't go anywhere without hearing about Snakes on a Plane. Not only did it have snakes on a plane; it had Samuel L. Jackson yelling at those snakes on that plane. It had a music video, and a logo that looks like something a professional wrestler might have tattooed across his back. So what gives? You've got the best title ever, a hilarious premise and one of America's favorite tough guys doing the honors. How do you tank your opening weekend? The answer is that even dumb movies have to follow certain rules. You can play dumb.
Viking Night: Snakes on a Plane
By Bruce Hall
September 18, 2012
You just can't BE dumb.
Snakes on a Plane at least starts right, with a great title card and a sweeping helicopter shot of Hawaii. There, Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) is having a great day, speed biking across the island and chugging Red Bull. On an untimely pit stop, Sean witnesses celebrity mobster Eddie Kim (Byron Larson) doing some dental work a Federal prosecutor with an aluminum bat. Eddie's gang tracks him down, but Super-bad-ass FBI agent Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) intervenes. He takes Sean into protective custody in exchange for testimony against Kim. All Sean and Neville have to do is survive a relaxing, uneventful plane ride to Los Angeles, and Eddie goes to the gas chamber.
This is where you need to go ahead and put your brain on standby.
There are many inexpensive ways to do bring down an airplane, ranging from a short range missile to a couple of sticks of dynamite and an alarm clock. But this is a movie called Snakes on a Plane, and nobody's gonna put a bomb on a plane in a movie called Snakes on a Plane. Eddie collects not just some snakes, but hundreds of snakes. And they're not just hundreds of your average rattlesnakes. It's at least one of every poisonous, expensive, colorful snake on the planet. Some of them are so rare, I'm pretty sure it would have cost less to build a Terminator and send it back in time to kill Sean's mother. But Eddie goes with snakes as his weapon of choice, fulfilling the movie's prophetic title.
There are other passengers on the plane, and they represent the usual grab bag of quirks and stereotypes. It doesn't matter because once the snakes are released, it's fairly easy to tell who's going to die. But they're usually dispatched with such humorless, predictable dispatch that it takes all the morbid fun away. And there are only so many ways to film someone being murdered by snakes, so it gets old surprisingly fast. For those of you into Torture Porn there are moments, but the shock value evaporates quickly. If you're afraid of snakes, don't worry. This is a $30 million film, so the visual effects are so bad even the real snakes look phony. That’s rough, because when your movie is called Snakes on a Plane, the snakes should have a little personality.
But they don't, and the film's shallow bag of tricks quickly robs it of whatever momentum is left. Once this happens, the biggest weakness of Snakes on a Plane is finally exposed. There are snakes on a plane, and they do kill a lot of people. But since that actually turned out to be kind of boring, I found myself wondering what the hell I was supposed to be rooting for. The only thing we ever find out about Sean is that he digs extreme sports, likes girls, and doesn’t want to die. There's no relative in danger, no daddy issues - not one reason to give a shit about him except that we're told to. Eddie Kim has potential, but don't get used to it. He's a ruthless, bloodthirsty martial arts expert with a flair for costly, overly complicated murder plots. But he's also a regular Houdini, inexplicably disappearing from the story early on, never to be seen again.
No. I'm not suggesting what Snakes on a Plane needed was a deep, layered backstory. But even dumb movies have to give us a reason to support the good guys, or else why are we watching? Sean generally spends his time sitting on his hands, looking constipated. Samuel Jackson stomps around looking a little like a coiled snake himself. But not only is his character even less interesting, he’s kept on a frustratingly short leash. Add to this an AWOL villain, a supporting cast of mostly reptile food, and all that's left is the snakes - and we’ve covered those. There's just not a lot left to like, certainly not enough to make 105 minutes of your life feel like a fair trade.
There are few bright spots. Julianna Margulies really does earn her pay, despite being physically unable to emote in front of a blue screen. David Koechner correctly assumes he's in a comedy and is one of the best things about the film. And boring Samuel Jackson is still Samuel Jackson. He just doesn't have enough to do, and the movie tiptoes so gingerly around a romantic subplot involving him that you wonder if the role wasn't written for a different actor. Fan suggestions led to reshoots, designed to add to the film's appeal. This might sound cool on paper, but any airline can tell you what happens when you let the passengers fly the planes.
Especially if there are snakes on that plane.
The bottom line is that from time to time, Snakes on a Plane is a relatively fun, deliberately excessive disaster/action flick. But you're never compelled to care about what's happening, even in the frivolous way you're meant to. I want to have fun when I watch this but I can't, because it’s essentially just an hour and a half of random, unrelated filler built around an amusing, yet surprisingly dull premise. Snakes on a Plane means well, but you could have a lot more fun in the same amount of time with a six pack and a PlayStation. When Samuel Jackson explains how tired he is of those motherfucking snakes on that motherfucking plane, you can’t help but quietly nod in agreement.