Snakes on a Plane

(2006) ** 1/2 R
101 min. New Line Cinema. Director: David Richard Ellis. Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Nathan Phillips, Rachel Blanchard, Julianna Margulies, Flex Alexander.

On March 24, 2006, the World Entertainment News Network reported that New Line Cinema—responding to "intense and growing fan interest" in Snakes on a Plane—rolled cameras for five days of reshoots to add "more gore, more deaths, more nudity and more snakes." And a soon to be classic line was promised for Samuel L. Jackson: "Enough is enough! I've had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!"

Immediately, I tried to wrap my head around this trend. What to call it? Neo-camp? The "joke movie"? "When this finally comes out," I asked my critical colleagues, "will we be able to see the motherfucking forest for the motherfucking trees?" Well, it's finally arrived, this low-concept movie. And while it's a dangerous precedent for Hollywood to set out to be bad and a worse one to do so at the behest of the audience, Snakes on a Plane is a reasonable facsimile of entertainment for the current moment.

Whether Snakes On a Plane will look like anything more than the camp bait it is in, say, a decade, is doubtful. But even hypeless audiences will be able to see that this shameless spectacle deserves points for audacity. Not since the Roman arena have we been this energized to witness humans slain by animals. Are you not entertained?

Snakes on a Plane takes a sideways approach to the same basic goal of Airplane!: self-knowingly to mock the tropes of the airplane disaster movie, with a few freebie potshots at horror clichés. Neither as rapid-fire nor as poker-faced as Airplane!, Snakes on a Plane settles for a more lugubrious, steadier setup-punchline rhythm, but this one has snakes. And Samuel L. Jackson as FBI agent Nelville Flynn. Flynn's escorting Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips), the material witness in an organized crime case, but wasn't counting on the aforementioned, booby-trapped cache of motherfucking snakes. To wit, "You know all those goddamn security scenarios we ran?" And...scene.

Snakes on a Plane is full of such stupid-ass dialogue. A music star (performer of "My Booty Went Thump") telling a freshly scrubbed white kid to "Stay black." A pretty flight attendant's response to Sean's admission "I'm a witness for the prosecution": "That's hot." And of course Jackson's big line, an internet sensation for many moons now. Jackson chases the line with the kind of expert eye-squinting that only a multimillion-dollar salary can buy. Next stop: a return visit to Inside the Actor's Studio.

Director David R. Ellis (Cellular) isn't legally brain-dead, so naturally he's in on the joke, and keeps the film as coy as he can. To a tune named "Lovely Day," the camera flies through blue skies and over blue waters toward the green coastline of Honolulu. "SNAKES" fades onto the screen, then—wait for it—"ON A PLANE." Genius.

More genius? New Line not allowing critics to see the film till 10pm Thursday evening, shut in with only the most rabid of Snakes on a Plane internet geeks (the ploy also assuring that no reviews appear before opening day). The audience laughed its collective ass off at every stupid nuance and recognizable actor (Julianna Margulies as a flight attendant manning her "final flight"! Bobby Cannavale as a grounded field agent! David Koechner as pilot Rick! Todd Louiso as "hardcore snake specialist" Dr. Steven Price! Kenan Thompson as...don't ask).

And then there are the stranger visions of Snakes on a Plane: the endangered baby, the chihuahua named Mary-Kate, the snake-o-vision P.O.V. shots. Creative weaponry will be employed, and every body part of interest will get a snake-chomping, including the ol' trouser snake, if you know what I mean. A hapless cat is the first to go, followed by a couple of mostly naked mile-high clubbers smoking pot as they fuck in the bathroom. Four well-paid screenwriters, ladies and gentlemen.

Yes, Snakes on a Plane is a terrifying triumph of hype, but it's also the movie to preserve for all of Earth's recorded history Samuel L. Jackson lowering his gaze at Julianna Margulies and asking, "Sporks?" I dare you to look away.

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