Every so often, a bad movie comes along at just the right time to smash through your defenses, grab you by the throat and remind you why you go to the movies in the first place. It usually strikes when the state of the world seems fucked beyond belief, or when prosperity is low, or when fear is off the charts, or when morale just plain sucks. In the '70s we got Shaft, in the '80s it was Top Gun and the '90s brought Speed.
What the world needs right now is Snakes on a Plane.
Of course, never has there been a bad movie like this one. From the beginning, Snakes leapfrogged over the usual process of focus groups, audience testing and boardroom re-edits in favor of Internet-fueled fan hysteria. It's the first open-source movie in Hollywood history: Once the mere word got out that there was an action flick in production called Snakes on a Plane starring Samuel L. Jackson, pasty-faced, sleep-deprived bloggers all over the world began calling the shots. No, the title would not be changed to Pacific Air Flight 121, like the suits at the studio wanted. No, the movie would not be edited down to a gore-free PG-13 rating. And no, Sam Jackson would not appear in this movie without uttering the blogger-suggested catchphrase, "I've had it with these motherfuckin' snakes on this motherfuckin' plane!"
If it all sounds like a Simpsons-style parody of a real movie, well, it is. And that's a very, very good thing. For years now, people like Jerry Bruckheimer, George Lucas and Bryan Singer have inflated ridiculous B-movie premises to match the size of their egos. Hollywood is long overdue for an infusion of old-fashioned, drive-in-grade cheese, and along comes the modest, low-budget, just-self-conscious-enough shocker Snakes, reiterating the pleasures of cornball dialogue, dangling plot threads and fake-looking special effects. It's utterly glorious crap.
At this point, New Line could have released a 10-minute loop of monkey footage and still secured a huge opening weekend. But what ended up on screen is a real movie, not an intentional parody of itself, and not a slick, hyper-edited collection of payoff scenes without any satisfyingly lame connective tissue. Everything in Snakes feels the way it would if it were unhyped and you stumbled across it on Cinemax at 2 a.m. From the opening helicopter shots of Hawaii that look cut-and-pasted from a travel ad, your expectations are sufficiently lowered, and nothing that follows not the plane that looks like a cheap model, nor the Predator-style snake-o-vision shots could possibly detract from the fun.
The same goes for the perfunctory plot, which has badass FBI agent Neville Flynn (Jackson) escorting lame-ass trial witness Sean (Nathan Phillips) from Hawaii to Los Angeles on a sleepy red-eye flight. We're briefly introduced to a parade of Airplane!-style stereotypes, including a Kanye West-like rap star (Flex Alexander), a rich bitch with a purse-stowed Chihuahua (Rachel Blanchard) and a sympathetic stewardess (Julianna Marguiles) who is on her last flight as explained in a hilarious piece of expository dialogue, she's destined for law school. Once that's all said and done, director David R. Ellis gets down to the cold-blooded business of the title and doesn't let up, attaching slithery creatures everywhere they shouldn't be: on eyeballs, asses and silicone-enhanced areolae.
With most action-horror-disaster flicks, an air of solemnity infects even the most ludicrous scenes. Laugh at Poseidon and you're ushered out of the theater; snicker at House of Wax only in the comfort of your own home, please. But through equal parts marketing and design, Snakes' utter inanity allows you to publicly laugh at shell-shocked children, dying stewardesses and stereotyped ethnic bad guys. Ellis has smartly cast the film with a mix of seasoned pros (Jackson, Margulies), comedy veterans (Kenan Thompson as the rapper's bodyguard and David Koechner a horny pilot) and overacting newcomers (Phillips, Byron Lawson as the villain). The result is a mix of scenes that are intentionally funny, unintentionally hilarious and genuinely disgusting.
The one disappointment is that the snakes themselves rattlers and pythons and cobras, oh my! cease to matter in the last third of the movie, as the characters concentrate on improvised anti-venoms and crash landings. If you're hoping to see a showdown between Jackson and the anaconda introduced as the mother of all motherfuckin' snakes, don't hold your breath.
But as with everything else in Snakes on a Plane, chances are you'll be laughing too hard to care about the plot holes, about your sorry-ass life or about real terror in the skies. It's about time.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].