For me SNAKES ON A PLANE is like an ex-girlfriend: my feelings toward it are complicated. There is alot to say about my relationship with this movie, and I’m gonna try to say it all. But it all boils down to this: I used to think I loved SNAKES ON A PLANE, but now I just want to be friends.
I still fondly remember those glory days when all it was was a title on IMDB for a movie that Ronny Yu was actually gonna direct, and yes it was about what it sounded like it was about. The perfect concept for a Ronny Yu movie and the perfect title for a movie period. So simple, so blunt, so minimalistic, like some kind of Asian poem style that’s not as well known as haiku because it’s too hard to do, but in this case somebody did it. Four words, four syllables, no more than necessary, no extra flourishes. Boiled down to its basic elements.
When Ronny Yu left I was disappointed, but there was still that title, and Samuel L. Jackson had signed on. Then they changed the title for a while. I went on a big tangent about that in my review for Seagal’s SUBMERGED, and as far as I know there wasn’t any “internet phenomenon” back then, so maybe I’m a pioneer, I don’t know. But you know how it went from there. The title changed back, word spread about SNAKES ON A PLANE. People started “blogging” about it. People started “viral videoing” about it. People started “cafe pressing” about it. Maybe even “krunking” about it, I’m not sure. The current wikipedia entry hyperbolically describes “an entire subculture” based around the title of the movie. The interest on the internet was so huge and so genuine that the New Line Marketing and Human Soul Sucking Dept. decided to take advantage of it and turn it into fake internet interest as well. So they started doing corny advertising bullshit like throwing a contest for bands to make songs about SNAKES ON A PLANE (the video during the end credits is not the contest winner, I have been informed) and to design t-shirts and posters and make the “fan sight of the week” and crap. And they did reshoots “for the fans” and they didn’t have critics screenings because it’s “for the fans” and you have to wonder, how are you a fan of a movie title? What kind of mileage can you get out of discussing only the title of a movie?
You can get about one inch, and these motherfuckers stretched that inch for months. It wasn’t long before this movie I was so excited for I now didn’t want to fucking hear about ever again. It’s a weird experience because these are the types of movies I get excited about, and I know other people who get excited about them, but we are a small, disreputable segment of society. Some of us are excited for the upcoming WWE Films production of THE MARINE starring Robert Patrick, some wrestler I’ve never heard of, and ten thousand fiery explosions. Some of us are excited about THE COVENANT. Or at least I am. Because Renny Harlin directed it, so you know that ridiculous trailer is no lie. But if all the sudden excitement and faux-excitement for THE COVENANT or THE MARINE turned into a hugely discussed and dissected international phenomenon, it would be kind of weird, and I would feel kind of uncomfortable about it. Somehow that happened with this one. Maybe there’s some of that I-liked-them-when-they-were-a-garage-band syndrome going on there, but I don’t really think that’s what it is for me.
After seeing thousands of wacky SNAKES related jokes on web sights and in entertainment magazines I actually was in the weird situation of hearing a reporter interviewing moviegoers about whether they would see SNAKES ON A PLANE and why do you think people are so excited about SNAKES ON A PLANE and is it just the title, what do people like so much about the title? And my feeling is that it’s one of those things where if you have to ask, then why don’t you just mind your own fucking business, you creep. What is there to not understand about why people like the title SNAKES ON A PLANE? Why are you talking to me?
I guess part of my trouble is that I couldn’t help but detect some condescension on the part of alot of these, uh, fans. It’s not just “what a brilliantly ridiculous concept and title” but “ha ha ha, it will be a bad movie, I will laugh at how bad it is, ha ha they are stupid.” This type of attitude sticks in my craw because I don’t really get the idea of bad vs. good when it comes to movies like this. To me alot of times what society calls “so bad it’s good” I just call “good.” (Which I recommend, because it’s shorter and easier to say.)
Now this guy on Chud claims that “nobody who was in on the early buzz was looking forward to this movie. The discussion and the jokes weren’t about the movie but about the absurdity of the whole thing. No one who was in on the joke early on felt that they needed to see a movie called Snakes on a Plane. They just couldn’t believe how hilarious it was that someone was making a movie called Snakes on a Plane.” Speak for yourself, but everybody I know was excited to see this movie when they first heard about it. If that’s the case on the Chud side of the internet then I blame YOU stupid motherfuckers for ruining it for us more sophisticated individuals who want to SEE crazy unusual movies such as a movie called SNAKES ON A PLANE. You have blood on your hands, you fucks. (metaphorical blood representing the mortal wounding of high quality absurdist entertainment at the hands of lame-o wiseass cynics with no appreciation for the great things in life).
That also brings up this whole problem with irony, and my problem with it is that I can’t always see the difference between ironic and not ironic in a movie and I’m not sure if it matters or not. This is something I have struggled with. Take for example a movie like DEEP BLUE SEA. It is a straight-faced movie, it is not a comedy or a parody. But at the same time, you cannot tell me that the filmatists are completely unaware of the absurdity of their movie. Not just because they have super-intelligent sharks as the bad guys, but because they play so masterfully on the audience’s expectations. They throw every cliche in there, but some of them are just tricks. This is a huge spoiler for that movie so skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen it. But the way they set up Samuel L. Jackson’s backstory where he was the last survivor of a mountain disaster and blames himself for the other people’s deaths… you are convinced that he is the star of the movie and he has to save everybody to redeem himself for failing the mountain disaster victims, thereby saving his soul and becoming a true hero. But early in the movie, he’s making a big speech and, completely out of the fuckin blue, a shark jumps out of the water and bites his head off. A classic moment. You can’t tell me that the brilliance of that scene was an accident. They knew what they were doing. So what is that, is that ironic? It’s a serious movie, but it knows it’s absurd. I’ve always wished I had a name for this type of movie that is completely retarded, but knowingly so, but not tongue in cheek either. I thought maybe “noronic” would work, because it combines “ironic” with “not ironic,” and it sounds like “moronic,” which is what most people mistake these movies for. But I don’t really like the sound of that word so I’m sticking with “Renny Harlin movies” as the name for that type of style.
Anyway, I seem to have a different idea of what’s smart and what’s dumb in these type of movies than most people do, so I get uncomfortable with everybody laughing at SNAKES ON A PLANE. I don’t know if they’re on my side or not.
I bring all this shit up because, now that I’ve seen SNAKES ON A PLANE, it turns out it really is just “an internet phenomenon,” which in my opinion is nothing to brag about. An internet phenomenon is, like, that dancing baby they had on Alley McBeal. It has less substance than a fad like pet rocks or wearing your pants backwards. At best, it’s an embarrassing craze like “Who Let the Dogs Out” or the macaroni. It’s the kind of thing that fills up the hollow heads of those wiseasses on the various VH1 listing shows. This is the show where we list internet phenomenons and then we say wacky stuff about it.
And oh well, so be it. SNAKES ON A PLANE is not unwatchable. I wasn’t bored. I’ve seen worse. I laughed a couple times. But you know me, I believe in striving for excellence. And the SNAKES ON A PLANE I pictured when I first read that title as the next Ronny Yu movie was truly an excellent movie. The SNAKES ON A PLANE that actually exists is not, it is a half-assed enterprise that coasts on the power of its basic premise but never excels in any area past the title.
Some people will tell you that “it’s supposed to be bad” and if you hold it to any standard other than “does it have a group of snakes physically located on some sort of winged, flying vehicle?” then you’re being a snob and you don’t understand it, blah blah blah. Well fuck those people, they don’t understand it either. Because I believe STONE COLD is a classic. I believe ROAD HOUSE is a classic. I believe ON DEADLY GROUND is a classic. And I believe SNAKES ON A PLANE should be a classic, not just an okay movie with a legendary title.
Obviously the main thing people are gonna want out of this movie is snakes biting people on a plane, and you do get that. There is the funny part where the oxygen masks fall down along with snakes. A snake bites a nipple, a snake bites a dick, a snake bites an ass. People say “you have a snake on your ass” and some variation or other of “I have a snake on my dick.” A snake bites an eye, and crawls out of a mouth. There is, of course, a guy who’s a real asshole so that you know immediately that he will get the best death. And then they’re smart enough to make him disappear until his death so you don’t have to deal with him too much. He’s the guy whose head gets swallowed by a giant anaconda or boa constrictor of some kind. That’s by far the best death but, for some reason I can’t figure out, they cut away early. Another good use of horror movie cliches is the first people to die, a couple who are not only fucking in the bathroom, but smoking weed. You see, tampering with smoke detectors is a federal crime, and also a snake could crawl through the hole and bite you.
I think the snake mayhem could’ve been done alot better though. Except for the handful of parts where they focus on one particular snake attack (like the head swallowing), all the snake parts are messy and chaotic. The camera shakes around and there’s people flailing around everywhere screaming, so you can’t clearly follow the action.
They do get a little nasty and have a couple cute animals eaten by snakes. But not a baby. One weird choice is that there are two little kids flying without parents on the plane, and the youngest one spends the entire movie crying. First because he’s afraid to go on a plane without his parents, and then because he’s been bit by a snake and his wrist has swollen to the size of a softball. This is not played for laughs and the kid actors are believable, sympathetic kids, not typical child actors. So it takes some of the fun out of it to see this poor bastard being tormented like that.
Some of the CGI is really fake lookin, but I didn’t have a big problem with that. I just didn’t think the storytelling made the snakes into a legitimate threat. If the script says it’s snake mayhem time they’re everywhere, if it’s dialogue time they’re nowhere. I never felt that “oh shit, one could crawl out at any moment” feeling you would expect to get in a movie about this topic.
The biggest problem with the movie though is that they waste Samuel L. Jackson. Here you have one of the coolest, most badass actors currently working, and he happens to be ridiculously enthusiastic about and protective of the movie. You would think you would be sure to turn his “FBI Agent Nelville Flynn” into an indelible silver screen hero. At the end of this movie we should be thinking, “Damn, I’d watch another Nelville Flynn movie even if it DIDN’T involve any type of deadly animal loose in any sort of unusual location.”
Unfortunately, like the movie coasts on its snakes, the character coasts on just being Sam Jackson. I mean he’s pretty cool pointing a gun, he does a couple cool things. But he’s not very memorable and he’s not even on screen for alot of the movie. And in the end it’s Keenan Thompson from GOOD BURGER and FAT ALBERT who does the most difficult maneuver. He lands the plane using the xXx “I learned to shoot from playing Playstation” type explanation. This would be funny if they just said it and then treated it seriously, but instead they try to milk it for comedy for several minutes and they ruin the whole thing. Otherwise, the movie mostly plays it straight, so I give it points for that.
They also miscast one of the main characters, a famous rapper named Triple-G who’s afraid of germs. One of the good joke lines is when Agent Flynn finds out the guy’s real name is Clarence and refers to him by his name condescendingly. But this was obviously meant to cut down a tough gangsta rapper type of guy, when the guy they cast looks like Urkel dressed up as Jamie Foxx. Turns out he’s the guy who played Michael Jackson in the MAN IN THE MIRROR tv movie. Like they couldn’t have found a real rapper to play that character? Are you kidding me? But that’s a small complaint. And I got some big ones left.
The movie sets up multiple opportunities for the good ol’ b-movie/popcorn/pulp/entertainment/leave-your-brain-at-the-door/come-on-man-it’s-fun-stop-being-such-an-asshole type action that everybody claims this movie is about, and then it doesn’t fucking take them. Could somebody PLEASE tell me how the fuck they managed to spend an entire scene explaining that one of the passengers is a kickboxer… AND THEN NOT HAVE HIM KICKING ANY SNAKES?
When I came out of this movie I wasn’t mad at all, I just thought, “Oh well, shouldn’t have had my hopes up so high.” But as I think about it I’m getting worked up because honestly, if there had been a solid kickboxer-vs.-snakes scene in here it could have completely changed my view of the movie in a positive direction. Not only do they explain that he’s a competitive kickboxer, they make him look like a martial arts character, with a sleeveless shirt and tattoos. In a later scene he appears out of nowhere to carry a woman to safety on his back. I guess it’s possible he kicked one snake during that part but if so they shot it Michael Bay enough that I didn’t catch it. If you put this scene in a movie like this you must know that the audience is gonna expect the guy to kick some snakes around. And come on, that’s not a good way to tweak audience expectations. “Oooh, you know what we should do? We should act like we’re gonna do something cool… and then not do it! Just do other stuff that’s not as cool! They’ll never know what hit em!” So if you’re a good filmatist you have him kick some snakes, preferably in a long and building scene of awe inspiring absurdity. Or if you’re a pussy, you at least take out the part about him being a kickboxer so people won’t be disappointed.
And what about the villain? The plot revolves around a bland white chump (Nathan Phillips, I guess?) witnessing notorious mobster Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson) murdering a prosecutor. Jackson is transporting the witness so, to kill the witness, Eddie Kim has the snakes put on the plane. Lawson is not a well known actor, I guess he was a stunt man on CRYING FREEMAN and had bit parts in THE CORRUPTOR and ROMEO MUST DIE. But he’s established as a good, vicious villain and in the beginning they even have a scene where he has his shirt off, with hair like Bruce Lee, doing martial arts.
Now, director David R. Ellis may not have seen movies before, but those of us who have know that when the villain does martial arts in the beginning, that is movie code for “there will be an awesome fight scene at the end.” It’s especially used when they have to establish early on that the guy does martial arts (or swords, or whatever) so that it doesn’t seem out of the blue when he starts busting out fancy moves later on. For example, Craig T. Nelson does martial arts early on in ACTION JACKSON so you won’t laugh as hard when he fights Carl Weathers at the end.
But in this movie, there is no fight scene at the end. In fact, you don’t even see the villain at all at the end, or find out if the guy ever testified against him. I know they’re assuming the audience only cares about the snakes on the plane and doesn’t care about the plot. Well fine, then why did you have a plot in the first place? Maybe you should’ve just said, “Oh weird, there’s snakes on this plane!” and leave it at that.
I say fuck that attitude. I want to see the villain get defeated at the end. I know they don’t want to get too far away from the snakes on the plane… so have him show up on the tarmac, if it’s so damn important to you. He lives in LA and he has moles in airport security, so he could get there. Then he could fight the kickboxer, he could fight Sam Jackson, and of course ultimately he would die at the fangs of a leftover snake. Personally I’d rather see Sam Jackson beat him to death using a big snake as a whip, but I gotta accept that this is not an imaginative movie and they’re gonna go with snake bite.
There are a couple absurd lines that I loved. At one point a guy asks Eddie Kim if he’s sure he wants to do this snakes thing, and he says he’s exhausted all other possibilites. (I’d like to see the other possibilities at the bottom of the list, but above releasing poisonous snakes on the airplane. Did he try poisoning the guy’s motorcycle seat? Releasing piranhas where he surfs? I didn’t see poisonous spiders released in the guy’s apartment. In fact, I think sending two gunmen to his apartment was the only other thing he tried.) Another line I liked, as Jackson’s partner dies he says something like, “We missed the bastards because they’re cold-blooded!” Unfortunately the movie is really noisy and never edited to emphasize the good lines so they kind of get lost in the mix.
There is one line that gets alot of emphasis, the line you already know, and honestly this part made me embarrassed for Sam Jackson, for movie fans, for the internet, and for white people. If you haven’t heard, at the climax of the movie Sam Jackson says, “That’s it! I have HAD IT with these motherfucking SNAKES on this motherfucking PLANE!” If I’m not mistaken that was a line that somebody in a talkback insisted had to be in the movie. Whoever first said it, the filmatists added it in reshoots because “the fans demanded it.” And that shit bugs me.
Because that is not a natural Sam Jackson badass line. That’s a white guy on the internet making up what he thinks Sam Jackson would say. I mean, obviously I enjoy the word motherfucker. I bet I use it more than any other writer on the films of cinema. Maltin, Shalit, Medved – none of these clowns come close to me on frequency or power when it comes to the use of motherfucker. But even those guys could tell you that you don’t use “motherfucking” twice in one sentence. I mean come on, it doesn’t even sound right. I understand Jackson uses the word well, and obviously he was the guy with the bad motherfucker wallet. But I still think it’s borderline racist how all these jokers just want to hear him say “motherfucker” a bunch of times. Ha ha make the strong black man say motherfucker for us, what a great time at the movies. But I don’t know. Jackson seems proud of the line when he’s on talk shows, so who am I to question its authenticity as a Sam Jackson line? All I know is it sure bummed me out in the movie, completely forced and phoney.
One person I think deserves some praise is Julianna Margulies, because she plays her role as the lead flight attendant with complete conviction. She doesn’t act like she’s slumming and she doesn’t try to be funny. She just plays a character in a disastrous situation trying to help people. I honestly appreciate that they made a serious movie and didn’t try to turn it into some comedy to prove they were in on the joke. But this is not nearly as fun as DEEP BLUE SEA, which the director, David R. Ellis, was second unit director on. He’s best known for directing FINAL DESTINATION 2. I think that one’s a little overrated, but you gotta admire the meticulously constructed highway death sequence, with all its red herrings, complex but understandable geography, and carefully choreographed stunt/CGI spectacle. That section alone had more imagination and care than all of SNAKES ON A PLANE, I’m afraid.
The cover story in Entertainment Weekly a couple weeks ago explained it: “Ellis, 53, was yearning for something more respectable, like Crash or Hustle & Flow. ‘When they said Snakes on a Plane, I thought, F— me,’ he recalls. He jokes that he got over himself when he realized he had bills to pay.” Great, you fire Ronny Yu for a guy who doesn’t even want to do it? Thanks alot.
The part that makes me sad is that I really believe Yu could’ve made the better movie SNAKES deserved to be. Of course, I’m a guy who really liked FREDDY VS. JASON, so I have a different appreciation for his style than your average human being. But I think his movies offer all kinds of evidence of what he might’ve done:
I didn’t really like THE 51ST STATE/FORMULA 51, but I did like Sam Jackson in it. I mean, that scene with the golf club. And the very end when we find out why he wears a kilt. The movie kind of sucked, but it is a memorable character. So we know Yu knows how to showcase Jackson properly.
WARRIORS OF VIRTUE and BRIDE OF CHUCKY have extensive use of groundbreaking animatronic technology. So I think he could’ve pulled off the puppet snakes Ellis tried to use before he gave up and switched to all CGI.
All of Yu’s movies, including BRIDE OF CHUCKY, are beautifully designed and shot. He would’ve definitely made a much better looking movie. No question on that one.
He’s also a master of Hong Kong style action, where they shoot it in such a way that the audience can understand what the fuck is going on. I think all the mayhem would’ve been alot more involving if Yu did it.
And finally, perhaps most importantly, NO WAY Ronny Yu would’ve dropped the ball on that kickboxer business. I mean, he managed to get martial arts into BRIDE OF CHUCKY and wrestling into FREDDY VS. JASON. He would’ve shown no restraint and no shame when it comes to a kickboxer beating up a bunch of snakes.
So I’m sorry, I know how “the critics” are supposed to be these elitists who don’t understand a movie that’s just about people getting eaten, so now I’m one of those critics I guess. But believe me, I understand movies just about people getting eaten. I love movies that are just about people getting eaten. I just happen to have more respect for the potential of those type of movies than some people do. Come on Sam. It could’ve been beautiful. It’s okay, but I would’ve preferred beautiful. Thanks for your efforts though, you’re still the man.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.